More than social democracy is needed

Several decades from now a leaked report will disclose how British Intelligence orchestrated a campaign in the 2020s to prevent Her Majesty’s government falling into the hands of a “dangerous Marxist.” Opinion-writers for the Guardian will fulminate about this abuse of process but will reassure their readers that “lessons have been learnt, and nothing similar could ever happen again.” The BBC will launch its new flagship drama series, “The Enemy Within,” based on novels by a retired researcher with its (by then discontinued) Panorama programme.

Are these the ravings of an old Fenian, steeped in conspiracy theories? Well, maybe so, but again maybe not. Surely I’m not alone in asking if it’s a pure coincidence that the question of alleged anti-Semitism in the Corbyn-led Labour Party is being highlighted now with increased intensity. Apart from the spurious nature of the allegations, there is the matter of timing. With a new Tory prime minister committed to a Brexit deal that is unlikely to win support in the House of Commons, the odds are heavily in favour of a general election that by any normal calculation would be won by the Labour Party—not just any Labour Party but one led by a left-wing social democrat.

Forty years into the current neo-liberal phase of capitalism, heralded by the election of Reagan and Thatcher, Britain’s elite are not prepared to see their position of privilege challenged to even a modest degree. In this they have the support of the powerful and wealthy throughout the western world. It’s not that a Corbyn-McDonnell government is going to abolish the monarchy and establish a workers’ republic; in practice it would most probably be somewhat less radical than the post-war Labour government of Attlee and Bevan.

Nevertheless the establishment elite oppose a Corbyn government not only because of the legislation it might introduce but also because of the potential challenge to the imperialist New World Order that it might encourage. Britain remains a major, albeit declining, economic power. Though reduced, it still has a significant manufacturing base, and, importantly, retains its own currency. In other words, it is not as easily contained as Greece or Venezuela.

A left-wing social-democratic government in Britain that would begin to reverse austerity and privatisation, stop arming Saudi Arabia or ask for proof of sabotage attributed to Iran would surely set an example that others elsewhere might follow. And who knows what that might lead to? It’s certainly not a risk the elite are prepared to take, or to allow happen.

Important as it is to highlight this anti-democratic attack on Corbyn, there is a wider question in all of this. How possible is it to fundamentally transform society in the interests of working people by focusing on parliamentary practice alone? In the light of the powerful structural obstacles at the disposal of the wealthy, the answer must be in the negative.

In the first place, there is the obvious difficulties in overcoming hostile media, a conservative state apparatus, and an entrenched political caste devoted to the practice of clientelism. And all the while, capital and business are constantly using their enormous resources to ensure that the status quo is maintained at all costs.

This is not an issue confined to Britain. It is a global phenomenon; and we should be under no illusion: the Irish ruling class and its backers abroad are equally determined to defend their privileged position by equally ruthless stratagems.

Not surprising, therefore, that the scale of existing power structures has a sobering effect on many of its critics and opponents. Consequently, some resort to tinkering with it by working for minor reform, while others offer impractical or dangerous ultra-left daydreams. Needless to say, the net outcome of both avenues is to further disillusion working people while simultaneously reinforcing the hold of the elite.

To overcome these counterproductive tendencies it is important to identify realistic objectives, coupled with a viable method of struggle. For us in Ireland this must mean not just examining successful protest movements of the recent past but exploring how we can alter the balance of power in favour of working people.

A first step towards redistributing power is to redistribute wealth, and not necessarily by simply sharing out bank deposits. Better to think in terms of recalibrating the economy by expanding and building up that part of the public sector described by trade unionists in the past as the “social wage.” This should not be confused with merely increasing the number of state employees, as was pointed out succinctly by James Connolly in 1899.*

On the contrary, the social wage is the universal provision of useful assets and beneficial services to every citizen. Although not a comprehensive list, this would include universal access to such things as state-financed public housing, a properly resourced national health service, free to all at the point of delivery, a comprehensive public transport service, an egalitarian education system, with no option for private schooling, and holding all natural resources in pubic ownership.

These are straightforward issues on which a broadly based campaign can be organised, drawing support from throughout working-class society. Moreover, since the principle of the social wage has historically been a central concept within organised labour, this initiative would undoubtedly draw in the crucial involvement of progressive elements within the trade union movement, as happened with the Right to Water campaign.

Naturally, careful consideration would have to be given to identifying a productive methodology. Boycotting and blacklisting some privatised services would surely be on the agenda. Therefore, a people’s campaign to abolish the Industrial Relations Act (1990) might well be a good starting-point.

Winning a limited set of demands is not socialism but would bring about significant advantages. Access to a broad range of public services would challenge wage slavery by removing a worker’s absolute dependence on an employer. In turn, this will enhance working-class confidence and consciousness while broadening grass-roots democracy, away from electoral clientelism. In a meaningful way, this strategy allows our class to prise open the door to progress by means of a transformative process.

Of course, none of this diminishes our enthusiasm for a Corbyn-led British government. It is just that our experience leads us to believe that his victory is far from certain; and even if he does manage to find himself in Downing Street the deep state will manage to curtail all but the most modest of reforms.

If this is to be prevented it would require a radical and fundamental change in how that country is run and how its people might govern, rather than be governed—a lesson that applies to us here in Ireland as much as it does to our neighbours across the Irish Sea.

*“. . . state ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism—if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, all would be Socialist functionaries, as they are State officials—but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials for labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be Socialism.”

“State monopoly versus socialism,” Workers’ Republic, 10 June 1899.