John McAnulty of Ireland’s Socialist Democracy
25 January 2009
“A slave-owner who through cunning and violence shackles a slave in
chains, and a slave who through cunning and violence breaks the
chains – let not the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are
equals before a court of morality!”
–Leon Trotsky, “Their Morals and Ours,” 1938
The month of total war waged by Israel on Gaza has halted for the time being, although the struggle to crush the Palestinian people continues unabated.
The Gaza massacre generated deep revulsion across the globe. In Ireland, as in many other places, substantial protests took place. The protests didn’t involve the main body of workers but they did offer the opportunity of building a substantially stronger solidarity movement. That opportunity was not taken. There are many reasons for this, but a key reason is the mistaken ideas about building united action held by many militants.
The majority of activists believe that any movement should be as broad as possible, and that the way to achieve that is to rely on humanitarian sentiment. This apparently common-sense approach is actually profoundly mistaken at a number of levels and fails every time it is applied.
The point is that unity requires an object. The broader the movement, the weaker and more diffuse its aims. The agreement may fall far short of the needs of the situation and may be so loose that in practice there is only limited common action.
These are really organisational issues. For socialists there are deeper political issues. We believe that only the working class can resolve the major issues facing humanity. In each new struggle we seek to promote the self-organisation and self-activity of the workers. Class struggle doesn’t stop at the door of a new campaign, so there are political battles to be fought to establish the class interest that will dominate.
These issues were worked out long ago in the mass struggles of the working class. In sudden crises single issue campaigns, cutting across classes, can be established but these are inherently unstable.
United fronts are meant to unite different sections of the workers, and sometimes sections of the small farmers and small shopkeepers with the workers. The different sections unite around a common policy. They act together but continue to advance their own programs. A democratic structure allows the movement to change and advance new demands as the situation changes.
The rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy within the working class led to the policy of popular fronts. A good example of the popular front policy was the battle against fascism. Stalinists argued that this transcended class and was best advanced by an all-class alliance. They built alliances with the right and used savage repression against workers advancing demands of their own. The popular fronts, limited to the policy of the capitalists, were inevitably defeated.
Care must be taken in using the terms popular front and united front. As with all Marxist terms, they depend heavily on context. The working class in Ireland today is fragmented and demoralised by decades of social partnership and the defeat of the republican movement. Neither is there a dissident section of the capitalist class at whom a popular front could be aimed.
It makes more sense to talk about a popular front approach. In that way one can focus on the reality of the views of small groups rather than imagine we are talking about significant class forces. So what is the effect of this sort of thinking on the conduct of solidarity actions with Gaza?
The organisational effect is to establish a virtual movement, insubstantial as any other form of virtual reality. This had two effects. The first was to bring in essentially right-wing figures on their own terms, so platforms were crowded with speakers who did not oppose imperialism and with no real connection with a solidarity movement. The strongest example of this was the plethora of clerical speakers bolted on to the trade unions demonstration in Belfast in a vain attempt to defuse loyalist opposition. It was quite bizarre to witness the Socialist Workers party intervention in Dublin They themselves had moved to the left under the pressure of events, but were totally unable to obtain a response from the movement they had partially created.
The insubstantial nature of the movement also left it open to adventures. Again the Belfast demonstration was a good example, with republican activists staging stunts in local stores, making no attempt to discuss tactics with other groups in the campaign.
But the real weakness of a popular front approach is political. Any serious solidarity movement should demand an end of Israeli occupation and the siege of Gaza and the West Bank. As it was, the main demands were for a ceasefire, balanced in many cases by demands that Hamas should not respond with rockets. Calls were made for the ‘international community’ to intervene, ignoring the fact that it had already intervened decisively on the side of Israel. A number of the speakers were the left face of imperialism, supporting the aims of the massacre while bemoaning the bloodshed.
A humanitarian campaign cannot survive a ceasefire. Activists gravitate towards individual moralism, either in the form of charitable donations or individual boycott of Israeli produce. The political demands of the boycott remain unclear.
And it is here that the fundamental weakness of the Irish solidarity movement lies. One of the main organisations declaring solidarity with Gaza is Sinn Fein, closely followed by the trade union leadership and the left organisations. In practice they all support the Irish peace process and the partitionist solution it produced. It follows as night follows day that the Middle East peace process and the two-state solution represent the way forward. We should all be dancing in the streets at the news that heros such as Tony Blair and George Mitchell are to lead the Middle East process forward!
Of course this is all nonsense. The peace process in the Middle East is imperialist policy, with its main aim the crushing of Palestinian resistance. The two state solution is what we see already in Gaza and the West Bank – open prisons, constantly at the mercy of Israeli aggression. The difficulty for many is that to admit this would be to cast new light on the Irish peace process and the sectarian sewer formed in the North.
Just as solidarity with Gaza requires the self-organisation of workers, so to does a genuine peace and justice in Ireland.