Power to the working people

Robert Owen, the nineteenth-century philanthropist, was by any standard a decent sort of bloke. He believed workers should be treated compassionately and that they deserved a reasonable standard of living. In fact he went a step further and attempted to build ideal societies in different countries, including one at Ralahine (Rathlaheen) in Ireland. He thought he could make his humane project universal by appealing for support to the good nature of wealthy capitalists. It hardly needs stating that his best efforts failed outright.

Yes, you may well snigger at his naïveté. So too did Karl Marx, who described it as utopian socialism. Nevertheless Owen’s underlying assumption that it is possible to use moral argument to persuade the ruling class to surrender its position of wealth and power still retains purchase in many left-of-centre circles, including influential elements within organised labour.

No matter how hopeless the strategy, it is easy to understand why this Owenite view prevails in contemporary society. In the first instance, there is a persistent problem with inertia. Faced with a host of obstacles, many ask what can be done to improve the situation. There is also in Ireland a particularly insidious, almost subliminal fear that to go beyond a certain line risks stoking the fires of insurrection. After all, our greatest labour leader was shot for doing just that.

Consequently, we are caught in the type of deadlock that has so many fulminating powerlessly at flagrant gross misconduct during the infamous Galway golfing beano. Though the event has been aired and analysed exhaustively, let’s just remind ourselves of two crucial factors.

In the first place there is the fact that this was not a solitary TD, regardless of position, acting badly: it was a representative cross-section of the Irish ruling caste, including judges, broadcasters, bankers, and business people, all at an event organised by senior members of the government party.

Secondly, and notwithstanding the understandable fury of the population, there is no constitutional provision to facilitate censure or removal of the governing coalition or to subject their performance to scrutiny by general election. If they hold together, we will be stuck with them until 2025. Moreover, as three opposition parties can testify, it’s not even possible to force the Dáil to convene if the Taoiseach decides against doing so.

Hardly surprising, then, that an EU commissioner and a High Court judge felt they could simply dig their heels in and contemptuously ignore demands to resign. As with the old utopian Owen, it would appear that the only option we are to be left with is to appeal humbly to the ruling class for it to behave better.

It is important to understand, however, that this dilemma does not only arise on rare and dramatically publicised occasions. This is the essential nature of the system of government under which we live. As James Connolly wrote, “governments in capitalist society are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class.”

Hence the near impossibility of changing the stance of this “government of the ruling class” on a range of issues affecting daily the lives of working people. In spite of dire need, no meaningful attempt is being made to address the housing crisis, nor is there a serious effort under way to provide a health service free and universally accessible to all at the point of entry.

Elsewhere there is the scandal of meat plants where, in spite of well-documented risks to the health of the industry’s work force, insufficient steps have been taken to ensure adequate inspection to enforce health and safety obligations. Compounding this is the widespread use of bogus self-employment practices, done in order to gain access to cheap labour compelled from economic necessity to tolerate harsh working conditions and, all too often, cramped, virus-conducive living arrangements.

All of this, don’t forget, is taking place in the context of an approaching economic recession exacerbated by the impact of coronavirus.[1] There is, quite simply, an urgent need to identify and promote a strategy that will allow working people to overcome this potentially ruinous situation.

It is imperative, therefore, to resist through developing structures capable of altering the balance of power. If this seems to be a purely theoretical aspiration, it need not be. In brief, working people can tap in to the unrealised strength that exists within the class and exercise it in their favour.

It is possible to do so, because the structures already exist, albeit not at present being utilised for this specific purpose. We have the trade union movement, with members in every part of the country. There are trades councils, community organisations and dedicated political activists throughout this land. We saw this powerful force mobilised during the Right2Water protest movement, so don’t say it can’t be done. Nor, indeed, as mentioned above, is there any shortage of issues on which to organise.

However, to succeed there needs to be a broad acceptance that any such movement is designed to create a countervailing working-class power base, something to challenge the influence exercised by the current ruling caste rather than a vehicle on which to build a parliamentary career.

Progress depends on promoting the widest participation and overcoming political sectarianism. Organisational maturity is essential. It is pointless, for example, to blame trade union officials for lack of action if members don’t participate actively at branch level. It’s equally futile to criticise the labour movement if workers do not unionise.

There is an alternative to building working-class counter-power and it’s not attractive. At its most wretched we would see the rise of the far right exploiting the despair and disenchantment so evident last month at the “no masks” rally in Dublin. At best there would be further misery arising from re-running social partnership or the “class cuddle,” as recently described in the Morning Star—a worrying prospect of either living with the far right or watching as good people fall among Fabians.

Nevertheless, there is no irresistible force taking us in either of these directions. We can and must do better. It would be necessary as a first step to convene a series of conversations identifying how to proceed. Thereafter, the difficult but eminently doable work needs to begin. It is, quite simply, very much in our class’s interest to do so.[2] As Connolly said, “when questions of ‘class’ interests are eliminated from public controversy a victory is thereby gained for the possessing, conservative class, whose only hope of security lies in such elimination.”


  1. See “Bankruptcy ‘a growth industry’ in US amid mounting distress,” Financial Times (London), 22 August 2020.
  2. James Connolly, Labour in Irish History (1910).