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Left unity… February 14, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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…I thought this an interesting reflection on the concept of left unity and where it goes from here.

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1. ivorthorne - February 14, 2016

That was an interesting read and one that helps in trying to understand the positions of the SP and SWP.

I also think that the second comment is a good reply. Expecting ideological agreement (especially on matters of tactics rather than goals) before unity is somewhat silly. Even within the parties not every member is a Marxist scholar and individual members will not automatically select the party line without education and debate.

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James O'Brien - February 17, 2016

“ I rather liked your article but the differences you mention have more to do with tactics rather than goals. Assemblies versus a party approach?”

Yes, there is something to that but these tactical and strategic differences can, over time and if they are sufficiently important, become theorised and thereby incorporated into the ideology of the organisation. To take the SWP, their predilection for spontaneous assemblies was sufficiently embedded into their ideological DNA such that it has survived their transformation from the International Socialists into a more partyist form.

In the case of the SWP, since I used them as an example, their preference for assemblies was theorised into ‘socialism from below’: a commitment to promoting the assemblies as the fundamental organisational form of social revolution and state power, a preference for a smaller, more tightly knit party, and a concomitant desire to remain organisationally distinct from – or sometimes within – other formations. It is no longer simply a strategic orientation, but a very important part of how they see socialist revolution occurring and, indeed, how they view the fulfilment of humanity’s potential itself.

An organisation seeking to merge with the SWP would at least have to engage with that fundamental perspective.

These all point to a common type of Trotskyist organisation: a small, sometimes minuscule, revolutionary socialist party. It’s a very different approach to what the original Social Democrats and the later Communists took.

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James O'Brien - February 17, 2016

“I also think that the second comment is a good reply. Expecting ideological agreement (especially on matters of tactics rather than goals) before unity is somewhat silly.”

Here I am using ideology in a more abstract sense than would apply to tactics (unless they harden over time into an ideology as mentioned above). It’s something closer to a deeper world view, a structured framework for interpreting events and being the starting point for developing actionable responses.

Of course, ideological affinity is not the only factor in unifying groups; common struggle is also important. But it is, I feel, nowadays an underestimated one whereas the struggle side is widely accepted. It is difficult to sustain anything more than a temporary alliance unless there is a good deal of ideological congruence.

It is hard to explain why ideology, principally religious in form, has been so important throughout history if it does not have a key social function. My hypothesis is that it does. It may not be very important for the wider public, who often go along with their inherited identity (Provo, Stickie, Fianna Fail, Catholic etc). But it *does* matter to the activists and to the leadership. If *they* lose faith in the ideology, which gives them justification for what they are doing, it becomes very hard to hold the organisation together over the longer term. This is a (long) article which touches on the subject: http://spiritofcontradiction.eu/bronterre/2014/06/28/catholic-marxism

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2. Alibaba - February 15, 2016

‘… it is deeply unimpressive to be regularly lectured on the virtues of left unity by individuals who can’t even bring themselves to join *any* party.’ Oh, really? That’s condescension. It requires independent leftists to either join the party or demonise them. So much for practical unity on a principled basis around the things we agree on.

Individual organisations may feel they have something to lose by closer collaboration on the left – along with the involvement of non-aligned people – but the working class does not. It is sickened by the divisions that blight the left that can’t even maintain the facade of unity in the face of the concerted attacks of the ruling class. That’s why opponents took matters into their own hands with demonstrations against property tax and water charges. It’s most likely the reason we will see mere marginal gains for the far left and its fronts in the general election. It is thought-provoking that those parties (who can be a factor in power) and who came belatedly (and some would think opportunistically) to water charges abolition, will see substantial gains.

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James O'Brien - February 15, 2016

A key phrase in the sentence you quote is “to be regularly lectured”. It’s fine to be outside the organisations and offer your opinions, critical or otherwise. But Mercille and some others do so without informing themselves of what those organisations’ fundamental positions are.

“Practical unity on a principled basis” sounds fine, but there would have to be some discussion as to what constitutes that “principled basis”.

It sounds similar to what I was saying about ideology in the article, in which case we would be on the same wavelength in that regard.

The point of the article was that Mercille assumes there are no such differences and therefore no need at all to clarify what those principles are.

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Alibaba - February 15, 2016

That’s a fair point.

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James O'Brien - February 15, 2016

I would add that independent activists simply do not carry much weight within the organisations. If Mercille is correct that there are zero political differences between them, it should not be a difficult task to reveal that to the memberships of the parties. Yet it isn’t done.

Joining the party or demonising them doesn’t pose the question that well I think. After all, there are a number of parties, not just “the party”. There is unlikely ever to be a formation that is 100% in line with one’s one views so there is a case to be made for plumping for the one that best fits each person and to argue for merging the parties, if that is your perspective.

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Gavin Mendel-Gleason - February 15, 2016

“That’s why opponents took matters into their own hands with demonstrations against property tax and water charges.”

Is that what happened? It seems to me the CAHWT was comprised of the left nucleus but only managed to get marginal traction.

The point at which the water charges campaign got real legs was when the unions stepped in. The unions have consistently shown that they are capable of mobilising much more effectively than the left parties, or any other organisations. These protests should not be seen as some amorphous and spontaneous mass of people self organising which enabled such a spectacular size of demonstrations.

Clearly you need the conditions to be widely felt, but you also desperately need the organisational capacity.

I think the biggest failure of the “unaligned left” is to recognise that building these institutions is very hard. For unions the workplace struggle is the common denominator. For political parties, the unifying principle is ideology. Ideology is more abstract, fluid and complex and so “getting it right” is a hard thing to do, especially if your hope is to get mass participation. Couple this with a very real anti-party sentiment and you have a problem which is much more difficult to solve than “why can’t we all just get along”.

As a thought experiment, consider trying to solve the problem. The SP and SWP have already broken an alliance in the ULA over differences, and with their current alliance of PBP-AAA they’ve built in the opportunity to split while retaining brand share in the name itself.

Your choice now in the unaligned left is to

A) Chastise them in hopes that it will push them into a lasting alliance.

Note that this is something which can only be done if they get organisational and ideological fusion, and this is a hard task to be sure! And who would conduct this task? Probably not the people hurling from the ditch.

B) Start something new and add to the already dense constellation of choices, with the hope that it will be more friendly towards unification.

C) Suck up your pride and commit to one of the already existing parties.

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Aonrud ⚘ - February 15, 2016

A standard response to option B…

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Alibaba - February 15, 2016

‘It seems to me the CAHWT was comprised of the left nucleus but only managed to get marginal traction. The point at which the water charges campaign got real legs was when the unions stepped in.’

I have to disagree. It is true that the involvement of trade unions via Right2Water brought organisational proficiency and was a welcome development. But long before that development we saw people from the communities who had no experience of political activism come along not only to demos, but to self-organise against austerity measures. How else can one explain the national CAHWT rally in Dublin in March 2012 which attacted 3,500 paticipants? It members came from ‘the left nucleus’, the grassroots bodies, as well the unaligned left energised by it. The implosion of the ULA ensured they had nowhere to go after this. All that squandered talent and squandered opportunity.

Now comes the Right2Change with its 96 candidates, comprised mainly of Sinn Féin, partially paralysed by its inability to even create a vote transfer pact. For all its aggressive unity calls and appeals to provide an alternative government, Right2Change has only succeeded in adding to a multitude of vote-splitting exercises and confusion for potential supporters. And worse still it is a vehicle for ensuring that there will be little control, repeat little control (if any), left to grassroot activists. Is it a movement like Right2Water with its three pillars? No. Who held control over candidate selection? Who calls all the shots? None other than trade union bureaucrats.

The unaligned will have to await the results of the general election and then take stock.

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CMK - February 15, 2016

One of the small mercies of whatever follows 26 February is that Right 2 Change will almost certainly wither away, having done its job of bolstering SF’s vote.

Whatever the many shortcomings of the CAHWT experience, and there were many, it was, I thought, infinitely more democratic and comradely than the R2W/R2C charade.

SF are happy enough to go along with R2C and why wouldn’t they be as they get a 100% free pass from the people running R2C (there are no grassroots).

One of the signatories of the R2C 3 Principles – DDI-NCM – have candidates explicitly committed to anti-abortion positions, even though the R2C policy principles contain an equally explicit commitment to reproductive choice and repeal of the 8th amendment. The Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment are doing a running tally of the number of party candidates who have signed up to repeal the 8th and currently only 6% (1) of DDI-NCM candidates has done so.

The unions came onboard alright but they studiously eschewed advocating that boycott in the midst of tens of thousands of ordinary people marching under the R2W banner and actively building that boycott and engaged in civil disobedience resisting water meter installation.

The unions came onboard and promptly abdicated any leadership preferring to stay well within their comfort zone and burnish their profiles.

What the R2W/R2C process shows is the limitations of official dominated trade unions as vehicles for radical social change.

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Gavin Mendel-Gleason - February 16, 2016

Alibaba, I would share most of your analysis, but I don’t think it provides a contrast with what I said.

“How else can one explain the national CAHWT rally in Dublin in March 2012 which attacted 3,500 paticipants?”

The fact is that the union involvement changed the scale of the protests radically. I agree that it was much less democratic than CAHWT and much more driven by a few individuals such as Ogle. I would further say that it acts as a sort of protective for Sinn Fein’s left.

The unions are not a great place for the genesis of a socialist political movement. The natural origin of politics and its expression is via the party form, but as yet we don’t have parties with the depth or scale that they can influence the trade union movements towards goals that socialists would like to see.

Sinn Fein by contrast is capable of influencing them quite a bit, and hence the outcomes have been favourable to them.

I was a member of the ULA, and contrary to the story that it didn’t attract people, it simply did not act remotely in the way that the AAA has now done which has attracted a layer of people. It needed to be acting as a party involving itself actively in campaigns as a party.

Attempting to do so as two parties which have contrasting structures and ideologies is however setting things up for a split. Such an arrangement is highly unstable. The idea that it’s easy to simply create a lash up with different ideologies party structures and activities is, in my opinion, wrong. It’s not an accident that it rarely happens – and when it does its under tremendous pressures. The example of Syriza is a good one. It had tremendous pressures given by the +30 parliamentarian rule which caused many different left groups to join. It then did attempt to create a unifying structure, but the internal tendencies provided ready made breaking points when the shit hit the fan.

Of course the direction that Syriza decided to go – namely holding a referendum as a club with which to beat the EU and then subsequently dropping the club as soon as it had it meant that it was always going to suffer badly from the outcome as it meant it was essentially deciding to ignore that the public stated vocally that it was ready for a fight.

Creating unity means creating a shared ideological orientation and this is not an easy process. Historically “unity” usually comes out of either real ideological and organisational fusion in periods of growth of the left, or even more often when one group finds itself capable of growing much faster than other groups and establishes a sort of hegemony.

But would you be happy with any of the current players establishing hegemony? And if they came to ideological and organisational fusion, would you be happy with the type that they came to? I think a lot of the currently unaligned left wont really be happy until they see something big and aren’t too keen on making something big which puts them in a holding pattern until someone else does.

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3. Ivorthorne - February 15, 2016

“A key phrase in the sentence you quote is “to be regularly lectured”. It’s fine to be outside the organisations and offer your opinions, critical or otherwise. But Mercille and some others do so without informing themselves of what those organisations’ fundamental positions are.”

James, I may be merely misinformed as I’m not expert on these issues but is it not difficult to find out exactly what the difference in goals between the WP, SP and SWP are? When it comes to the SP and SWP, their online content is strikingly similar. The WP website if slightly different but how much of its content would members of the SP or SWP object to. You can argue that the writers you criticise should obviously do more research on the subject than looking at the parties’ websites (and you’d be right) but Joe Soap could be forgiven for thinking that these finer points of policy must not be important given that the SP, WP and SWP all present a very similar face to the public on their websites. I rather liked your article but the differences you mention have more to do with tactics rather than goals. Assemblies versus a party approach? Ultimately, the question of which approach is more effective is an empirical question. Why make assumptions? Adopt an approach or adopt different approaches in different areas or contexts and review the relative effectiveness.

I also think that ultimately it is unfair to talk about “wailings” and to say that these people are regularly lecturing people about left unity when these “wailings” are fairly neutral in tone and the number of times either of the writers you mention have written on the subject of left unity could easily be counted on your digits. It’s hardly being lectured.

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4. eamonncork - February 15, 2016

Two comments. I’ve hardly seen Right 2 Change mentioned since the campaign started. And second, while blaming the small socialist parties for the failure of the left as a whole to make an electoral breakthrough is a traditional Irish sport, it really isn’t the fault of the SP, SWP and WP if Fianna Fail and Fine Gael come back with 100 odd seats yet again. Do we really think the reason the working class isn’t voting en masse for left wing candidates is because its members are annoyed by the fact that the SP and SWP have the occasional argument? I’m hardly an apologist for the SP but cut them a little slack on this one.

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5. eamonncork - February 15, 2016

The party of the left which would make the kind of breakthrough often envisioned in these kind of articles would probably be nearer to the centre than the SP and SWP. Such is the nature of the body politic here. What should do the SP do then? Jettison its principles in the hopes of being a part of some grander operation which wins a few more seats? I don’t see how they’re blocking progress.

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6. revolutionaryprogramme - February 16, 2016

It is hard to see what, in terms of the programmes presented to the working class in this election, the differences at the level of principle or ideology that are keeping WP, SP/AAA & SWP/PBP apart.

They are all presenting a set of radical reformist demands with only minor differences in the details. They are all prepared to cross the class line by entering negotiations with pro-capitalist Sinn Fein over forming a so-called “left” government.

Assuming they are not lying to the working class with these election platforms the differences are only secondary and tertiary and really they should be in one left-reformist organisation that would presumably pose a bigger electoral threat (which they all implicitly present as the main motor force for social change despite any tipping of the hat to self-organisation of the working class with references to “people power”) than the three of them separately.

The reason for remaining separate can only be about the respective party apparatchiks not liking each other or more likely fearing that in a fused organisation there would not be enough jobs to go around – both in terms of paid jobs and positions of authority.

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7. FergusD - February 16, 2016

revolutionaryprogramme – but the SWP and SP see themselves as revolutionary and the WP reformist and “Stalinist”. YMMV of course! The WP probably see the SP and SWP as ultra left. Given that how could they possibly fuse?

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revolutionaryprogramme - February 16, 2016

Fergus – there are no doubt all kinds of rationalisations for maintaining separate organisations based around internalised belief systems however I was just commenting on the actual concrete political programmes they are presenting to the working class.

In terms of the election programmes the difference between them are ones of quantity not quality.

SP and SWP members and supporters may well sincerely believe they are revolutionaries but that is not reflected in the concrete programme they present to the working class.

For instance their election platforms based around redistribution of wealth, primarily through taxation reforms, while leaving production in the hands of the capitalists are somewhat at odds with what an old codger writing a few years ago thought socialists should be arguing for:

“it was in general a mistake to make a fuss about so-called distribution and put the principal stress on it. Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labour power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?”
from ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’ by Karl Marx

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FergusD - February 17, 2016

Really interesting quote from Marx there which goes to the heart of much of the modern social democrat ideology.

I take your point about the SP, SWP and WP (SWP is a combination of SP and WP – spooky!) policies being not fundamentally different, my point was that they would not see it that way.

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8. Garibaldy - February 16, 2016

“They are all prepared to cross the class line by entering negotiations with pro-capitalist Sinn Fein over forming a so-called “left” government.”

Just for information, while the WP regards the Right2Change principles as a decent basic set of ideas, it did not sign up to it because it involved giving commitments about who it would support to form a government that the WP was not prepared to make.

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revolutionaryprogramme - February 16, 2016

From http://workersparty.ie/wp-support-right-2-change-principles-as-basis-for-progressive-change/

“2) Will you (or party if applicable) agree now to form a progressive government based on this platform if the numbers allow?

“As we indicated on 16th October, should the issue arise in the aftermath of the election, the party will engage co-operatively and with a positive spirit with other progressive and, in particular, socialist forces.

“The Right2Change policy principles could, in this context, contribute significantly to that discussion. The policy principles, however, cannot be a substitute for the detailed discussions that would be necessary in order to negotiate the formation of a government.

“The question of whether we would now agree to the formation of a progressive government is, therefore, not one that we can answer positively at this time.”

As per the SP/AAA, while not being prepared to give a definitive binding answer in advance to R2C’s Q2 the Workers Party are quite openly saying they are prepared to negotiate with all/any of the signatories to the Right2Change policy document about the possibility of forming a government.

I would therefore defend my assertion, that “WP are prepared to cross the class line by entering negotiations with pro-capitalist Sinn Féin over forming a so-called ‘left’ government”, as being completely accurate.

The Workers Party refusal to give a simple Yes to Q2 was NOT really about “giving commitments about WHO it would support to form a government” but rather about giving commitments in advance over the exact details of a programme for government that they might support.

Just like the SP/AAA the Workers Party are presenting Sinn Féin as somehow qualitatively different from other pro-capitalist parties who they are prepared to rule out in advance, as a red-line matter of principle, any possibility of forming a government with.

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9. Alibaba - February 16, 2016

As someone who bangs the left unity drum, I sometimes wonder if I come across as a delusional chronic optimist. I doubt that anybody is seriously suggesting that SP and SWP or any left political groups should ‘fuse’. It would be lunatic to think that they should do so or dissolve themselves into any new left unity initiative. Instead, they should just stop from disrupting the building of an anti-austerity movement through the sectarian manoeuvring we witnessed in the United Left Alliance. And the farce that they couldn’t even sit next to one another in the Dáil. And the putting of interests of growing various groups over the interests of the wider fightback forces.

Why couldn’t there be an umbrella organisation composed of left groups, unaligned and whatever, and resourced to create meeting forums for deciding strategy, turning it into action and holding local and national reps to account?

It is not the involvement of particular organisations that is wrong; cast the net wide. It is allowing the entry of any group or independent that is willing to consider going into coalition with FG, FF or Labour that is unacceptable and non-negotiable. ULA had at least this cutting edge. Right 2 Change does not.

There would be political differences in any new organisation and they could be discussed internally; an action programme voted on by members and thereafter loyalty could be correctly expected by all (including those who wished to move it futher to the right or to the left).

Resources would have to be shared and unity-in-action on agreed issues be foremost (think no separate party-controlled campaigns). This means compromises are necessary, like it or not, as long as there in no prohibition on the expression of other views internally by the leadership machine (and external promotion of different perspectives).

Understanding that is the key to building a responsible Left, at least in my experience. I see no other way of overcoming the distrust that even leftist leaners hold against us or of replenishing our ranks and winning the arguments for class politics.

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Jolly Red Giant - February 16, 2016

We have been around the houses on the ULA before – the nub of the issue was the fact that nobody joined the ULA and it was never going to last if it just comprised of the existing left forces.

As for R2C – CMK made the point yesterday that the election will probably see end of R2C – it will have served its purpose as vote fodder for SF.

It is interesting that Brendan Ogle was blowing a gasket about SF on facebook today saying that they deliberately did not promote the march on Saturday during the televised debates last night and last week. The irony is clearly lost on Ogle that the one party that has been actively promoting Saturday’s march is the AAA – the party that Ogle manufactured the ‘expulsion’ of from R2C. He has belatedly come to the same conclusion as the AAA that SF were using R2C as left cover for the duration of the election.

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revolutionaryprogramme - February 16, 2016

Which poses the question – if the AAA knew “that SF were using R2C as left cover for the duration of the election” then why have you partially been part of providing that left cover by giving credence to the idea that it might be possible for SF to be part of a “left” government with your position of being prepared to negotiate with them about that possibility?

Surely the principled Marxist position should have been to rule out any coalition with them, as a pro-capitalist party just using the anti-water charges movement, in advance, as you did for FF, FG & the LP.

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revolutionaryprogramme - February 16, 2016

“Why couldn’t there be an umbrella organisation composed of left groups, unaligned and whatever, and resourced to create meeting forums for deciding strategy, turning it into action and holding local and national reps to account?”

“There would be political differences in any new organisation and they could be discussed internally; an action programme voted on by members and thereafter loyalty could be correctly expected by all (including those who wished to move it further to the right or to the left).”

That is a party even if you don’t want to call it that.

If the SP and SWP were to be the main forces involved in setting up such a new party then that would be a fusion of their organisations, once again even if didn’t want to call it that.

As I have argued there is a case for the likes of the SP, SWP and WP to take such a path – at least on the basis of their election programmes anyway.

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10. James O'Brien - February 17, 2016

RevolutionaryProgramme: “As per the SP/AAA, while not being prepared to give a definitive binding answer in advance to R2C’s Q2 the Workers Party are quite openly saying they are prepared to negotiate with all/any of the signatories to the Right2Change policy document about the possibility of forming a government.”

Actually, no. Engaging co-operatively does not entail being part a government. It could, for example, mean co-operating to support what we would regard as progressive legislation, such as removing the onerous sections of the 1990 Trade Union Act. There is no commitment whatsoever to support the formation of Sinn Féin led government. That is you misinterpreting things again.

RevolutionaryProgramme: “For instance their election platforms based around redistribution of wealth, primarily through taxation reforms, while leaving production in the hands of the capitalists are somewhat at odds with what an old codger writing a few years ago thought socialists should be arguing for:”

Well, the WP call for and have long called for the state to be the leading agent of economic activity, including a rejection of further privatisation, an expansion of the role of state companies, and the creation of state investment bank with a remit to favour publicly owned and co-operative enterprises. In its manifesto, the party also identifies the root of many social ills as the lack of ownership by working people of the economic system.

RevolutionaryProgramme: “Just like the SP/AAA the Workers Party are presenting Sinn Féin as somehow qualitatively different from other pro-capitalist parties who they are prepared to rule out in advance, as a red-line matter of principle, any possibility of forming a government with.”

Sinn Féin _are_ different from the other pro-capitalist parties. In the South they are more centre-left, and have a substantial working class vote. Reality dictates that we take that into consideration when engaging with political events here.

But when it comes to being part of a government – a slightly surreal and internally little discussed prospect for the WP at present – our primary goal would be to instigate measures that lead to a socialist mode of production becoming dominant. I doubt a single person in the WP sees SF having any interest in that and organisationally that is the overwhelming, if not unanimous, consensus.

Being a minor addendum to them in government would not advance that goal and therefore is not part of our tactical or strategic plan. Nevertheless, we don’t feel the need to paint red-lines which are likely to only be of interest to less than a dozen unaligned Trotskyists in the state – I can think of 5 – and which are usually insisted upon as a sort of arcane test of orthodoxy.

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revolutionaryprogramme - February 17, 2016

As there is very little chance there will be any WP TDs after the election I guess it is true you haven’t discussed the issue of being part of the government at any concrete level.

However it seems that I am correct in my essential political point. You are, like the SP & SWP, treating SF as different from other pro-capitalist parties – because they are centre left rather than centre right.

You are prepared to make it a red-line issue to oppose giving votes to the other pro-capitalist parties but not SF.

My intervention into the election process is about highlighting the importance of working class political independence – the WP’s ambiguous (to be generous as it is really back-handed political support in my opinion) approach to SF clearly does not take the issue of working class political independence into account.

Anyone believing that working class political independence as an important issue would start from ruling out in advance any political support to SF as a matter of principle.

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revolutionaryprogramme - February 17, 2016

You refer to the WP election manifesto. Do you have a link to that as I can’t find it anywhere on the WP web site, or elsewhere via google.

TIA

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11. Jack Jameson - February 17, 2016

Right2Change may not have been heard of much in the media but have we forgotten who controls the mainstream media and whose interests they represent?

They have a clear preference for ‘sensible’ Lucinda ‘Three Strikes & Flat Tax’ Creighton rather than the likes of ‘extremist’ Claire Daly.

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12. Jack Jameson - February 17, 2016

ICYMI – Morning Ireland on Wednesday (45 mins in) was out with Ruth Coppinger in a profile of AAA/PBPA as one of the “smaller parties” in GE16. (There might have been more on Dublin West later.)

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