A few weeks ago, May MacGiolla mentioned to me that she thought this was her 81st year attending Bodenstown commemorations. Speaking to May, and indeed reading previous addresses given in Bodenstown, it was clear that it’s unusual for a member who is in the party just over 18 months, and attending Bodenstown for the first time, to address the gathering. I cannot, as others would have, claim to speak from decades of experience within the republican movement, to remember, as many here will, the many comrades who are not standing with us today, or to have endured the same struggles against sectarian division, for peace and against capitalist co-option, which others here proudly have.
And yet it is perhaps an even greater tribute to the enduring legacy of Tone, and the radical tradition of republicanism which he gave birth to in Ireland, that a young woman in 2016, relatively new to republican politics, can look at the challenges Ireland faces in the 21st century, read the lessons of Tone, and the ways those words were acted upon by our party, and find great relevance in them.
We meet today as our closest neighbour moves out of a broken, capitalist EU into an uncertain future. Those who, even in the mildest terms, seek to ensure that move is one which delivers improvements for the working class, are coming under unprecedented pressure to step aside. It is the most recent in a list of countries which have seen the democratic will of the people casually overturned by politicians and bureaucrats whose sole objective is to protect the interests of capital. In Europe, we see austerity economics increasingly written into law and treaty. Austerity’s proponents can no longer win the democratic debate and must instead enshrine their policies in law. In Latin America, we see a more familiar story of US reassertion of influence in any country which pursues even the mildest alternative path.
Tone’s radicalism was shaped by a recognition of this inevitable clash between liberal democratic freedoms, and the interests of ‘the men of property’ – the capitalist class. His initial political inclinations towards Whiggish liberalism were tamed by repeated experiences of how “men of property” were willing to oppress those without. From this experience, Tone drew an understanding that overcoming the division between the wealthy and those without was essential to the values of a republic – and that all other divisions – race, ethnicity, religion or otherwise – were merely a distraction from that fact.
This fundamental truth of Tone’s legacy is too important, too rare, too foundational to socialism in this country, to hand over to pretenders who do not understand it. The hypocrisy is clear of those who, in Northern Ireland, advocate sectarian headcounts, standing on this spot and invoke the legacy of Tone. But equally important is for us to reclaim the heritage of a man who, while a firm proponent of liberal freedoms, understood that, for them to be realised, a battle would have to be fought and won by the men of no property on those of property.
For most of us, our year was dominated by election campaigns, North and South. Not the driving force behind any of our involvement in political activity, but an inevitable time sink. In both elections, we were rightly proud of renewed organisational structure, better materials, better policies, better engagement in the public debate. The mixed bag of results, while including many improvements, came in a context of other left parties growing around us – parties we know do not have the tools to grow into a mass party capable of truly challenging capitalism. The vacuum on the left into which the Workers Party of the 1980s grew no longer exists.
In that context of such hard work with mixed results, I believe the biggest success of those elections was the renewed resolve which emerged from them. This was demonstrated, to a branch, north and south, by immediate post-election political activity, and also by a thorough review of how we as a party must develop if we are to rise to the challenge posed by the scale of competition. The biggest success of these elections was our party’s unfaltering intention to examine its current limits, those factors within its capacity to improve, and its strategic orientation.
For surely, if we accept that our fortunes when negative are down only to causes beyond our control – the populism of other left parties, the unfavourable international climate, the unhelpful media – we may as well go home now. Such fatalism is for those who believe in the determinism of gods and religions, not those for whom a scientific assessment of historical context is what drives them.
Tomás MacGiolla said:
“A party of the working class is the political instrument of those who both need, and want, to change the world. That is a job description of the Workers’ Party. And like all job descriptions it is continually challenged by capitalism. So every day it needs to be written out again, negotiated again, fought for again, consolidated again and every day the Party must prove itself all over again because every day is a different day and every day the world is changing and every day it needs to be looked at carefully and studied because it is not the world as it was yesterday.”
“If you want freedom, you must be willing to change.”
What precisely are we willing to change?
For socialist parties in the twentieth century, too often this question has been answered by changing the wrong things – changing our understanding of the inherent conflict between classes, changing our belief that only putting our banks, economy and investment under democratic control can produce just outcomes. These are our principles and our foundations, and and are not up for question.
Comrades, I am hesitant to use language like “Never before has the task been more important,” conscious that it has, in all likelihood, been used in more speeches at Bodenstown than not. But it is difficult to believe it is not true. There is a historic brutality and, crucially, anti-democratic pressure to the way in which capitalism exerts its influence today.
Nowhere is this brutal logic more evident than in the stagnating crisis of housing in the Republic, and mirrored in Northern Ireland by the dismantling of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.
Beside my home are sixteen hectares of empty land, twenty minutes walk from the city centre and 5 minutes walk from Phoenix Park, publicly owned, and once home to almost 400 families, now empty. The series of events which have kept the land empty is Orwellian. A supposedly temporary de-tenanting process – justified by a promised upgrade – was swiftly followed by a bust PPP, then a bust public investment venture, and, now, a stalled, but much lauded effort to effectively give away the large majority of the land to a private investor, to build homes which, despite large state subsidies, will be unaffordable to all but the wealthiest 20% of the families.
There is no logic in these facts, beyond the total capitulation of the state to private interests. The question I commonly here is, “Why is it that in the sixties and seventies, when Ireland was much, much poorer, we could afford to build public housing, but now we can’t?”
The answer of course is that for a brief period in the mid-century, the tide of universal suffrage and increased trade union power ensured that working class interests to made gains. But now, brutal austerity has rolled that back – and it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a fundamental contradiction between capitalism and the continuation of liberal democracy.
It can be resolved only in one of three ways – through the brutal rolling back of democratic rights, through a growing apathy of the working class who withdraw voluntarily out of the political process, or through a determined socialist struggle.
My estimation is that, today, our biggest risk is a drift towards the middle option – a voluntary withdrawal of the majority of our class, out of the political process. While anger at austerity is inevitable – we already see this clearly in the growing opposition to austerity on both sides of our island – what is not inevitable is that such anger will mobilise into a political force capable of challenging capital – and that is our task. There is a fashionable belief that mobilisation alone, the gathering of the crowd alone, is destined to succeed.
While we have seen an undoubted rise in consciousness that capitalism is causing our crises, what we have yet to witness a growing understanding that the building of a mass, class party is critical to changing that situation.
We come back to the question, as MacGiolla asked us, what is it we must change?
We must consider how we must change in order to convince this working class that, without the organised discipline of a class party, outrage alone does not lead to inevitable progress.
We must make socialism – and the socialist party – the accepted common sense. It is natural and healthy that the population will be attracted to the centre – to security, firm footing, familiarity. But what has become clear is that the centre – in Europe, that has been social democracy – is not solid ground for the working class. Nowhere is this more evident than in European and Irish governments reiteration of the term ‘stability’ to describe the austerity economics that has wreaked havoc on the wellbeing households across Europe
Our challenge, then, is to appeal to the majority not by moving to a broken centre, but by convincing workers that only a radical break with the status quo can rebalance their lives.
We must challenge the fashion of disunity and fragmentation. We oppose nationalism of course because it is morally reprehensible, but also for broader reasons. Nationalism, like race, like ethnicity, like workers and the unemployed, is used by capital, the emergence of the type of convinced, deep-felt unity of class which is the only force strong enough to shake the forces of capital.
Secondly, we must challenge the idea that a reversion to the nation state will bring us greater power to challenge capitalism.
The internationalism which we draw from the tradition of Tone should not be misunderstood simply as a fashionable, cosmopolitan whim. There is in it a human duty to solidarity, certainly. But fundamentally, now more than ever, internationalism is for socialists simply a tool for survival. Capital has globalised. The borders of our nation states make them incapable of building alone a challenge to a capitalism whose decisions, movements, have been taken far above the state. TTIP is the most dangerous current expression of this. We argued well that the disintegration of the EU is a necessary blow to this undemocratic space for capital. But we should not be naïve enough to believe that those decisions will be brought back to democratic means without a struggle. Capital is smarter than that. A rupture with the EU is not sufficient to rupture the undemocratic globalisation of capital.
Comrades, the first step towards the break up of the European Union which we witnessed last week has been presented in most camps as a reversion to narrow, nationalism – a fact welcomed by some, and critiqued by others. The Workers’ Party by contrast understands that is not inevitably the case. But we must also recognise the risk that it might become so. There is no doubt that many voted for Brexit on the basis that they understood the utter damage the EU has done to the working class. And yet this alone is not class consciousness. For many, what was understood by this was that a ‘foreign’ entity – not a capitalist class – was responsible for the brutality
To return to MacGiolla’s expression, the globalisation of capital has profoundly changed the job description of a class party.
There is a fashionable belief that mobilisation alone, the gathering of the crowd alone, is destined to succeed.
Our internationalism also reminds us that, in the struggle against capitalism, we in Ireland are not at the sharp front.
We have, for the first time in generations, refugee camps in Europe, created without mercy by the United States’ unfaltering demand for total global influence. Europe’s recent rejection of the right to seek refuge should not be underestimated. The international obligation to accept refugees was one of the great humanitarian triumphs. Its ending marks a new turning point for the brutality with which rich countries treat poor in the twentieth century.
Further afield, in Honduras this year, a proud socialist activist, Berta Caceres, was brutally murdered for her opposition to the seizure by US-backed corporate interests of peasant land. There are many who have ‘cleaned’ Berta’s memory, converting her posthumously from an opponent of capitalism to a safe ‘environmentalist.’ Her allies, mostly indigenous woman, have publicly criticised this – and have in particular been vocal in reminding the US media that it is the legacy of Hilary Clinton which led to Caceres’ murder.
Sometimes, the relative comfort of many of our lives in Europe risks allowing over-indulgence in socialist politics as a hobby rather than a duty. We have a responsibility to those in countries where this mistake could never be made, to be mindful of this.
The sharp edge of capitalism and imperialism, visible in Berta’s murder, visible in the refugee camps in Europe, is evidence that our failure to take up the task required of us as socialists would have very real consequences.
There are real consequences we fail to adapt – as MacGiolla put it, if we fail to re-examine the job description of a socialist party. If we fail to convince the majority that socialism is basic common sense, that an organised class party is the only way to promote socialism, and that the fight against capitalism must be waged internationally, and not within our national borders – there are real consequences.
For those whose sole objective is socialism, there is no alternative to building the Workers’ Party into the an organisation capable of posing a credible challenge to capitalism in Ireland.