Diarmuid Breatnach

From time to time people are asked to join a political bloc of some type. Should one join or not?

A political bloc is an arrangement of temporary unity, of as little as some hours of duration, for example on a demonstration, or of weeks, perhaps in a campaign to get an agreed list (i.e. “a slate”) of candidates elected or to vote a particular amendment to a resolution being proposed.

Blocs may be of longer duration, as for example with the Bolshevik bloc in the lead-up to the Russian socialist revolution. This last example is illustrative of the nature of blocs, which are generally not only for something but also against, or at least different to something else. There was a whole mass of political factions against Kerensky’s government in 1917 but the Bolshevik leadership sought to create a bloc not only against Kerensky and his followers’ maneuverings but also different to that of the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries. What the Bolsheviks were for, apart from the slogan “All power to the Soviets” (the workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils and assemblies), was a revolution as soon as possible, the overthrow of the capitalist-monarchist State and the creation of a socialist one (as well as pulling the Russian Army out of World War One).

Although the facts of the successful overthrow of the state and withdrawal from the War are not usually questioned by historians or political theorists, the fate of that state is. And the bloc itself had a very mixed history after the Revolution.

But what essentially is the purpose of blocs? Are they composed of like-minded people who don’t want to belong to a political party-type organisation, or perhaps of people of a variety of party political allegiances, but who want to join for the moment to promote a general idea? Or are they attempts by one group to create hegemony, to bring people of different perceptions together in temporary action, with the intention of building a more permanent organisation? Or perhaps crudely an attempt by one (or two) organisations to recruit members to their own organisations? I have over the years participated in blocs and it seems to me that different blocs have at different times been each one of those things. So I ask myself, is that ok? As political activists, should we consider blocs a legitimate type of temporary political organisation? Is each of those purposes outlined above of equal value?

A Black Bloc against repression in Germany -- location and year uncertain
A Black Bloc against repression in Germany — location and year uncertain

Around this time of year in 2010, early on in the protests against austerity, although then called “Right to Work”, back in the last year of the Fianna Fáil/ Green Party coalition government, there was a bloc formed for participating in demonstrations against the bank bailouts and consequent cuts in social spending and wages being imposed or proposed by that Coalition Government. Called the “Anti-Capitalist Bloc”, it seemed composed in the main of the anarchist WSM and what would often be described as “dissident Republicans”, chief among which at the time was the Éirigí organisation. There was a fair sprinkling of non-aligned activists (i.e. not belonging to any party or particular organisation) whose politics could be described variously as socialist republican, anarchist or communist.

Anti-Capitalist Bloc in Dawson Street, Dublin, marching to join anti-austerity demonstration at Dáíl in 2010
Anti-Capitalist Bloc in Dawson Street, Dublin, marching to join anti-austerity demonstration at Dáíl in 2010

This bloc gathered at a different rallying point to the rest of the Right to Work march but marched to meet it at the Dáil. In that role, it survived I think three demonstrations. The first one was attacked by police after the demonstrators refused to be prevented from marching to join the other demonstration.

What was the purpose of this bloc, at least in the eyes of its organisers? I have no documentation to hand but as I recall, it was to say something like: “the problem is not this or that economic measure or this or that party or government; the problem is capitalism itself.” It seemed to be implying that therefore we needed a revolution. I would and did agree with such a statement and with its implication. Not only did I agree with it

Black Bloc against the EU, possibly a section of the
Black Bloc against the EU, possibly a section of the “March for an Alternative” in London in March 2011.

but it seems to me a crucial point to make, if we are to end our vulnerability to the vagaries of the capitalist system’s fortunes and to its particular rapacity at various times.

This was a message clearly different from that of some sections of opposition to the Government: SIPTU and the ICTU were saying that there was a fairer way of sharing the burden, which was about what Sinn Féin was saying with “Tá bealach níos fearr/There is a better way”.

Reformist trade union slogan on anti-austerity march in 2010
Reformist trade union slogan on anti-austerity march in 2010

But could those participants in the bloc not have presented that point of view while still joining the other demonstration at its rallying point and marching with it? Perhaps – by each person being given specific placards, for example, agreeing a joint leaflet or by having speakers to represent their point of view. But all of those present difficulties – the production of an agreed placard slogan to say nothing of the difficulties of agreeing a leaflet. And a speaker might not be permitted by the organisers of the rest of the demonstration or their message would get lost among the others being put forward, even if the speech itself could be agreed by the bloc in advance. All the bloc participants could dress in a similar colour (like the “Black Bloc” on some demonstrations overseas in the past). But a separate bloc, marching behind a banner with a slogan with which each bloc participant could agree, was surely the least complicated way to deliver that message – and very visible. The police who attacked it certainly must have thought so.

Sinn Féin demonstration at the Dail in 2010 -- all totally reformist slogans apart from possibly the "Don't Pay the Bankers" slogan
Sinn Féin demonstration at the Dail in 2010 — all totally reformist slogans apart from possibly the “Don’t Pay the Bankers” slogan

There is another factor in such a way of organising a bloc – it permits a visible assessment of its size, of the identities of its participants (unless they go masked, as many of the Black Blocs abroad did). Of course this has a down side also in that the state’s political police can take notes on the participants for the purpose of their files. But it has a positive effect too in terms of future progressive and revolutionary action. A mailing list can be compiled for calling to future events, individuals can be introduced to other like-minded individuals, organisations can get to cooperate – all factors militating against the fragmentation of the radical and revolutionary sector.

Some people on the other part of the march accused the Anti-Capitalist Bloc of being politically sectarian. Perhaps some even thought them elitist. These are of course dangers. But was it or was it not an important statement to make, that the problem was not the governing party but the system, and that a revolution was necessary? And if it was an important point to make, was such an eye-catching way of making it not justified?

Let’s consider what happened in the months and years afterwards and where we are now. In the face of a wide-scale howl of protest at the bank deals of the Government, their economic measures, and recent individual politician scandals, Fianna Fáil were deserted by their Green Party coalition partners. FF dumped their leader and elected a new one for their party and for the Government. It was all too little, too late and they were obliged to agree to a general election, the result of which was that FF’s number of TDs (elected representatives) was cut by nearly 80%, the greatest electoral defeat suffered by either of the main political parties in the history of the state. And the Green Party was wiped out as an electoral force, almost disappearing entirely off the political map.

The electoral verdict otherwise was mixed. The main rival of FF, Fine Gael, got the most votes with the social democratic Labour getting the next largest amount. Sinn Féin jumped from four to fourteen, a Trotskyist party and a different Trotskyist led-alliance got four between them for the first time, twenty Independents were elected, most of them left-wing. But whether socialist, republican, conservative or social-democratic, all candidates had been elected on platforms of opposition to the deals the previous government had made with the banks and with the EEC’s banking regulators.

Despite that, Fine Gael and Labour formed a coalition government and proceeded — in fact — to endorse what their predecessors had done and furthermore, to intensify a regime of austerity on working people, introducing three new taxes and supporting legislation to squeeze the people still further. The message of the Anti-Capitalist Bloc was vindicated.

Would the whole demonstration marching under a banner of “Overthrow Capitalism” have significantly changed that electoral result? Extremely unlikely. But it would have posed the question to the participants and to observers. It would have effected subsequent campaigns of resistance to austerity measures and additional taxes. And it would have built a much wider consensus eight or nine years later that the overthrow of capitalism was the only solution with perhaps a growing consensus that such an outcome was possible.

Because here we are now nine years after those three appearances of the Anti-Capitalist Bloc and once again it seems a general election is looming. Once again, we see other political parties pushing forward to be elected on programs without any perspective of overthrowing capitalism. Political alliances based on continuing the system are being mooted. On social media one sees calls for for kicking out Fine Gael or Labour or both, rather than capitalism. On demonstrations against the Water Tax we hear slogans against Enda Kenny, leader of Fine Gael, or against the Labour Party – but few against the capitalist system. Sinn Fein seek to cut down Labour as they court the social democratic vote which, in the past, they have largely ignored (for example, they have little history in the trade union movement). The Trotskyist groups will also attack Labour, also going for the social-democratic vote as they have traditionally done.

Most people feel that the Government will fall soon but when they pose alternatives they are doing so within the framework of capitalism. That means that same class that commanded the deal with the banks and with the EU will remain in power. Their representatives in government will change but the class will remain. And if they remain, their exploitation remains. Not only that but in the present economic climate, their austerity program will remain too – perhaps with some tweaks here and there but austerity still.

A determined campaign of political leadership over the past nine years giving a clear direction of the need to overthrow capitalism could have us in a very different political position now.

So, the next time we get a call to join a bloc for a demonstration, should we rush to it? Well, not necessarily. Let us question what the bloc is for and what it aims to do. Is the bloc in question a tactic, for example like the Black Bloc, where we identify a revolutionary opposition by colour and also, by masking, make it harder for the State to identify us? There may well be a time and place for such. Or is it to declare a revolutionary principle such as “capitalism is the problem; revolution is necessary’? Or “Non-Payment of the Water Charge is what is required”? Then it seems to me that the answer is that yes, we should.

But if it is to draw some particular lines of political affiliation, for example to say that although the participants may belong to separate organisations or none, “we are all communists” or “we are all republicans” or “we are all anarchists”, then I fail to see how that helps the popular resistance movement proceed forward at all, to say nothing of revolution. If that is the purpose of a bloc, it is fine for the followers of that particular ideology but they would be best fulfilling it by holding public meetings and conferences.

On the street, we need to be motivating observers for participation in resistance, and motivating participants for unity in effective actions, for revolution. Motivation has an emotional component but also an ideological one and in that regard the message has to be to overthrow capitalism. At the moment it is that idea that needs to gain hegemony rather than any particular political party or organisation.


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