Sunday, July 19, 2015

Lessons from the Egyptian Revolution

Lessons from the Egyptian Revolution

John Molyneux

From Irish Marxist Review 13

Those who make a revolution halfway, dig their own graves!’. St.Just

The Egyptian Revolution of January 25 to February 11 2011 has been the greatest revolutionary struggle of the 21st century to date.

This is true first in terms of the level of mass mobilisation involved. For Trotsky, ‘the direct interference of the masses in historic events’ was ‘the most indubitable feature of a revolution’[1] and as Mostafa Ali wrote at the time, ‘The sheer numbers of those who participated in the uprising as well as their percentage compared to the total population is unprecedented and astonishing.’

It is estimated that between January 25, when the demonstrations started, and February 11, when the dictator Hosni Mubarak was toppled, at least 15 million people out of a population of 80 million--that is more than 20 percent of the population--took part in the mass mobilizations.
A friend of mine in Cairo reminded me--and he was probably bragging a little bit--that 15 million protesters exceeds the total number of people who participated in all the protests that took place in all the countries of Eastern Europe at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
It is true that young people led the charge on January 25, and that most of the 400 martyrs who were killed during the uprising were under the age of 30. But young people were not alone in the streets. From day one, the Egyptian uprising was a popular revolution. From day one, millions of workers, poor peasants, poor housewives and all sectors of society took part in the mobilizations across the country.[2]
Second, it was immense in terms of its immediate and concrete achievement. In just eighteen days of mass revolutionary struggle it secured the downfall of a hugely powerful dictator, previously seen as the unassailable strongman of the region.. As I wrote at the time, the fall of Mubarak
was nothing short of miraculous. Hosni Mubarak had ruled Egypt for thirty years, during which time he had been the world’s second biggest receiver of US aid (after Israel, of course) and had built the most formidable apparatus of power and repression. No one seems to be quite sure of the size of the Egyptian State Security, but, as everyone who has visited the town knows, Cairo on an ordinary day seemed to have cops on every street corner. Cairo, when anything untoward was afoot – an oppositional conference or a protest of some kind – resembled a city under military occupation. Moreover what every Caireen and, probably, every Egyptian knew was that these cops, these numberless State Security men, were systematic abusers and torturers.[See Aida Seif El Dawla ‘Torture: a state policy’ in Rabab El-Mahdi &Philip Marfleet,  Egypt: The Moment of Change, London 2009} And yet this formidable apparatus of power and oppression was smashed, beaten in open combat by an unarmed people fighting, more or less with their bare hands.[3]

Third, it was outstanding in terms of its inspirational effect internationally. Of course, the Egyptian Revolution was itself inspired by the Tunisian Revolution which secured the overthrow of Zinedine Ben Ali, just 11 days earlier, but it was events in Egypt that really set light to the Arab Spring. Egypt lacks oil but in other respects is the most important Arab country. With the largest population, the biggest cities (Cairo and Alexandria) and largest working class Egypt was, and remains, the key to change in the whole Middle East region, including change in Palestine. As Tony Cliff pointed out long ago ‘The road to Jerusalem runs through Cairo’.

Yet the fact is, and this needs to squarely faced, the Egyptian Revolution has been defeated. – from Alexandria to Aswan the old regime is back in power. On 25 January 2011 hundreds of thousands came on to the streets and defeated the police. On 24 January 2015, the eve of the anniversary, Socialist Popular Alliance Party activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh was taking part in a tiny demonstration of about 25 people to commemorate the martyrs of 2011 when was she was shot and killed. The next day – the actual anniversary – saw about 20 people killed, most of them in Matariya, one of the few places there is still regular resistance. The contrast could hardly be more stark.

And precisely this stark and bitter contrast obliges Marxists to reflect on the experience, draw up a balance sheet, and see what lessons can be learnt.

What not to learn

After every serious defeat there are always those who fall into despair. The rise of the revolution radicalizes people like wildfire because it raises their confidence in their own power and widens their horizons. The victory of counter revolution, inevitably, has the reverse effect driving people back into the isolation and alienation of their individual private lives. To many, especially those newly radicalized, it seems that their revolutionary hopes were just a passing illusion. They fall back into the received wisdom of what Gramsci called ‘common sense’, i.e. that mixture of nostrums, prejudices, partial truths, superstitions and impressions handed down to them through a multiplicity of channels from the ruling class, the most important and most deadly of which is ‘that nothing will ever change’  or, more precisely ‘You, the masses, can’t change anything’.

Even the relatively small minority who engage in theoretical debate are prone to this and in periods of reaction or counter-revolution all sorts of erstwhile revolutionaries search for ‘new’ ideas to justify their own collapse.  ‘The bourgeoisie has changed/ the working class has changed – they are now too strong/ we are now too weak.’ ‘There is something wrong with the national character of the Russians/ the Germans/ the British/ the Arabs/ the Irish or whoever’. ‘Revolutions always fail’.[4]

In the face of the inevitability of such responses both in Egypt and internationally it is necessary, first, to insist on some historical perspective.

The fact that, 167 years after Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto, capitalism rules the world means that the history of the revolutionary socialist movement is first and foremost a history of defeats – of defeats punctuated by victories as Tony Cliff used to say of the class struggle in the eighties. But there are defeats and defeats. The defeat of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, to which the Arab Spring was sometimes compared,  formed the foundation for a period of major capitalist expansion which ruled out revolution in the near future as Marx was obliged (by 1850) to recognize.

Given this general prosperity, wherein the productive forces of bourgeois society are developing as luxuriantly as it is possible for them to do within bourgeois relationships, a real revolution is out of the question. Such a revolution is possible only in periods when both of these factors — the modern forces of production and the bourgeois forms of production — come into opposition with each other….. A new revolution is only a consequence of a new crisis. The one, however, is as sure to come as the other.[5]
Consequently the International Communist League, for which Marx had written the Manifesto, was dissolved and he withdrew from virtually all direct political activity to concentrate on his economic researches until the revival of the movement and the foundation of the First International in 1864. But this is not the current situation. Neither global nor Egyptian capitalism is poised for a new golden age and, although it has recovered some what from the depths of 2008-10, the system is staggering along with generally low and faltering growth rates and with the underlying cause of the crisis, the falling rate of profit, unresolved.
Nor is the defeat of the Egyptian Revolution and the Arab Spring comparable in scale or depth to the succession of defeats suffered by the international working class in the 1920s and 30s. One has only to list the principle catastrophes of those years to see this: the defeat of the Hungarian Revolution, the failure of the German Revolution, the defeat of the Italian Red Years and the triumph of Mussolini, the crushing of the Chinese Revolution (1925-27), the betrayal of the British General Strike and crucially, as a consequence of these, the isolation of the Russian Revolution and the victory of the Stalinist counterrevolution which in turn fed into victory of Hitler in 1933 and Franco in Spain.
The cumulative effect of these defeats was to wipe out (literally) many of the advanced layers of the international workers’ movement and to drive authentic Marxism represented above all by Trotsky, to the absolute margins of the working class and society, thus postponing for decades the possibility of building genuine mass revolutionary parties. The defeat in Egypt, grievous as it is, does not have this definitive character, either nationally or internationally.
A more accurate parallel in my view is with the victory of the counter revolution over the Russian Revolution of 1905 through the Stolypin Coup of June 1907. Obviously the comparison is not, and cannot be, exact but it does at least give us an appropriate sense of historical scale.  
The Stolypin Coup restored the Tsarist autocracy to full power after the concessions  that had been wrung from it in 1905 and inaugurated a period of dreadful reaction. The number of workers taking strike action fell from 2.8 million in 1905, to 740,000 in 1907, 176,000 in 1908 and just 47,000 in 1910. There was ferocious repression.
During the dictatorship of Stolypin over 5,000 death sentences were passed and over 3,500 persons were actually executed – this was at least three times as many as during the whole period of the mass movement (not including of course shootings without trial, after the suppression of the armed insurrection).[6]
The Bolshevik Party was also severely damaged, membership in Moscow falling from over 5000 in 1906 to 150 by late 1908.
Nevertheless, despite immense difficulties the revolutionary continuity was not broken and the party survived. In 1910 the movement began to revive with student demonstrations followed by the beginning of a strike wave in 1911 and then, in response to the massacre of gold miners in Lena, revolutionary mass strikes in 1912 – the beginning of a movement that culminated in the Revolution of 1917.
Returning from the past to the current situation it is clear that the repression has been horrendous. On the 14 August 2013, the bloodiest single day, when Sisi’s armed forces attacked two Muslim Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo, at the very least i.e. on the government’s own reckoning 638 people were killed and 3,994 were injured but the figures given by the Muslim Brotherhood are, and with good reason, much higher with the claim that about 2,600 were killed at the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque sit-in alone. When it comes to arrests estimates range from about 16,000 to about 40,000 being held in prison. This has been accompanied by the grisly spectacle of mass death sentences being handed down by the courts such as the 683 sentenced to death in April 2014. So far these have not been carried out but the fear this generates is obvious.
However, for all its horror, the level of repression has not been such as to completely crush all resistance or to destroy and wipe out all the left. The main victims have been the Muslim Brotherhood but they have been able to mount regular protests, albeit at great cost, in their stronghold of Matariya in North Eastern Cairo. Other small scale demonstrations and protests continue to take place, including on some campuses and, most importantly the regime has not actually taken on and smashed the core of the working class. There continue to be significant strikes such as the 1,000 plus workers who went on strike at the Ain Sokhna port on 25 March demanding late share profits and allowances.[7]
Viewed dispassionately, this is counterrevolutionary violence of a significantly lesser order than not only the great counterrevolutions of the 20th century – Hitler, Stalin, Franco – but also Indonesia in 1965 (500,000 massacred) or Chile in 1973 (probably 30,000 killed) or Argentina’s ‘dirty war’ in 1974-83 (10-30,000 killed and disappeared). In other words, like 1907, it is atrocious but recoverable from in the not too distant future.
Also important is the international situation. As we have already noted (and I shall return to this point) the Egyptian Revolution was part of an international wave of struggle and that wave, known as the Arab Spring, was contained and defeated not only in Egypt but also in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Syria, producing other dreadful consequences such as ISIS. But this is not the whole of the Arab world. In Tunisia the democratic gains of the revolution remain partially intact(despite many of ‘the left’ collaborating with and helping to rehabilitate the old ruling part) [8]y intact and 2014 saw a political victory for Palestine over the Israeli aggression with Operation Positive Edge – solidarity with Palestine and the BDS campaign continues to grow despite the tsunami of Islamophobia.
Moreover, the Middle East is not the world. Marx pointed out in 1848 that ‘In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed’ and the immense globalised development of capitalism in recent decades has produced an immense international development of the working class. In today’s world every significant country possesses a proletariat which is a far larger proportion of the population than was the case in Russia in 1917 and in many cases is a majority.  Particularly striking is the degree of urbanization (not identical to proletarianisation, but clearly related to it): urbanization in Argentina is over 92%, Brazil 90.6%, Chile 89%, USA 84.5%,  Cuba, 75.5%, Iran 69%, Turkey 71%, South Africa 62%, and China 53.7% with the world figure standing at 52%.
This constitutes an immense reserve of potential power distributed across all five continents. It means that it is eminently possible to bounce back from terrible defeats in one country or zone (eg the Middle East) in another zone eg East Asia. Morover it is clear that the defeat in Egypt, and of the Arab Spring overall, did not halt or throw back the struggle in Southern Europe which it had helped to inspire. This article began by contrasting Cairo on the 25 January 2011 with Cairo on the 25 January 2015 but the 25 January 2015 was also the date of Syriza’s victory in Greece. It is also more than possible that just as the overthrow of Mubarak fed into the struggle in Spain and elsewhere so struggles and victories elsewhere can feed back into Egypt and the Middle East.
Of special importance in this context is China which has by far the largest proletariat in the world, numbering maybe 500 million or more. This immense social force the like of which has never before existed in world history is far from quiescent; it engages in strikes, demonstrations and riots on regular basis but so far they remain largely localized and the Chinese ruling class does its utmost, through a combination of concessions and repression, to keep them that way. But the moment the Chinese proletariat generalizes and starts to move on a nationwide scale it will be truly awesome in its power and will rock the world. Nor is the Chinese working class the only one capable of playing this role, merely the biggest.
This huge growth in urban wage labour and thus in the objective social power of the global working class is, in itself, reason not to abandon the revolutionary project but the moment we look to the future, and I mean not the next year or two but the next decade or or two it becomes clear that the objective conditions for international workers revolution will dramatically mature.
The combination of ongoing economic crises and turbulence shaped fundamentally by the underlying decline in the rate of profit and the rapidly worsening environmental crisis, of which climate change is the extreme but by no means the only expression, will lead humanity into a succession of social and political disasters and cataclysms resolvable only by socialist revolution or fascist barbarism. Even if capitalism were able to solve its economic crisis it will do so by means, namely restored economic growth, which will exacerbate climate change. Meanwhile the decline in the rate of profit inhibits capitalism, even if it were so inclined, from doing anything serious to halt runaway climate change.
To return to Egypt it does not require any special powers of foresight, rather it is necessary only to pose the question, to grasp the terrible impact of future climate change on a country which is mostly desert and utterly dependent on one great river which rises 3000 miles south of its southern border.
This combination of the tremendous forces for revolution and terrible price to be paid for failing to achieve it compel us to address the lessons of the Egyptian Revolution in a spirit of revolutionary optimism, clear that those lessons need to be learned so as to help win next time – for there will be another day.
The Main Lesson
The main overall lesson of the Egyptian Revolution is encapsulated in the quotation from St .Just at the head of this article: ‘Those who make a revolution half way dig their own graves’. The fact that this is a quote from St. Just signifies that this is hardly a new lesson. Tony Cliff observed
All revolutions start as half revolutions. The new co-exists with the old. Thus the February 1917 revolution got rid of the Tsar, got rid of the police, established the soviets, workers’ committees in the factories – all this was new. But the old survived: the generals remained in the army, the capitalists continued to own the factories, the landlords the land, and the imperialist war continued…
Since 1917 there have been many revolutions that went only half way and therefore ended with a counter-revolution.[9]
There are fundamental reasons why this should be so and they applied in full measure to Egypt.From the point of view of the bourgeoisie, capitalism cannot tolerate a risen people for any great length of time. The ‘normal’, i.e. successful, functioning of the system is incompatible with large numbers continually on the streets (they interfere with business!), regular mass strikes, workplace occupations, demands for participatory democracy etc. These things can, and will, be accepted for a time but only to gain time, so as to later to ‘restore order’ by returning the masses to passivity. Moreover, the ruling class will want, if it can, to take revenge on the revolution and punish the masses for ever having had the temerity to rebel and threaten ‘society as we know it’.
From the point of the revolutionary movement, mass revolutionary consciousness develops only in the course of revolutionary struggle. It is an illusion to believe that the majority, as opposed to a significant minority (the so-called ‘vanguard’) can first be won to revolutionary ideas, through propaganda and education, and then the revolution can be launched.. The dominance of bourgeois ideology, capitalist control of the media and education, and of innumerable institutions of civil society that monitor and manage people’s daily lives makes this impossible. But this means that if the level of struggle is not maintained, if the masses become either exhausted or complacent, their level of consciousness will also decline and start to fall back towards its ‘normal’ state.
This is why the momentum of revolutionary struggle has to be maintained and why revolutions that do not go forward are thrown back.
The Muslim Brotherhood, who were the main initial political beneficiaries of the Revolution*, did not have a clue about this. Like the most naïve and historically uninformed reformists they believed they could simply win the elections, take control of Egypt and run the country as a ‘normal’ bourgeois democracy on the basis of neo-liberal economics and in cooperation with the military and the rest of the state apparatus inherited from the Mubarak years, accompanied by a veneer of Islamism.
Immediately after the fall of Mubarak when SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) took over and revolutionary enthusiasm was at its height the Brotherhood opposed popular mobilization on the streets and worked with the army to pacify the situation. It set its face against any attempt to cleanse the state apparatus of its many mini-Mubaraks.
After their victory in the election the Morsi government continued this collaboration, while extending it to the international sphere: they pledged to ‘honour all Egypt’s international obligations’, which meant maintaining the treaties supporting Israel. They also hoped to keep ‘the international community’ sweet with orthodox neo-liberal economic policies which inevitably alienated their support among the working class and the poor. At the same time non-cooperation and sabotage by elements in the state apparatus and government departments made the Morsi government appear completely incompetent as basic services ceased working. Their only significant responses to were a Presidential decree in November 2012 (rescinded in the face of protests) and a Constitutional Referendum in December (narrowly passed on a very low turnout): moves that were probably designed to strengthen the hand of Morsi and his government vis-a-vis the military but were widely interpreted as a Muslim Brotherhood Islamist power grab, thus further antagonizing wide strata of the people. In this way the Muslim Brotherhood systematically prepared their own downfall.
To say the revolution must not stop half way means that revolutionaries must adopt as their strategic goal and orientation the establishment of workers’ power and the overthrow of capitalism as a first step towards international socialist revolution. In other words it is to adopt the perspective of permanent revolution first articulated by Marx in 1850, then elaborated by Trotsky in relation to the Russian Revolution of 1905 and later, to what became called the Third World in 1928. Only from a political standpoint that refuses to accept the limits of capitalist economic and social relations and rejects the logic of competitive capital accumulation is it possible to maintain the necessary momentum of the revolution.
In this context it is worth saying that the role played by the Muslim Brotherhood, despite its ideological peculiarities (i.e. its Islamism and consequently its lack of any socialist rhetoric or aspiration) was not fundamentally different from the role played by many other political parties and formations adhering to what is known as a ‘stages theory’ of social revolution. This is the idea that the strategy of the left should be first to achieve a democratic (or bourgeois democratic or anti-imperialist or national) revolution and the struggle for workers power and socialism should be put on hold till after this first stage has been consolidated. All those who accept this framework – whether they call themselves Marxists, communists, socialists, anarchists, nationalists or Islamists, whether they are Allende’s Popular Unity, the ANC in South Africa – are caught in what is essentially the same trap of demobilizing the very movement that brought them to power and imposing the logic and requirements of capitalism on their own social base.
The International Dimension
To invoke the perspective of permanent revolution is also to stress the international nature of the revolution. Marx and Engels grasped the fundamental international character of the working class movement and the socialist revolution as early as 1845 but the Egyptian Revolution was a spectacular demonstration of the fact that this basic principle is now more relevant and more true than ever before.
In the first place, both the underlying and the immediate causes of the Revolution were international in nature. The crisis of the Mubarak regime which developed over more than a decade was rooted in its neo-liberal economic policies
 [These] further integrated the Egyptian economy in an uneven way into the world capitalist economy and internally impoverished the vast majority of the population …The great recession that shook the globe in 2008 accelerated the crisis in EgyptEgypt is highly dependent on exports to Europe and these fell rapidly due to the drop in demand that followed contraction…the situation was worsened by the advent of the draconian austerity policies in Europe. Remittances from emigrants fell by 17 percent … tourism revenues also went from a rise of 24 percent in 2008 to a fall of 1.1percent and the Suez Canal revenues fell by 7.2 percent compared to 2008.
A third factor [was] the sharp rises in the costs of basic foods. Egypt’s dependence on imported food, particularly wheat, makes it difficult for the government to shield the economy from the effect of global food prices[10]
In terms of the development of resistance to the Mubarak regime the second Palestinian Intifada of September 2000 played an important mobilizing role as did the Iraq War of 2003 when 40,000 protested and Tahrir Square was occupied for 24 hours in what Naguib describes as a ‘rehearsal for the 2011 revolutionary occupation’ [11] Then, of course it was the Tunisian Revolution that provided the final spark.
However it was the speed of the response to the victory in Egypt i.e. the overthrow of Mubarak, that was really astonishing. On the day Mubarak fell, 11 February, I was outside the Egyptian Embassy with members of Egyptian community in Dublin. When the news came through they danced and sang in the street and one guy, evidently a Libyan, got out a picture of Colonel Gaddafi and held it up to the crowd. ‘Him next’, he said. And sure enough on the 17 February, six days later the Libyan Revolution began. But by then there was also already a revolt in Bahrain on the Pearl Roundabout ( starting 15 February). In Yemen protests in the capital, Sana’a, began on 27 January – two days after the beginning in Egypt – and by the 18 February and 11 March there were tens of thousands on the streets of Yemen’s main cities.
The Syrian Revolution was ‘slower’ to start. It did not begin until the 6 March when 12 teenagers in Daraa were arrested for writing on the walls of the city ‘The people demand the fall of the regime!’ – the great slogan from Tunisia and Egypt. By the 15 May the spirit of the Arab Spring  had leapt across the Mediterranean to Spain with the occupation of Puerta del Sol and other cities by the Indignados and by 25 May there were similar mass protests in Syntagma Square in Athens.
The revolutionary wave that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917 was far stronger and deeper than that in 2011 but the pace at which it spread was slower. The German Revolution did not break out till November 1918 – a whole year later. The Italian Red Years and the peak of the wave did not come till 1919-20.
What lies behind this increased pace is, of course, the development of the forces of production which has brought about greatly increased international economic and, consequently, cultural integration so that the same multinational corporations operate in downtown Cairo, in Istanbul, Madrid and London. On one side of Tahrir Square stands the Nile Hilton, on the other there is McDonalds. It is a fulfillment of Marx’s immensely prescient insight in the Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood... In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.
One part of this development is the enormous advance that has occurred in all forms of communication ranging from transport to social media. The role of social media has, of course, been the subject of much hype and the Egyptian Revolution has been depicted as if were a ‘twitter’ revolution, driven by mobile phones and the internet. This was clearly a massive exaggeration. When Mubarak shut down the internet in Egypt it did not halt the revolution but then neither did the use of social media prevent the triumph of the counter revolution. Nevertheless when it comes to spreading news and ideas internationally contemporary means of communication undoubtedly facilitate the process. When the revolutionary journalist John Reed, author of Ten Days that Shook the World, traveled from America to Russia in 1917 the journey took him over one month and then another two months to return to America in early 1918. Antonio Gramsci was not able to read the writings of Lenin until 1919 or later. By contrast the great street battles of the Egyptian Revolution were live streamed round the world on Al Jazeera and the revolutionary, Hossam el-Hamalawy, had tens of thousands of Twitter followers world wide.
Another corollary of this intense internationalization of the revolution, confirmed by the Egyptian experience is the bankruptcy of nationalism. Arab nationalism is haunted by the spectre of its greatest representative, Gamal Abdel Nasser but it is no accident that the half century since Nasser’s heyday has seen no comparable figure emerge in the Arab world, only grotesque caricatures such as Saddam Hussein and Bashar Al-Assad, who shared Nasser’s ability to repress the left but not his resistance to imperialism. Egypt’s leading Nasserist of recent years has been Hamdeen Sabahi, erstwhile leader of the Karama Party and then member of the National Salvation Front. During the Mubarak years Sabahi played an honourable role being arrested 17 times. He opposed the Iraq War and during those years he could be seen at the Cairo Conferences in the company of the likes of John Rees and John Rose.   He supported the 2011 Revolution and stood, more or less as the candidate of the left, in the 2012 Presidential Elections where he finished in third place with 21.5% of the vote, 700,000 behind the second place candidate, the military’s Ahmad Shafiq. Then ,in the course of 2012-3 he moved rapidly rightwards becoming a supporter of Al-Sisi and the military in their repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, thus becoming completely complicit in the counter revolution.
Lenin insisted a distinction be made between the nationalism of the oppressors and that of the oppressed. The former was wholly reactionary, the latter was progressive or rather contained a significant progressive element. The distinction was correct at the time and retains much relevance today. To see its importance one has only to compare the different political and ideological character of British and Irish nationalism. British nationalism, as it becomes more militant and emphatic leads from the Tory Party through UKIP to the EDL and BNP. Irish nationalism leads from Fianna Fail via Sinn Fein to republican socialism and James Connolly. **
** It should be noted that Ireland today is no longer a neo-colony or subordinate to British rule except in the Six Counties and this seriously modifies the role and nature of Irish nationalism but the fact that the whole nationalist/republican tradition was formed in struggle against British imperialism has significantly shaped its ideological formation.
Nationalism, because of its fundamentally bourgeois nature, has always had a propensity to collaborate with imperialism as Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang demonstrated in 1927, but the expansion and globalization of multinational capitalism has reduced the economic and political space for radical or anti-imperialist nationalism. It has also led to the emergence of a number of centres of independent capital accumulation and sub-imperialisms occupying intermediate positions usually in alliance with US or other major imperialist powers. This makes it very easy for nationalist political forces to turn into conservative or even reactionary formations, especially when they ally themselves with the military. Kemalism in Turkey is a prime example of this, as is Ba’athism in Iraq and Syria and the trajectory of Nasserism in Egypt, as personified by Sabahi, also reflects this.
The bankruptcy and failure of nationalism has also been a major factor in the emergence of Islamism as such a potent political force in the region in recent decades.

Strategy and Tactics
The necessity of the perspective of permanent revolution, ie of the strategic goal of workers’ power and international revolution does not mean, however, that applying this perspective in practice is simple matter of marching boldly forwards without regard for tactics, manoeuvres, and even compromises, sometimes of a difficult nature. The experience of the Egyptian Revolution demonstrated this again and again and it is an experience which has to be assimilated and learned from by both Egyptian revolutionaries and by the wider international movement. What follows here are a few examples.
The first is what I would call the danger of revolutionary intoxication. Revolutions, festivals of the oppressed, are exceptionally exhilarating experiences. We – the working class, the left, the oppressed, and the revolutionary activists – spend most of our time either being ground down by daily exploitation and drudgery or ‘banging our heads against a brick wall’ in frustrating, often unsuccessful, attempts to build resistance. When the masses come onto the streets in their millions and score victories over the forces of reaction and the state this is, of course, extraordinarily exciting. Anyone who watched, never mind actually participated in, events such as the battles of 25 January, the 28 January and the Battle of the Camel, and was not moved to the core by the experience is not a revolutionary. But this necessarily leads to certain illusions.
One of these was that revolution is primarily a matter of heroism and will power on the part of the revolutionaries: that the revolution in Egypt could and would be brought to a successful conclusion simply by occupying and defending Tahrir Square against all comers and repeating this in other cities until both the regime collapsed and all other evils were defeated. Heroism and will power are essential elements in any revolution but by themselves they are not enough.
It was necessary to recognize that the revolution was up against an extremely powerful and determined enemy: not just Mubarak and his immediate supporters, nor just the generals but an entire state and ruling class backed by international capital who would fight back again and again with both intelligence and utter ruthlessness. Defeating that enemy would require the revolutionaries -  the demonstrators and street fighters of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez – to be able to lead and win the support of millions of other workers and peasants in the workplaces, small towns and villages of Egypt as a whole, and therefore to learn how to reach them and lead them.
This is no easy matter. It is not easy for older ‘political’ people who, unavoidably, have spent years talking primarily to each other and it is not easy for the newly politically awakened intoxicated with their triumphs on the streets to even recognize that this needs to be done. One million people in a square or four million people marching through a town is an awesome phenomenon: in the midst of such a throng it is hard to remember that in a society of nearly 90 million there are many millions more sitting at home, some sympathetic, some not, observing the battles on the streets considering whether or not to throw in their lot with the revolution or stick with the traditional order of things.  And in the Egyptian Revolution this was particularly difficult for the many thousands of young street fighters for whom the revolution was their first and only political experience and who, inevitably, knew nothing of the history of previous revolutions and struggles.
To refer to the ‘youth’ of these revolutionaries is absolutely not to patronize or dismiss them. On the contrary they were the heroes of the revolution and its most precious asset. But if their youth and courage were priceless their lack of historical knowledge was a weakness and their necessity for the revolution’s future created a problem for more experienced revolutionaries who had to try to steer a path between alienating such invaluable people and simply tail-ending their impetuous voluntarism and adventurism.
Nevertheless it was necessary to insist on the need to put forward demands and develop a political practice that related to workers in the factories and peasants in the villages. Also essential was an electoral engagement  Of course this cut against the grain of many of the most ardent revolutionaries but the truth is that all the old arguments going back, at least, to Lenin and Left Wing Communism continued to apply. Not to contest elections was not to undermine the system but simply to leave that field open to the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Naturally an effective electoral intervention involved compromise -  the Revolutionary Socialists for example were too weak to mount such an intervention on its own – but it is possible that there could have been an effective mobilization by the far left around Hamdeen Sabahi’s presidential bid. Objections that Sabahi was ‘unprincipled’ or ‘an opportunist’ are true but miss the point that revolutionaries have to base their position not on an assessment of the individual’s character or integrity but on the objective significance of the candidate’s programme and campaign. In 2012  of the possible candidates Sabahi’s campaign probably represented the most progressive development.[12]
It was also necessary to vote in the final round of the Presidential election in 2012 for rhe Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi against the candidate of the military, Ahmed Shafiq. No matter how unpalatable this may have seemed that facts were that Shafiq was the last prime minister under Mubarak and his victory would have been a triumph for the counterrevolution and an invitation to cut the revolution’s throat, as Shafiq made clear at the time. As we know the whole idea of voting – in any circumstances – for the Muslim Brotherhood was anathema to many on the left both in Egypt and internationally, which raises not only the arguments about tactics and against ultra-leftism in general but also, and once again the nature of Islamism and specifically of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Problem of Islamism
There are few problems that have caused so much confusion and disorientation on the left over the last twenty years both in the Middle East and globally as the question of Islamism (otherwise known as Political Islam or, erroneously, as Islamic Fundamentalism).
One reason for this disorientation is the pressure created by the fact that since the ‘collapse of communism’ in 1989-91, and especially since 9/11 and ‘the War on Terror’ the US and and its allies have made Islamism their principle ideological target and Islamophobia the main contemporary form of racism. This has combined with the commitment of many on the left to a form of enlightenment secularism that is blind to its own class character and to its usefulness to imperialism, whether it is on the question of the veil in France or justifying war on Afghanistan and Iraq.
Another contributing factor is the merger in much of Global South of the Stalinist Communist tradition with middle class nationalism and anti-imperialism, usually under the banner of the stages theory of revolution. As a result of this there emerged a ‘left’ in many undeveloped countries which was based among the intelligentsia and quite separated from the working class maases whom it tended to view as ‘backward’ and ‘religious’. And for this left the project of change and socialism was very much a project of state capitalist economic development and modernization. This in turn led to a view of Islamism as even more of an enemy than the capitalist state and its armed forces.
All of this applied to a considerable extent to many on the Egyptian left both before and after the Revolution. At the same time the experience of the Egyptian Revolution demonstrates very clearly the necessity of a Marxist understanding of the whole phenomenon of Islamism and specifically of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.. Much of the theoretical work for this has been done, the key text being Chris Harman’s path breaking analysis of 1995, ‘The Prophet and the Proletariat’. Here I will simply summarise in bullet point form what seem to me to be key points.
1.      It is necessary to make an historical materialist analysis of all religious movements including Islamism. This means starting not from their professed doctrine but from the social forces which they express and represent.
2.      Contemporary Islamism is in general not a throw back to the 8th century or the middle ages or even an attempt to revert to such times. Rather it is a modern response to the modern phenomenon of imperialism, conditioned by the inadequacy of the nationalist and Stalinist responses.
3.      Just as there are many different political tendencies with a Christian colouration, ranging from Protestant Unionism in Northern Ireland to the Theology of Liberation in Latin America, so there are many different Islamisms of very different political character depending on their specific economic, social and political circumstances. Hamas is not at all ‘the same’ as ISIS and neither are ‘the same’ as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. A concrete analysis has to be made.
4.      The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was a cross class phenomenon. Its leadership was middle class and committed to capitalism but it was not the main party of the Egyptian bourgeoisie or even its second choice. It had developed a serious mass base among the lower middle class, the poor and even sections of the working class. It built this in large part by moving into the ‘welfare’ space vacated by the retreating neo-liberal state and became a substantial provider of services to the poor. Indeed it was both under Mubarak and after his fall the only real mass political organization in the country, dwarfing all others.
5.      The Muslim Brotherhood was seen by the masses the main opposition to the Mubarak regime. It was subject to sustained repression under that regime and although it was slow to support or join the 25 January Revolution its members, especially its youth, fought heroically in the Battle of the Camel and on other occasions.
6.      The MB had some of the features of a socially conservative religious/ nationalist organization, like Sinn Fein or Fianna Fail in the past. It also, because of its social base had some features of a reformist organization. It is a mistake to think that reformism only takes a shape that copies or resembles classic social democracy. Reformism derives from the contradiction in the consciousness of the working class between wanting a better society but lacking the confidence to create it themselves. It can therefore find expression in a wide variety of political formations ranging from the SNP to Syriza and the Muslim Brotherhood. These formations are not, of course, ‘the same’ – there is a spectrum with the Muslim Brotherhood at the conservative end of it and Syriza at the left (‘Marxist’) end but what unites them is that  they all promise a better world, a new beginning, real democracy etc, etc, but they all propose to deliver these good things while running capitalism.
Failure on the part of many on the left to grasp these points had very serious consequences. It led to an exaggerated fear that the Brotherhood was about to establish a theocratic dictatorship and to the radically false concept of Islamic fascism. It led to the terrible failings of the Muslim Brotherhood government which derived from its refusal to challenge the system or the state being attributed specifically to the Brotherhood. And it led to the disastrous conclusion by some that Al-Sisi and the military were a ‘lesser evil’ than the Brotherhood. All of this culminated in the events of 30 June – 3 July 2013.
The Coup
The events leading up to and surrounding the 3 July military coup posed what in my opinion were exceptionally difficult political and tactical problems for revolutionaries. It should be said at the outset that virtually everyone on the left, in Egypt and internationally (and I include myself in this) failed to grasp correctly what was happening in those days. Before trying to analyze this let’s briefly recap the main events.
In April 2013 a small group of activists led by Mahmoud Badr established an organization called Tamarod (Rebellion) which launched a petition of no confidence in President Morsi and demanded early elections. They said their aim was to collect 15 million signatures i.e. more than the 13 million votes with which Morsi had won the election. The petition gained massive popular support. Eventually Tamarod claimed, though the claim has not been verified, over 22 million signatures. On the basis of this Tamarod called on the Egyptian to come onto the streets in a huge demonstration on 30 June.
The 30 June demonstration in Cairo, and elsewhere in Egypt, was indeed huge. There are claims that with 14 million or more on the streets it was the largest demonstration in world history. Whether or not this figure is accurate or the claim true it is absolutely beyond question that the mobilization was utterly immense. The helicopter video footage leaves no room for doubt.[13]  The next day a million people occupied Tahrir Square .
Then on the 3 July, after continuing protests, the army, led by General Al-Sisi, intervened to arrest Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders and to depose the government.  This was met with acclaim by many of those on the streets. The Brotherhood responded by insisting on the ‘legitimacy’ of the Morsi presidency and their government and by organizing their own continuous  street protests. They established two street sit-ins, one near Cairo University in Giza and a larger one at Rab’aa in Nasr City. After nearly six weeks of ongoing protest on the 14 August the Al-Sisi regime dispersed the sit-ins by means of brutal massacres killing at the very least, i.e. by their own admission, 638 MB supporters and injuring and arresting thousands more.[14] The counter revolutionary coup was now firmly in place and sealed in blood.
The problem that has to be acknowledged and confronted is that the revolutionaries and the left, including the Revolutionary Socialists (clearly the most serious and principled socialist organization in Egypt) had supported and participated in the Tamarod campaign, and hailed the 30 June demonstrations as a ‘revolutionary wave’.. Also when the military intervened on 3 July the Revolutionary Socialists did not support this but did believe that it would prove a kind of ‘soft coup’ which would not seriously derail or halt the onward march of the Revolution.
So was it a mistake ever to have supported the Tamarod petition and movement? This question has particular force since it has subsequently come out that Mahmoud Badr and the Tamarod leaders were in league with the military from the outset and after the coup they backed all the repression including the 14 August massacre. Nevertheless I would not make this criticism. I think it was impossible not to support Tamarod at the beginning. It appeared to have developed out of the revolution and it couched its demands in the language of the revolution and in terms of developing the revolution. Moreover it was backed by the April 6 Youth Movement, the main organization of revolutionary youth, and there is no doubt that it articulated genuine grievances felt by the Egyptian masses.
When it became clear that Tamarod was aligning itself with the military, as for example when it was endorsed by Ahmed Shafiq and the endorsement was accepted[15], it was necessary for revolutionaries to break with it and the Revolutionary Socialists did so albeit only at the last moment[16]. But it was still necessary to participate in the 30 June mass demonstrations. This was a real revolt from below, a real upsurge of the masses on the basis of issues – economic hardship and democracy – that socialists support. Socialists could not sit at home with folded arms saying we don’t like the leaders, we’re having nothing to do with it [17]. Unfortunately there was also a real mass mobilization of the counter revolution on the streets in the same place, at the same time. Revolutionaries had to take part with the aim of winning the masses to a revolutionary perspective. The problem was that the consciousness of the masses was hugely uneven and the military were able to exploit this to intervene, ostensibly on behalf of the masses, in reality to establish their own dictatorship.
Our weakness was our inability to stop this happening or to rally the masses against it. This weakness was a product of the balance of forces – the fact that socialist ideas still had relatively little traction and that massive illusions in the army were still prevalent, even among many would be revolutionaries. (It must be remembered that the army had not been used publicly and in a mass way against the 2011 revolution).  If all the so-called progressive forces, the liberals, the left and so on – the El Baradei’s and Hamdeen Sabahi’s etc – who claimed to embody the spirit of the Revolution had raised their voices against the military such a rallying of the masses might have been possible. But they did not; overwhelmingly they backed the military.
In these circumstances our mistake was to be too slow to see what was happening. It is in general right and essential for revolutionaries to be inspired by the masses on the streets but in this instance we allowed ourselves to be somewhat mesmerized and intoxicated by the sheer numbers and thus not were clear enough about the imminent danger. We simply assumed that the risen people would be able to sweep the generals aside or at least prevent the consolidation of their power. We underestimated the unevenness in their consciousness. 14 August came as a rude and terrible awakening.
This was a mistake but an understandable one and in the wider scheme of things relatively minor.[18] But it is worth learning the lesson. It is worth remembering that there are moments when the right and the counterrevolution can also mobilize masses on the streets, particularly when those masses face desperate circumstances and do not see a progressive alternative.
Sameh Naguib of the Revolutionary Socialists has made this point in a very insightful interview which I have listened to but do not have a transcript of. He also explains the astute way in which Al-Sisi and the generals were able to build mass support by playing on a raft of people’s concerns. These included the fear of the Coptic Christians (10% of the population) that they would be persecuted by the Morsi Government and Islamism, public concern about the breakdown of ‘security’ and ‘order’ which became a real worry in circumstances in which the state apparatus was barely functioning ( in order to sabotage the Brotherhood). All of which reinforces, as he says, the need of revolutionaries to take these questions of oppression very seriously.
Preparing for the Future
In Egypt, and across the Middle East, there are now millions of people who have participated directly in revolution. They are currently dispersed, cowed and demoralized. But, as we argued in the first part of this article,  the time will come when that will change and when it does those people will remember and learn from the experiences of 2011-13, just as in 1917 the workers of Petrograd remembered and learned from the revolution of 1905. In the meantime everything in this article is written with a view to preparing for this future in Egypt and internationally. All revolutions have their national peculiarities but they also have a huge amount in common, numerous features that derive not from their location but their character as revolutions.
These are arguments are not addressed to thin air. They are written for those actively engaged in the difficult work of building for the next revolutionary upsurge, the most important element of which is the building of a revolutionary party. The revolutionary is the memory of the working class, the means by which these collective experiences of struggle which both the counter revolution and the reformists will try to expunge from history can be analysed and transmitted to the next generation.
If we examine the key arguments advanced in this article and the key turning points in the Revolution they all point to the necessity of building the revolutionary party. The problem of fighting for the strategy of permanent revolution against all versions of stages theory; the problem of avoiding revolutionary intoxication and reaching out to the masses beyond the squares; the problem of ultraleftism based on inexperience; the problems of tactics and correctly estimating complex and contradictory situations: all of these require a revolutionary party and one with real roots in the working class. As Lenin put it it:
 It is, in fact, one of the functions of a party organisation and of party leaders worthy of the name, to acquire, through the prolonged, persistent, variegated and comprehensive efforts of all thinking representatives of a given class, the knowledge, experience and—in addition to knowledge and experience—the political flair necessary for the speedy and correct solution of complex political problems. [19]
Many thanks are due to Anne Alexander and Wassim Wagdy for reading the draft of this article and for their helpful comments. Needless to say any errors in the article and its main political judgments are entirely my responsibility.

[1] Leon Trotsky, Preface to The History of the Russian Revolution,.
[2] Mostafa Ali, ‘The Spring of the Egyptian Revolution’

[3] John Molyneux, Reflections on the Egyptian Revolution,

[4] For a response to this particular argument see John Molyneux, ‘Do revolutions always fail?’

[6] Strikes statistics cited in Tony Cliff, Lenin, Vol 1 Building the Party ,London 1975, p.238 and quote from M.N Pokrovsky cited in Cliff, as above p.238.

[7] As reported in the Egypt Independent, 5 April 2015,

[8] Thanks to Anne Alexander for this point.
* The Brotherhood were by far the largest and best known opposition force during the Mubarak regime. In the same way when the Tsar was overthrown in February 1917 initial mass support went to the Cadets, SRs and moderate socialists and when the Kaiser was overthrown by the German Revolution of 1919 it was the Social Democrats who came to the fore.
[10] Sameh Naguib, ‘The Egyptian Revolution’, London 2011, p.3,11-12
[11] As above, p.8.
[12]  As Wassim Wagdy has pointed out to me there was also the candidacy of Khaled Ali, who came from the radical left and who got about 140,000 votes. Khaled Ali was clearly politically better than Sabahi but he was also not really a serious player in the election.
[13] See However it should be noted that this is an army helicopter.
[14] According to Human Rights Watch which called it "one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history”, a minimum of 817 people were killed in Rab’aa Square alone and the Muslim Brotherhood claimed about 2,600.

[16] Wassim Wagdy has informed me that he thinks the Revolutionary Socialists were late in making this break and failed to make the break public – a ‘big mistake’ in his words.

[17] It should be remembered that the March to the Winter Palace in 1905 which resulted in the Bloody Sunday massacre and sparked the 1905 Revolution was led by the priest Father Gapon who turned out to have been a police agent.
[18] The Revolutionary Socialists published an article about 6 days after the coup saying that the army is bringing back Mubarak’s regime and bringing stability to the ruling class. tell us to stop strikes now”. Also, on 26th July, when Sisi asked for people to go onto the streets to give him “authorization” to stop terrorism. The RS were the only political group to issue a statement condemning this and calling on people not to go on demo and  warning  that such planned demos would cause the loss of the revolution. [I owe these points to Wassim Wagdy].
[19] V.I.Lenin, Left Wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Ireland's Shame, Syriza's Climbdown

Ireland’s Shame, Syriza’s climbdown

Written for Irish Socialist Worker online at

To its great shame the Irish Government, and Finance Minister Michael Noonan in particular, have played a disgraceful role in lining up with the IMF and the EU institutions to inflict further suffering on the Greek people. Noonan joined forces with his German counterpart Wolfgang Schaeuble to intensify pressure on the Syriza government to abandon its commitments and impose even more austerity on its people.

The motives of the EU institutions, which represent the interests of European big business and banks, are clear. They want to punish and humiliate Greece to ensure that no alternative model to their neoliberalism and austerity can look credible. Noonan and the Irish Government share this goal because any example of successful defiance by Greece would expose their own shameful compliance with the Troika at the expense of their own people.

All this makes the climbdown of the Syriza government in the face of this pressure the more regrettable for Greek people, the Irish people and all the working people of Europe.

It is likely that Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis will try to claim that the deal is a ‘fair compromise’. Unfortunately this does not fit the facts. There is nothing ‘fair’ about it. As Stathis Kouvelakis, a leading left wing figure in Syriza, has said:

"The list of the measures of the new austerity package proposed by the Syriza government is absolutely depressing. They amount to a total of €8 billion for the next two years (2.7 for 2015 and 5.2 for 2016) distributed in cuts and increase in taxes and social contributions.
The proposed increases in taxes include an rise of the VAT, an indirect "flat" tax hitting disproportionately low-income people, expected to bring 0.7 billion this year, and the double next year. A total of extra 1.8 billion is expected to come in the next two years from a pension "reform", via the restrictions in early retirement and the rise of the contributions of wage-earners for their pensions and their health coverage… The privatizations will go on as scheduled by the previous government with some minor changes in the procedure. ….Needless to say that all the "red lines" have been crossed and that very little is left of Syriza's programme….Needless also to say that a new 8 billion "purge" to a country that had already lost 25% of its GDP can only lead to further recession, poverty and unemployment.”

Sadly this climbdown by Syriza marks the culmination of 5 months of treating the EU institutions, not as enemies of working people, but as ‘friends’ and ‘partners’ in the belief that it would be possible either to charm, persuade or outwit them into cutting a reasonable deal. Unsurprisingly, and as Socialist Worker has warned from the outset, the EU vultures have simply seized on this weakness to press home their attack.

Even now it is clear that they will be not be satisfied and that having got their ‘pound of flesh’ they will ask for more. For them, as always with the 1%, the suffering of the people - the poverty, the unemployment, the evictions and homelessness, the suicides – are just ‘collateral damage’ in their war to defend their profits and their system.

This is why Kouvelakis asks, “Will this downward spiral stop before its too late?’ and says “It’s more than time for the social movements and the combative forces of the Left to wake up and fight!”.

Antarsya, the main organisation of the revolutionary left in Greece, supports this and is calling for a united front with the Syriza Left to launch an immediate  fight back, mobilising the Greek working people on the streets and in the workplaces.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

People Power and Real Democracy

 This is a popular pamphlet, published by Irish SWP, and written on the basis of the experience of the great water charges revolt in the autumn of 2014.

People Power and Real Democracy

‘Enda in your ivory tower
This is called people power!’

(Popular chant on the water charges protests)

Anyone who has participated in the great people’s revolt against the water charges, in blocking the installation of water meters in their area, in the magnificent 100,000 strong demonstration on 11 October, in the even larger local demonstrations of 1 November, the huge assembly of 100,000 at the Dáil on the working day of 10 December or in many other local actions and assemblies, has had a taste of people power. And they will know how good it feels – people standing up at last!

Water is a human right and the water charges are fundamentally unjust but, as everyone knows, the revolt has not just been about water. Water charges are the final straw after six years of making people pay for the debts, follies, and crimes of the bankers and the rest of the rich.

 The protests are an expression of people’s accumulated anger over wage cuts, job losses, housing shortages, cutbacks, extra charges and the whole rotten system. Never, in the history of the state, has there been such disillusionment with the whole political establishment.

This pamphlet argues that in the people power that has been seen on the streets and in the meeting halls of Ireland in the autumn of 2014 lies the seeds of a fundamentally different politics – a new system based on real democracy and accountability instead of the corrupt dictatorship of the rich masquerading as democracy that we have at the moment.

The Rotten System

People are furious with politicians. And let’s be clear – their rage is justified. People feel let down, betrayed, tricked and robbed. They have been.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – the two parties that have dominated Irish politics for the last eighty years – are a disgrace.

For a long time most Irish working class people voted Fianna Fail because of its republican past, its roots in the community and its populist talk. But Fianna Fail abused people’s trust and turned into a den of corruption and cronyism symbolised by Charlie Haughey, Bertie Aherne and the Galway Tent.

When the Celtic Tiger was roaring they abandoned all attempts at regulation and used their power to enrich themselves and their banker and developer friends. When the Tiger crashed in 2008 they used their power to bailout the bankers, protect the rich bondholders and shift the burden of debt onto ordinary people.

Fine Gael promised change – they even talked of ‘a political revolution’ – but when they got in in 2011 it was just more of the same. If anything they were even harder on working class people with more austerity, cuts and charges, while continuing the stroke politics and cronyism with ministers like Alan Shatter and James Reilly.

For working class people the betrayal by the Labour Party is even harder to swallow. Fine Gael was always and clearly a party of the rich and the upper middle classes but Labour was founded by James Connolly and supposed to represent the interests of workers. In 2011 it campaigned on the basis that it would protect people from the brutal austerity policies of Fine Gael and the Troika ‘It’s Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way’ said Eamon Gilmore. But when they went into coalition with Fine Gael they forgot all that.

The fact that in the past other small parties have followed the same route from fine words to foul deeds – the Greens in coalition with Fianna Fail and the Workers Party collapsing into Labour – contributes to the feeling that ‘they are all the same’. The betrayal by the leaders of the Workers Party was particularly damaging because the party had built a real network of working class activists.

Then there is the question of Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein have risen spectacularly in the polls recently as they have mounted strong attacks on the Government from the left with spokespersons like Marie Lou McDonald doing a good job of expressing how people feel. But there are two big question marks over Sinn Fein. One is that they don’t seem fully on board with the people’s movement from below – over the water charges they had to run to catch up with the protests – and sometimes it looks like they just turn up for the photo opportunity. The second is their record in the North. In the North Sinn Fein, in coalition with the DUP, are implementing austerity and cuts (including the installation of 30,000 water meters) on a massive scale.

This raises the serious prospect that if Sinn Fein gets into government they may form a coalition with Fianna Fail or others and go the same way as Labour, the Workers Party and the Greens, namely sell out the people who elected them.

This leaves the Independents and the Left like the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit. Independents are popular at the moment, for obvious reasons – they are not FF, FG or Labour  - but the problem is being an ‘independent’ only tells you what someone isn’t, not what they are. So there are there some ‘independents’ like Clare Daly who have a real record of fighting with and for working people but there are others like Michael Healy-Rae (and Jackie Healy-Rae before him) and Lucinda Creighton who are really just semi-detached Fianna Failers and Fine Gaelers.

The genuine left – the AAA and People Before Profit – are significantly different. This is shown by their record in the struggle over the Household Charges and the Water Charges and many other campaigns – by what they do as well as what they say. But even we can’t just say to people ‘Trust us, vote for us and we’ll make things better. We won’t go the way of Pat Rabitte and Eamon Gilmore’.

There needs to be an explanation of why so many politicians have betrayed people and there needs to be a different politics based on people power so that representatives who sell out are held accountable and removed.

A Fake Democracy

We are always told in Ireland and internationally that we live in a democracy; that the people rule (the word democracy means rule by the people) by freely electing the government on the basis of one person one vote. But it doesn’t work – in reality the rich and the elite always come out on top. This is not just the case in Ireland but in the US, Britain, France, Germany and so on. This is not just because of bad or corrupt politicians; it goes deeper than that to the whole nature of the system.

There are three basic problems with parliamentary democracy as it now exists and they apply as much to the US Congress, the UK Parliament, and the German Reichstag as they do to Dáil Eireann.

1. Real power is not in Leinster House (or the US Congress etc).  The story we are told in school, by the media and the politicians themselves is that we elect a government to run the country. But this is just a façade. Politicians ,and particularly the leading government ministers, do have some power but ultimately it is much less than two other groups of people: big business, bankers, financiers etc and those who run the state (army, police, judges, top officials etc).

The Dáil is a talking shop. Precisely because of this it can be and is used by some TDs like Richard Boyd Barrett, Clare Daly and Paul Murphy, to raise issues and put the people’s case, and that’s very helpful, but the Dáil doesn’t really run the country. The key decisions, decisions about production and investment, finance and the economy, are not made in the Dáil, or even the cabinet, but in the boardrooms of the corporations and banks – by ‘the markets’ as they are conveniently called to make them seem anonymous. And in a capitalist system they are made on the basis of profit not human need.

As they say, when anyone suggests taxing the rich or the corporations – they will just take their money out of the country. This acknowledges that these people care only about their profits and not about the needs of the people. ‘Tax our wealth and we are off! Never mind where that leaves schools or hospitals or the poor.’

And while we elect TDs we do not elect the heads of corporations or banks. There is absolutely nothing democratic about their power. However they are able to use that power to undermine and systematically pervert our so-called ‘parliamentary democracy’ in their interests.

They do this not only by bribing individual politicians and political parties (though this certainly happens) but also by their close ties to the heads of the state apparatus with whom they share the same background and outlook and have a multitude of connections so that judges, police and army chiefs and senior civil servants serve them and protect them rather than serving the ordinary people. No matter what it says in the constitution there is always one law for the rich and another for the poor. Bankers don’t go to jail!

2. The economic power of the rich also undermines the election process itself. Elections in Ireland and elsewhere are ‘free’ in that you can vote for whom you like and the results are not generally rigged. But they are not ‘fair’ or ‘equal’ because money plays a huge role in every election. Posters, leaflets, meeting rooms etc – all the paraphernalia and materials of elections – cost money and the parties that represent the interests of the rich have enormously more resources than those that fight for working people. This makes a huge difference. In America this is pushed to an extreme so that without big corporate backing it is virtually impossible to run a national presidential campaign but it still applies in Ireland. Clearly the likes of Denis O’Brien, Dermot Desmond and Michael O’Leary are not going to donate to the People Before Profit election fund.

Even more importantly the right wing parties have the media on their side. The bias of the media is always somewhat disguised, RTE, for example is supposed to be neutral, but in reality they constantly send out the message that only the ‘mainstream’ parties are to be taken seriously and that any alternative is just unrealistic fantasy if not downright wicked.

This is not just a question of direct comment at election time but of the general climate of opinion they foster and create all the year round. The media may well allow Fine Gael and the ‘opposition’ Fianna Fail to knock lumps off each other about who is better at running the system but they always encourage the view that the present system itself is inevitable, and that there is nothing that can be done about it.

3. This is all made worse by the absence of accountability. Once they are elected TDs are not seriously accountable to those who elected them for the next five years. This leads to the well known ‘Pat Rabbitte syndrome’ where ‘what you do at elections’ is make promises and what you do after is break them, and there is nothing the electorate can do about it till it’s far too late.

Here the key problem is that in the present system people vote as separate isolated individuals and not as part of any collective discussion or meeting and this leaves them powerless to hold TDs accountable between elections.

Actually, behind the scenes, the super-rich do have means of controlling ‘their’ TDs and keeping them accountable (to the rich). They have all sorts of ‘incentives’ and inducements and jobs for the boys they can offer or withdraw at will but ordinary people obviously do not have any of these available to them.

All these factors combine to ensure that the system as a whole, far from working in the interests of the majority, consistently serves the better off and above al the super-rich millionaires and billionaires who control major economic resources. Rather than being called democracy it should be called capitalist democracy – democracy for the capitalists.

This cannot be remedied just by electing better or more honest TDs. It needs a fundamentally different system. This is where people power comes in.

People Power and Real Democracy

The people power that has developed in Ireland over the last few months has had a number of elements to it.

First there was the resistance to water metering in working class estates such as Clondalkin, Edenmore and Coolock. Often this began with street meetings outside people’s homes and then led to blocking installation of water metres early in the mornings. People just got together and organised themselves forming networks and telephone trees in their neighbourhoods.

Then came the great demonstration of the 11 October when 100,000 or more marched through the centre of Dublin. This was called by the national Right2Water campaign which is an alliance involving five trade unions, People Before Profit (who helped take the initiative in setting it up), Sinn Féin, the Anti-Austerity Alliance, and various other political and community groups and left TDs. This shows that some political leadership is needed to provide a focus but there is no doubt that the driving force on the day was the massive turnout from local working class communities across the country which took everyone, including the organisers, by surprise. It was this that gave the march its spontaneous carnival-like character so different from a top-down bureaucratically controlled demonstration.

Then there were many local assemblies to decide what to do next. Some people, especially the Dublin Says No group, wanted a repeat demo in Dublin city centre. Others, including Right2Water, argued for local demonstrations. In the end both happened on 1 November but it was the local demonstrations tactic that ultimately predominated with extraordinary turnouts in virtually every area of Dublin from Blanchardstown to Dundrum and virtually every town in the state from Letterkenny to Wexford.

Since then there have more Local Assemblies, many very big, to plan and build for the National Assembly at the Dáil on 10 December. On the 10th itself the crowd was too large and too awkwardly distributed and the weather too cold to allow for real debate but proposals were put to the people for their endorsement and those proposals included a call for more local assemblies in the January feeding into a proper delegate based national assembly in  February. Also a number of the platform speakers on the day, especially Shea Lestrange from Crumlin Says No and Richard Boyd Barrett TD of People Before Profit, spoke explicitly about developing new models of democracy.

Certain characteristics of the movement have been particularly striking throughout. First and foremost its working class composition. There is nothing wrong with middle class people or students taking part in demonstrations but it is an observable fact that from the resistance on the estates onwards this has primarily been a mobilization of the working class and the manual working class at that.

 Then there is its collective, community character. It is clear that in many areas whole working class communities have made collective decisions to oppose the water charges. This doesn’t mean every single person  attends the demo or the local campaign meeting – of course that doesn’t happen because people have lives to live – but those who do attend  feel they are representing their whole community.

Finally there is its democratic bottom up character. One aspect of this was a degree of hostility in some parts of the campaign to all politics and all political parties. This was a weakness but it seems to have faded as the struggle has developed. However it is a strength of the movement that it is full of initiative from below and not willing to be simply led or said by any one party, trade union leader or other figure head. And at the local assemblies the grassroots do really get to debate issues and take decisions.

It is all these features of this movement that enable us to see in this rise of people power not only a highly effective way to fight the water charges but also the embryo of something much bigger: a different way of running society – a real democracy.

What we are talking about here is extending the principle of ordinary people gathering together in their communities to decide issues in the water charges campaign to doing the same thing in relation to wider issues in society. Of course it wouldn’t be practical for these assemblies to discuss every detail of policy anymore than the Dáil or the Council can but they would be able to decide basic principles and priorities and we could be sure those priorities would be very different from the priorities of Enda Kenny.

Also such assemblies would be able to hold their TDs and other representatives to account and remove them if they broke their promises. Both Eamon Gilmore and Richard Boyd Barrett are TDs for Dun Laoghaire. Why should they not be answerable to a monthly or quarterly Dun Laoghaire People’s Assembly?  And why shouldn’t the same apply to Pat Rabbitte TD and Paul Murphy TD in Dublin South West or to Cllr Brid Smith and Cllr Daithi Doolin in Balleyfermot/Drimnagh?

One obvious objection to this is that you wouldn’t be able to fit all the people of Dublin South West into an assembly even in the largest hall or sports ground. But that could easily be overcome by having smaller local assemblies in Jobstown or Saggart or wherever, who elect recallable delegates to the Dublin South West Assembly. Also you would clearly need to have a national People’s Assembly to decide the main national issues. But that would be straightforward too – Dun Laoghaire or Dublin South West would simply elect recallable delegates to the National Assembly. In fact that is what Richard Boyd Barrett or Paul Murphy would become IF they were so chosen by the people.

What is important here is not the detailed arrangements which would be worked out by people themselves and depend on all sorts of concrete circumstances but the principle of a structure which is rooted among ordinary people with collective debate and discussion and accountability all the way up and all the way down.

There is another crucial factor that has to be taken into account. We have said that the Dáil, like other parliaments in capitalist democracy, is just a talking shop because it doesn’t control the major economic resources of the country which are in the hands of big business. The same would apply to any system of People’s Assemblies if they didn’t establish their control of the economy.

To do this they would have to take the main corporations and major industries (not every corner shop and small trader) into public ownership and they would have to place them under the control of their workers. If this were not done the likes of Denis O’Brien, Dermot Desmond and Michael O’Leary would either use their wealth and power to undermine the new system, which they certainly would hate, or try to take all of their money out of the country and sabotage it that way.

Public ownership of the main industries would make it possible to plan the economy and provide full employment and decent housing, education and health care for all. People’s assemblies and workers control would ensure that this planning and social ownership was genuinely democratic. It would be real democratic socialism not the kind of bureaucratic dictatorship that existed in Russia and Eastern Europe. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be combined with real freedom of speech and debate and different political groups or parties competing for influence within the assemblies.

Let’s just explore a bit further the idea of workers’ control of workplaces which is very unfamiliar in this society. In this society almost all workplaces are run hierarchically and there is no democracy at work, only managers and bosses. But the fact that something doesn’t exist now doesn’t mean it could never happen.

To see how it would work consider a school – an institution we all know. To run a school under workers’ control you would first have an assembly of those who work in and use the school - teachers, students, support staff plus parents and community representatives. This assembly could then elect a management team ensuring teacher/pupil/support staff / parent etc representation and they would run the school appointing people to specific tasks (organising the Maths department or whatever).

The same approach could be applied to hospitals (with a team of doctors, nurses, staff, users etc), to supermarkets, factories and any large scale workplace.  Once again it is not the specific detail that is important but the principle.

Of course all the establishment politicians and most of the professional journalists and TV pundits would scoff at all this and dismiss it as fantasy just as they dismissed as fantasy any idea that the Irish people should burn the bondholders or not pay for the debts of the bankers. Most of them don’t believe that ordinary people are capable of running either their work places or society just as back in the day the same sort of people thought that black people wouldn’t cope with not being slaves or that society would fall apart if ordinary people had the vote or that Ireland wouldn’t manage if it wasn’t ruled by England.

But think about it! Isn’t it the people who actually do the work who know best how that work should be organised? Wouldn’t hospitals run by doctors and nurses be better than hospitals run by overpaid managers appointed by James Reilly and Leo Veradkar?

And wouldn’t ordinary people make better decisions about keeping water as a human right, fixing the leaks, funding disadvantaged schools and housing the homeless than Enda Kenny, Denis O’Brien and Joan Burton?

Examples of People Power

Making the case for people power and real democracy would be much easier if we could simply say look how well it works in China or Sweden or Italy or other places; why don’t we copy them. Unfortunately we live in a thoroughly capitalist world and the rich and the corporations dominate pretty much everywhere[1]. This is why the world is such a messed up place with 368 billionaires owning as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population and the planet careering towards climate disaster and environmental destruction.

But this doesn’t mean there haven’t been many examples of real people power from which we can learn and which prove that democracy and equality are not pipedreams.

In March 2011, inspired by the Revolution that overthrew the dictator Mubarak in Egypt, a huge people’s movement erupted in Spain. Hundreds of thousands of mainly young people occupied Puerta del Sol, the main square in Madrid, followed by Placa Catalunya, the main square in Barcelona and then many others across the country. One of the main issues that provoked this was a desperate housing crisis and evictions but it was also driven by a general anger at the political elite and a demand for something better. ‘They don’t represent us!’ and ‘Real democracy now!’ were the movements two main slogans.

The movement became known at the indignados – the indignant – and it tried to practice the direct democracy it preached through making its decisions at mass democratic assemblies in the Squares. When, eventually, the occupiers were forced to leave the squares these democratic people’s assemblies continued in the local areas.

At the beginning the movement was very anti-politics and opposed to all political parties but as time passed this changed and people saw the need for a political alternative. Early in 2014 they formed a new radical party called Podemos (‘We Can’) which, amazingly, topped a recent opinion poll. It has transformed the Spanish political landscape.

In the autumn of 2011 the example of the indignados, including the practice of mass democratic assemblies, was taken up by the Occupy movement in America. For a while, until it was brutally dispersed by the US police, it had an electrifying effect both in America and internationally and succeeded in popularising the idea of ‘the 1%’ which is a very good way of describing the tiny minority of super-rich who dominate in Ireland, the US and the world.

However the indignados and Occupy are only recent instances of traditions of people power and genuine democracy that stretch right back to the dawn of history. For at least 90% of human history, from about 100,000 years ago, when modern humans first appeared, to about 10,000 years ago when agriculture developed, people everywhere lived in conditions of basic democracy and equality.

This was the epoch of hunting and gathering. People lived in small nomadic groups or clans of about 40 or so and lived off animals they hunted or food they could gather moving continually from place to place within a certain large area. No individual or group accumulated more property than they could carry on their backs and there was no division into rich and poor or rulers and ruled. Women were also much more equal to men than they were later in history. Decision making in these clans was on the basis of collective discussion and consensus. Some people, particularly elders, may have had more influence than others but noone was leader or dictator.

Hunter gatherer societies with their basic democracy started to be displaced about 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture. This brought with it the accumulation of wealth and property – for some – while others were forced to work for them as peasants or slaves. The rich then developed armies, police, prisons and laws to protect their privileges. This led to the kind of tyrannical societies like Egypt, Rome and China, with their Pharaohs, emperors and slaves that we know from the Ancient world.

These aggressive empires overwhelmed and drove out the democratic hunter gatherer societies but these early democracies didn’t disappear completely. They survived in less accessible places such as among the Inuit (Eskimos), Native Americans, Amazon tribes, Australian Aborigines, South Pacific islands and many parts of central and southern Africa until they were encountered and conquered by modern capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Then they were studied by various anthropologists which is how we know of their existence today.

Interestingly a form of this early democracy survived until the twentieth century here in Ireland on the Blasket Islands off the Kerry coast [It can be read about in An tOileánach (The Islandman) by Tomas Ó Criomhthain and Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years A-Growing) by Muiris Ó Súilleabhain] and on the remote island of St.Kilda off the west coast of Scotland. Unfortunately modern capitalism is such a dominating and all encompassing system that these ‘primitive’ democracies were overwhelmed and did not survive.

They are not a model we can simply copy today in the world of planes, big cities and the internet but they remain important because they show that real equality and democracy are not at all contrary to human nature as is so often claimed.

Another historical example is the democracy in Ancient Athens in the 5th century BC. Again this is not at all a model we should follow today because it was a system that excluded slaves (the main workforce) and women (Ancient Greece was very much male dominated). Nevertheless 20-30,000 adult male citizens attended the Assemblies which met at least ten times a year and voted on the main issues facing the city. Given that Athens produced one of the great civilizations in human history this shows what is possible.

Much more recent and much more of a guide for us today is the radical democratic experiment that occurred in Paris in 1871. This began on 18 March when the people of Paris, mainly from the working class districts of Monmartre and Belleville, rose up and marched on the Town Hall (Hotel de Ville) in the city centre where they occupied and set up a new government. It was called the Paris Commune. The Commune was based on very democratic principles. Its members were elected on the basis of one man one vote[2] and were to be subject to recall and paid only the average workers’ wage.  

The Commune immediately adopted a number of radical measures some of which would be very useful in Ireland today. These decrees included:

  • The separation of church and state and the end of teaching religion in schools
  • The cancellation of rent arrears
  • The abolition of night work in Paris bakeries
  • The right of employees to take over and run enterprises deserted by their owners
  • The prohibition of fines imposed by bosses on their workers
  • The abolition of the death penalty

The Commune lasted only 74 days until 28 May 1871. What ended it was not that it didn’t work but that it only existed in one city and this allowed it to be crushed by an alliance of the old French government with the rulers of Germany (Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm I ). They formed an army which invaded Paris from the old Royal Palace of Versailles and slaughtered the Communards. In one week 30,000 working people were killed on the streets of Paris.  The fact that both this terrible massacre and the democratic socialist experiment that preceded it are so little talked about shows how reluctant our rulers are for us to know this history.

After the Paris Commune the next great experiment in people power came in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Given the way things ended up in Russia in a horrible police state and Stalinist dictatorship this may seem surprising but actually the Revolution began profoundly democratically. In 1917 there emerged, along with the overthrow of the Tsar, first in the capital, St.Petersburg, and then right across Russia, workers’ councils or assemblies. These councils were called soviets simply because soviet was the Russian word for council. Later the word soviet became part of the name of the state (the Soviet Union) but the Russian state of the 1930s no more represented the principles of 1917 than the Irish state in the 1930s or today represents the spirit of James Connolly and the Easter Rising.

‘All power to the Soviets (councils)’ was the central slogan and theme of the Revolution and it established a government that was responsible to the National Congress of Soviets (councils). One of the things that distinguished these Russian councils was that they were made up of delegates from workplaces – there were many huge factories in St. Petersburg at this time – and from army and navy regiments, because Russia was involved in the First World War and had a huge conscript army which was in revolt against the war.  The full name for the councils was Soviets of Workers, Soldiers and Sailors Deputies. And they were based on the same principles of recallability and officials getting a worker’s wage as the Paris Commune. They were therefore exceptionally flexible, democratic and responsive to the views of the people.

Also like the Commune the workers’ councils immediately adopted a series of very radical decrees. They took Russia out of the horror of the First World War and called on all the warring countries to make peace. They shared out the land, previously monopolized by Russia’s big landowners, among the ordinary peasants. They established workers’ control of industrial enterprises and legislated for complete equality for women. Interestingly they also, in December 1917, decriminalized homosexuality, long before other countries such as Britain, the US or Ireland (where this didn’t happen till 1993).

Tragically all the main western countries combined with old Tsarist generals to invade Russia in 1919 and unleash a deadly civil war which utterly devastated the Russian economy and more or less destroyed the Russian working class who had created the workers’ councils and made the 1917 Revolution. It was in these terrible circumstances that Stalin and a new class of bureaucrats were able to seize power and set up the awful dictatorship that lasted till its collapse in 1989-91.

Before that, however, the idea of workers’ councils or soviets was very popular and a source of inspiration to millions around the world. In the years following the Russian Revolution workers councils sprang up in Germany, Italy and elsewhere including Ireland.

In the course of the Irish War of Independence, as part of the people’s struggle against the British Empire and oppressive employers, workers’ soviets (they used the Russian word) were declared in over a hundred places. Many of these were factory or workplace occupations, especially in creameries, but in Limerick in April 1919, in response to the British putting the town under martial law, the whole city was run as a soviet/ workers council for two weeks. They even issued their own temporary currency.

Just as the Paris Commune is barely mentioned in standard French and European history so the Irish Soviets have largely been written out of Irish history but for anyone who wants to find out more about them there is a great TG4 documentary, Soviet na hÉireann on Youtube at

Since then there have been many other cases in different parts of the world of people starting to organize people power through people’s assemblies or councils while they were rebelling against an unjust government or regime. Examples include Hungary in 1956 in a revolution against Russian Stalinist rule, Chile in 1972 at the time of a left wing Popular Unity government headed by Salvador Allende, Portugal in its revolution against fascism in 1974-75 and in the Iranian  Revolution of  1979 against the brutal American backed Shah of Iran.

Thus we see that real democracy based on people power has been a long standing aspiration of many people in many different countries. Indeed we can say that whenever ordinary people rise up and seriously challenge the existing system on the basis of people power and truly mass action they need to organize themselves and they tend do that in a very democratic way through people’s assemblies in one form or another.

But from this whole experience one lesson stands out. No matter how popular or effective or democratic this people power is the existing rulers of society will not accept it  or give way to it because it would threaten the very basis of their power and privileges. Therefore, if there is ever to be any real democracy it will have to be struggled for politically: we will have to deal with the matter of the government and the state.

This brings us to a question which is immediately relevant in Ireland today: can we get a genuine government of the left?

What about a left government?

A general election is due in Ireland by early 1916 at the latest. Because of the revolt over the water charges it is possible that the current Fine Gael/Labour government may fall long before then. What is more it is clear that in any such election the government parties will be hammered. The problem is what is the alternative? Will we get a government that will not only scrap the water charges but will stop making working people pay for the crisis? In other words will we get a real left government?

An opinion poll published on December 4 shows Fine Gael on 19 %, Labour on 6%, Fianna Fail on 21%, Sinn Fein on 22% and Independents and others (which includes the left parties such as People Before Profit  and the Anti-Austerity Alliance) on 32%.  According to the political analyst Adrian Kavanagh this would be likely to lead to a Dáil made up as follows: Fianna Fail 36, Fine Gael 32, Sinn Fein 36, Labour Party 0, Independents and Others 52. 

 79 seats are needed for a majority, so on this showing even Fianna Fail and Fine Gael combined would not have enough TDs to form a government. This clearly raises the possibility of a Sinn Fein led government of some sort another. But if Sinn Fein went into coalition with Fianna Fail, and the Sinn Fein leadership has not ruled this out, this would not be a government of the left. It is not just that Fianna Fail is corrupt and incompetent; it is completely tied into the existing system and those who benefit from it. There is no chance it would accept policies that went against its rich backers or seriously challenged how Ireland is run.

What then of a government formed by Sinn Fein and Independents? There is no doubt that many ordinary people would welcome this as a step forward after decades of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael domination. But there are still big problems with this.

First, the category of ‘Independents’ covers all sorts of people ranging from Lucinda Creighton, who is really a right wing Fine Gaeler, and Michael Healy-Rae, really a clientalist Fianna Failer, to left wing socialists like Richard Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy. Second Sinn Fein’s record in the North where, in coalition with the right wing DUP, it has implemented vicious cuts and austerity including presiding over the installation of 30,000 water meters, suggests it may be willing to make all sorts of compromises in order to get into power.

So the only way to judge such a government is on its commitment to certain basic issues. Would it commit to abolishing water charges, the property tax and the universal social charge- all of which are imposed on low and middle income people – and to taxing the rich instead? Would it be prepared to bring in a substantial wealth tax, to raise corporation tax and to introduce a financial transactions tax on the trading down at the IFSC?

Crucially such a government has to commit to canceling the bank debt and stopping paying €8 billion a year interest on it. There are other things a government working for the people ought to do such as a massive programme of building social housing, creating jobs through a programme of much needed public works, fixing Ireland’s broken health service, restoring the damaging cuts to education and the community sector and much else besides.[3]  But canceling the debt is absolutely vital not only because its not the debt of the Irish people but because unless this is done we will be back to the same old story of the government saying it ‘has no choice’ and ‘there is no alternative’ but more austerity and cuts.

Let’s assume that the new government does commit to this and actually starts to implement it there is no doubt that the rich and powerful both in Ireland and internationally will not take this lying down. The Denis O’Briens and Dermot Desmonds, the IMF and the European Central Bank, the EU Commission and the multinational corporations will combine to attack this radical government with all the very considerable economic and political power at their disposal. For a start they will try to bankrupt the country by going on investment strike and taking their money abroad.

They will be supported in this assault by large sections of the media. Remember Denis O’Brien owns about half of the Irish media and almost all the rest of it is owned or controlled by very rich people. The newspapers will describe the government as ‘loony left’, ‘extremist’, ‘communist,’ ‘sinister’, ‘anti-democratic’ and every other nasty name they can think of. Just look at how they treated a sit down round Joan Burton’s car in Tallaght and imagine how they will react to a challenge not only to water meters but to their whole way of running the country.

The top state officials will also try to undermine the government. In ‘normal’ times, ie with a ‘normal’ Fianna Fail or Fine Gael government judges, police chiefs, the heads of government departments, the army generals and so on claim to be ‘non-political’ and neutral. They are happy to do this because they are happy to serve a government that serves their social class. But confronted with a government they see as a threat to the existing system they will work against it and try to make it impossible for it govern.

Faced with all this immense pressure it will not matter how honest or sincere the government leaders are, they will buckle or be destroyed unless they are backed by mass mobilization from below. And that mobilization will have to simultaneously support the government against the rich and the right wing and hold it to democratic account through people’s assemblies. In other words we are back to people power.

People power in the sense of mass street demonstrations and people’s assemblies cannot afford to ignore ‘politics’ in the form of elections and government because ignoring these areas simply leaves them in the hands of the rich and the old parties that back the rich. But then politics in the sense of elections and governments based in the Dáil are also not enough to bring real change because the whole system is undemocratic and oppressive. What is needed is people power and politics or rather political people power.

People power and a political alternative

The fact that many thousands of Irish working people have got a sense of their own power in and through the great revolt against the water charges has completely changed the political landscape in this country. As we have seen even the official opinion polls show this and anyone who has been part of the movement on the ground cannot fail to be aware of it. But this awakening, this newfound confidence, can fade if it doesn’t move beyond a single issue campaign and find expression in a new organized political force.

Irish society and Irish working people are crying out for a political alternative with which to challenge the old parties and the old system. It certainly isn’t Lucinda Creighton’s plan to ‘reboot Ireland’ on behalf of small business and it needs to be a better, more socialist, alternative than that offered by Sinn Fein.

But it must not be just another party that says to people vote for us and we’ll fix things for you. It has to be part of the movement and grow out of the movement. It has to understand that although elections are important and necessary, grass roots campaigns, mass demonstrations, workers’ strikes and workplace occupations and struggle from below are even more important because they contain the seeds of real democracy and equality for the 21st century.

This is what the People Before Profit Alliance stands for and what we in the Socialist Workers Party, which is part of People Before Profit, want to build. And it has to be built, from the bottom up by ordinary people. It won’t just magically come into being or appear on the table like ‘something we made earlier’. We have to make it ourselves and there has never been a better time to do it.

People Before Profit also wants to see emerging in the coming months a united front of all the serious left forces in Ireland so as to offer the strongest possible challenge to the political establishment at the next election.

At the moment People Before Profit has one TD, Richard Boyd Barrett, and fifteen councillors. All of them are actively involved in the Right2Water campaign and many other campaigns. All of them are grass roots fighters for working class people. But we need far more and even more crucially we need far more activists and campaigners in every town and every community in Ireland.

That is why we ask you to join with us in this fight for people power, real democracy and a better society.

To Join People Before Profit text JOIN to 087 283 9964


We Need a Revolution in Ireland

We need to defeat the unjust water charges and get rid of Irish Water. We need to get rid of this rotten Fine Gael/Labour government which has systematically made ordinary people pay for the crisis of the bankers, the bondholders and the rich.

But we need more than this – we need a revolution.

We should change our country through ‘people power’. We should have popular assemblies in our communities and workplaces to organise our struggles and eventually to run the country itself.

We live in a capitalist system that is based on the ownership and control of the wealth of the country by a small minority of super rich – the likes of Denis O’Brien (personal wealth €4.36 billion), Hilary Weston (€6.25 billion) and Dermot Desmond (€1.45 billion).

This system means that inequality keeps increasing. It leads to one law for the rich and another for the poor. Bankers and politicians get away with robbing the state of millions. Ordinary people go to jail for robbing €20 worth from Tesco.

What we want instead

Instead of a system based on production for profit we want a society based on production for human needs.

That means placing the major industries under public ownership and democratic control by the workers who work in them. It means government investment in useful public works, like building homes, schools and hospitals and fixing the water leaks so that everyone has a job, no one is homeless and no child goes to school hungry.

To get there we need Revolution.

The Socialist Workers Party is part of the People Before Profit Alliance. Our members stand for election to parliaments and local councils. We promote our policies and seek to use these forums to encourage movements that rely on ‘people power’.

But fundamental change cannot come through these forums alone. This is because real power lies elsewhere in the boardrooms of the banks and corporations.  There are also key unelected figures in the state- for example, top civil servants, local authority managers, judges and police chiefs - who are closely linked to big business.

These people won’t give up power without a struggle; it will have to be taken off them by a mass mobilization of the working people like we have had over water charges only even bigger. And it will have be in the work places as well as the streets because that’s where the economic power is.

We will need great demonstrations but also mass strikes and workplace occupations, in factories, schools, supermarkets, train and bus stations, docks, airports.

Revolutionary Organisation

This revolution will be made by the mass of ordinary people themselves, not a party or a group of politicians or an armed militia acting on their behalf. But the revolution will not just happen of itself. It will have to be argued for, prepared and organised.

So to bring about successful revolution we need a revolutionary political organisation and it needs to have roots in every working class community and be part of all the people’s struggles.

That is what the Socialist Workers Party stands for and what we are trying to build. We oppose racism, sexism and homophobia and everything that gets in the way of the unity of working people.

 If you agree with us please join us.

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[1] Sadly this was also fundamentally the case even in places that claimed, or claim, to be socialist such as Cuba or Vietnam, or China under Mao. In these countries the rich and powerful tended to be state bureaucrats rather than private owners but there was no real democracy and ordinary people were still exploited and when so-called ‘communism’ collapsed the privileged state bureaucrats generally morphed into private owners. State capitalism became private capitalism but the same people stayed in power.
[2] Due to the prejudices of the age the Commune did not give the vote to women. This was a serious mistake, especially as working class women were particularly active in establishing and defending the Commune.
[3] Repealing the 8th Amendment and establishing a woman’s right to choose, safeguarding Irish neutrality and ending the use of Shannon Airport by the US military, combating racism and ending the inhuman Direct Provision system for asylum seekers are some of the basic things to expect and require from any left or progressive government.