Diarmuid Breatnach

Joan Burton, Labour Party TD, Minister for Social Protection in Fine Gael/ Labour coalition Irish Government.
Joan Burton, Labour Party TD, Minister for Social Protection in Fine Gael/ Labour coalition Irish Government.
Enda Kenny, Fine Gael, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) FG/ Labour coalition Irish Government.
Enda Kenny, Fine Gael, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) FG/ Labour coalition Irish Government.

“ ‘Parliamentary cretinism’ …. a lack of intellectual capacity, stupidity, in sections of the Left with regard to their attitude to the parliament in question ……also came to be associated with idealism, in the sense that Marxists understand that term, i.e. as wishful thinking ….of basing one’s actions on an ideal view rather than on the concrete reality and historical experience. ”

Increasingly, it seems, one hears calls for the resignation of the Government, or the leaders of the coalition in power, or a certain Government Minister. This kind of behaviour is honoured by practice over time, especially when weakness in the reigning party or parties is sensed or becomes obvious. The weakened government and its representatives are attacked on political, financial, economic and even personal grounds, hoping to make them lose confidence in themselves and the confidence of others, until they finally give in or their enemies become so many and united against them that they lose some apparently big battle and resign.

And then what? Well, in our political system, inevitably, a general election. Nearly every citizen in the state will get a vote and the chance to put into parliament an alternative government. This government will be composed of one of the main alternative parties or by a coalition of parties. So based on the disposition of forces around at the moment, that will mean a government of Fianna Fáil or a coalition of that party and of Sinn Féin. There is no other alternative, based on any predictable pattern.

And that can only mean that nothing will basically change. Fianna Fáil is a capitalist party marked by corruption and, like all Irish capitalist parties, by acting as a middleman in the sale of our country’s labour power and resources to foreign monopoly capitalists. It is the party which was in power at the start of the financial collapse and, in a move that even astounded capitalists of other states, bailed out the speculator banks Anglo Irish and Irish Nationwide and guaranteed the speculators against loss – decisions for which the Irish people are continuing to pay and without an end in sight.

Well, but Sinn Féin spoke against a number of the austerity measures imposed on the Irish people to make them pay for those decisions, didn’t they? Sure they did. There is a long tradition of parties in opposition attacking the government and then implementing, if not the exact same policies, at least very similar ones, as soon as they get into power themselves. In fact, Fine Gael and Labour politicians both did it with regard to the Fianna Fáil/ Green Party coalition which they replaced. To expect of that of Sinn Féin is a cynical view of the party, surely? Well, in the Six Counties they attacked the SDLP, their political rival party, for collaborating and colluding with the Unionist poltical elite and …. yes, now Sinn Féin are doing the exact same thing for which they criticised the SDLP, now that they have disposed of the other party as a viable rival.

Nor is there any reason to expect any different from Sinn Féin in the 26 Counties, particularly when they refused to condone, never mind encourage, significant acts of civil disobedience such as not registering and non-payment for the new Household and Property Taxes and the Water Charge. And their representative publicly condemns the actions of a few egg-throwers and car-thumpers against one of the Government Ministers most directly responsible for making the people pay for the finance crisis but can hardly find time to condemn the continuing violence of the state police, the Gardaí, against people resisting peacefully the instalation of water meters. This party wants one day to represent the Irish capitalist class in government and must, in the interim, present itself as “reasonable” — reasonable, that is, to the Irish capitalist class.

I said earlier that calling for the resignation of a government or Ministers is a long-standing practice with regard to parliamentary politics. But honoured by practice over time may mean nothing more than that this is, in fact, bourgeois democratic politics and standard parliamentary cretinism. “There he goes, using jargon again”, the reader may say. Well forgive me, but although jargon can be over-used and is too often used to exclude or to dominate, it has its uses too. If we were talking about motor engines, about which I know very little, I might object to such jargon as “internal combustion engine”, “camshafts”, “transmission” and the like. But it would take a lot longer to discuss if every one of those terms were broken down into sentences and if that collection of sentences had to be used every time we were referring to an object or to a collection of objects.

So, “bourgeois politics” means “the kind of politcs that the Bourgeoisie use among themselves or the kind of politics that the Bourgeoisie want the working class to follow”. “Bourgeois politics” is a much shorter term than that sentence, I feel you must agree. But “bourgeois”? “Bourgeoisie”? Well, Karl Marx and others saw society split into two main social classes, each with its own historical development, interests, ideology; they called these “the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat”. We can, and often do, say instead “The capitalists and the workers” but in terms of ideology, I just feel “bourgeois” runs better. However, if every time I say “bourgeois” you prefer “capitalist”, say it under your breath by all means.

“Cretinism” is defined as the behaviour of a “cretin” which was usually defined in turn as a person of stunted mental and physical growth, a congenital condition and it later became a term of abuse, which is why the term is rarely used by health professional these days. It was used in its pejorative sense in political discourse around the end of the 19th Century and for many decades later and one of the political writers who tied it to the qualifying adjective “parliamentary” was the Russian revolutionary socialist V.I. Lenin. As his definitions and explanations came to dominance in the revolutionary socialist movement, the term “parliamentary cretinism” became a by-word among the Left up until the 1970s and one still hears it in some quarters today.

So, it was meant to convey a lack of intelectual capacity, stupidity, in sections of the Left with regard to their attitude to the parliament in question. Although it is a different thing, it also came to be associated with idealism, in the sense that Marxists understand that term, i.e. as wishful thinking, of basing one’s actions on an ideal view rather than on the concrete reality and historical experience. But although these things are different, lumping them together actually deepens the meaning of the term “parliamentary cretinism” and makes the term more complete.

Often, when one begins to speak in disparaging terms of parliament, listeners imagine the speaker is really saying something more, such as “I don’t believe in making any use of parliaments” or “having anything to do with parliaments is a waste of our time”. However, that is not necessarily the case. For most Anarchists, it is, probably. For most revolutionary Irish Republicans (as distinct from those that have capitulated and embraced parliamentarianism) it is too. However, many socialist revolutionaries are saying nothing of the kind and “parliamentary cretinism” does not refer to having some engagement with parliament or with parliamentary representatives. What it refers to is having the illusion that fundamental change — i.e. revolutionary change — can come about through parliament. The revolutionary socialist of the kind I have in mind is saying something like: “Have no illusions about parliament; put your main emphasis on building revolutionary organisation and dissemination of revolutionary ideology; use parliamentary avenues when it suits the needs of the movement.” Of course, there can be a big debate – and there often is – about just how one judges “when it suits the needs of the movement” and I will attempt later to answer this briefly because it is not the main thrust of this article, strange though that may seem at the moment.

So now, let us look again at calls for this government’s resignation. Should revolutionary socialists join in? I don’t think so. But surely it can’t hurt? And the confusion arising out of a change of government could be to our advantage? I think it can hurt and that any benefits arising out of change of government will be far outweighed by costs to the revolutionary and resistance movements. So, what — say nothing? Actually oppose resignations? Neither.

It is the task of revolutionary leadership to direct eyes to the ultimate goal and to point to the next steps to take at any moment – and also to take necessary steps themselves. We need to talk about all those things now with specific regard to the general issue under discussion – we need to talk about “revolutionary leadership”, “ultimate goal”, “the next steps” for the movement and the “necessary steps” we need to take ourselves.

“Revolutionary leadership” is the leadership that leads to revolution or the leadership given by revolutionaries. They are not always the same thing, since revolutionaries can and do make mistakes. Everyone and anyone who aspires to revolution and says “we should do this (or that) now” is potentially part of the revolutionary leadership. This includes individuals who are independent of any political party as well as those who are part of such parties. I say “potentially” because a number of other requirements need to be met to fulfill the promise of the title “revolutionary leadership”. Such leadership must tend towards revolution rather than reform, which is not to say standing aside from all reformist demands in every circumstance. As I hope we now agree, removing one set of representatives of the capitalist class to replace them with another, is not an objective worth the striving (we shall come later to how it can actually be harmful).

Such leadership also needs to have or to build the confidence of the movement in it as otherwise it cannot be effective, no matter how correct its analysis and calls may be. Confidence of that kind is built by working alongside the workers and other masses so that they see the mettle of those offering leadership in struggles and that they can also see that the analysis and the calls seem to correspond to the experience of the masses in those struggles. Therefore, such leadership needs to at least appear to be correct most of the time.

Unfortunately, as we know, leaderships claiming to be revolutionary have often turned out to be their opposite; also the concern of appearing to be correct most of the time has led to suppression of criticism and concealment of mistakes. Such a leadership may for the moment fulfill all the other requirements listed but it fails the test of “tending towards revolution”. I know of no formula that we can prepare that guarantees the movement protection against this kind of leadership but history and personal experience encourages me promote certain ingredients: permit criticism up until it threatens to paralyse necessary action; be open about admitting mistakes and learn from them; do not propagate ideas of infallibility (and make gods of no living persons); educate the participants in the movement and build their confidence in themselves.

What is this “ultimate goal” mentioned earlier? Nothing less than the complete overthrow of the capitalist class and the freeing of our people from imperialism, in order to build a totally different economy and society. I don’t propose to go much further here on this topic since the type of organisation of society we should aim for is a matter of hot debate among revolutionaries but we should focus for the moment on “complete overthrow”, “freeing our people” and “building a totally different society”. Each of those and all of them together imply certain kinds of organisation, certain ideology (or ideologies) and certain kinds of actions. And nailing my colours to the mass here, they imply empowering the working class to take control because it is the most numerous class, the most used to cooperative working and the only one which has no interest to be served by compromising with capitalism (some of its individual members may but that is not the class).

So what about “the next steps” for the movement? Nobody can prescribe these much in advance since the correct next steps depend upon the situation at the moment, the balance of forces, projections into future situations of the actions of the enemy and of our own forces, available alternatives, etc. Revolutionaries must analyse those elements in order to decide and there is no guarantee that they will not make a mistake. No book on theory and no leadership can provide us with a guarantee against that. So, mistakes will be made and they must be learned from. Let us hope that they are not major mistakes from which we will take generations to recover and let us take some precaustions against them and the cost to be paid for them but, at the same time, let us be bold and daring – the stakes are high but the prize is highest.

In any event, it does seem at the moment that the Irish government is in some disarrray. Demonstrations of dissatisfaction grow, as does civil disobedience, while the repressive measures of the State and declarations by some Ministers discredit them in the eyes of the broad masses of people. Then too, the Government has offered concessions on the Water Charge involving substantial reductions on the commencing charge it had projected. It seems clear that we should at least maintain the pressure and, if we can, increase it to the limits of which the movement is capable at this time. Again, analysis, judgement and call, guided by historical and recent experience – but no guarantees. However one thing a change of government will not do in this situation is maintain the pressure on the Irish capitalist class and may well have the opposite effect.

This is a time for revolutionary leadership to make it clear to the movement that a change of government will not do, will bring no fundamental change. We cannot make that clear if we jump on the “Enda Resign” or “Joan Burton Resign” or other similar bandwagons. We can however put forward some demands that people can pressure any new contenders for, such as abolition of the new taxes on working people and increased taxes on the capitalists, in order to make up the shortfall. And that funding for needed social and health services will be at least restored. But we should put forward those demands while, at the same time, making it clear we have no expectation that a new government will deliver or that, once having got past the current political crisis, will not reinstitute austerity measures once more. And we need to maintain the pressure on any new government and, if possible, increase it. We are not here to “give them a chance” but to overthow their masters and their system.

And now we come to the “necessary steps” we need to take ourselves. We do not put our trust in parliament, not even in putting more of our own in there. No, we put our trust in revolutionary organisation. This means building fighting organisations, not bureaucracies. And yet, we need some bureaucracy too – organisations need minutes of meetings to record who agreed to what, those minutes need to be distributed, events need to be organised, leaflets and posters put together, printing done, placards made, people have to be got to certain places, money collected, paid and accounted for, etc. etc. But the main requirement is that the organisations be fighting organisations – which means that they unite people on some demands, organise defensive or offensive actions, educate their members and supporters and build their numbers, neutralise their enemies or weaken their resistance, make allies, seek to achieve some victories.

Struggles take place in communities, work-places and institutions of mass education and the Irish Left has built extensive networks in none of them, nor is there any sign that it is trying to do so, save in isolated instances here and there.

The Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union as built and led by James Larkin and later by James Connolly and their associates, may not have been a revolutionary organisation. But it certainly was a genuine resistance organisation of the Irish working class, particularly in Dublin and it gave support to a revolutionary organisation, which the Irish Citizen Army proved to be. We have no such trade unions in Ireland now and SIPTU, that into which the ITGWU developed, has proved to be, whenever effective, more of a brake on the workers’ movement than an engine for it.

Well then, can we do without trade union organisation, especially since they are not usually revolutionary organisations? I don’t think so, since no other mass organisation of workers is conceivable in the near or middle-term future. Can we create a viable alternative trade union, then? A viable organisation that will win large numbers of other workers into a fighting trade union, large enough or at least concentrated enough in certain industries or work environments (e.g. local government, health services) to be able to take effective action there? Probably not, at the moment. But we could build a fighting and solidarity worker’s network inside and across trade unions and the Left has singularly failed to attempt that. Such a network would certainly enhance the fighting ability of the class and could, in time, provide the base to build a fighting alternative trade union.

The capitalist-owned mass media is a common cause of complaint among progressive people, in that it blacks out some news items and distorts others to the benefit of the ruling class. In the years leading up to the 1913 Lockout and even afterwards, leading up to 1916, “… the Irish Worker had ten to fifteen times the circulation of the Sinn Féin paper and of Irish Freedom, the revolutionary paper backed by the IRB”1. Circulation figures are often taken as being about one-third of actual readership as newpapers get handed around and, in a population with a low level of education, as in the working class at that time, the proportion of listeners may have been even higher, as those who could, read out to those who could not. The Irish Worker was a weekly newspaper but we don’t even have a monthly newspaper of revolutionary orientation that is widely read. If in the conditions of the early 1900s in Ireland such a periodical could exist and proliferate, how is that in Ireland in the early 2000s, with fast cheap printers, photocopiers and internet sites, we have not even come close to producing anything like that?

If we want to educate ourselves, as revolutionary activists, as well as others in the resistance movement, in revolutionary perspectives, then we need to create some institutions for facilitating the reflecting and learning process. Seminars and lectures once a year or on commemorative occasions are no substitute for this at all (apart from the fact that the mass of workers fail to attend such occasions). The Irish Left is not building this kind of process either.

The “necessary steps”, as I perceive them, are building fighting organisations and the resistance movement, building a mass resistance newspaper and building education institutions for revolutionaries and for the resistance movement. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the independent activists at the very least are not prioritising the building of these components or for some reason are failing to unite around the work and that on the other hand, the Left organisations and parties have no interest in doing so.

Coming back once again to the call for the resignation of the Government or of their Ministers, can it do any harm to join the call? Well yes, it most certainly can. This is because across society as a whole, including in the working class, there is an illusion that we live in a democracy, that in some way the people rule or, at least, could rule, if only we could get good representation. This often degenerates into trying to get slightly better representation than we had in the last government. Implicit in all this is the underlying assumption that we cannot substantially change things for the better and also that the changes we need can be effected by others representing us.

These notions fly in the face of historical experience but that is no bar to the wide acceptance of such ideas. Bourgeois democracy and in particular its ‘Left’ variant, social democracy (bourgeois democracy through a Labour party with trade union involvement), may be said to be the default position in western societies. It is the widely-accepted belief, the norm, the position most people start from. It is the position too from which, in the ordinary run of things, most people do not significantly depart — except into apathy. The job of revolutionaries is to give leadership away from that default position, to establish a new position and fight for it in the resistance movement, seeking to make it the main position, a new default position. That position is that revolution is made in the streets, workplaces, communities and education institutions and never in parliament. And that if we want real change, we have to build for revolution and nothing else will do. We need to use other struggles along the way, reformist ones for better wages, living conditions, less taxation of working people, changes in the law …. only in a revolutionary way, to strengthen the resistance movement and never the ruling class. And in those struggles, we should be putting forward revolutionary ideas and principles of organisation, getting our hands dirty with organising and participating in struggles and behaving as examples in line with the principles we put forward.

So, are parliamentary representatives of the Left of any use? Yes, they can get some statements into the media. They can expose certain acts of government and of agencies outside of parliament. They can also propose certain legislative changes. Their parliamentary allowances can be used to fund some revolutionary work. Parliamentary representatives can be useful — to the extent that they contribute in some manner to the work outlined in the preceding paragraphs. But no further.


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