Left Unity - You Must Be Joking

Sitting on board a flight to Spain, I was somewhat amused to read an article in the Irish Times under the headline ‘Talks in progress on forming new Irish left party, says activist.’ My first reaction was 'here we go again'. I read the piece in question to allow myself time for reflection and any second thoughts that might come. Which they duly did - and amounted to 'here we go again, again'.

Richard Boyd Barrett of the People Before Profit Alliance was the man behind the proposal. When not fronting the campaign against the profiteers Boyd Barrett is a member of the Socialist Workers Party, perhaps better known these days for not being better known. In 2006 it surrendered any principle it had previously laid claim to when it opportunistically opted to back theocracy against secularism. Prophet Before People meant falling silent in the face of a racist onslaught against people who were born Danish rather than Saudi.

That is not to demean the solid work Boyd Barrett as an individual activist has carried out on behalf of the most vulnerable sections of Irish society or the stance he has made against the war on Iraq. For long his voice has risen above the clamour shouting censorship. If he ever stands in the constituency where I live he might well get my vote. But if like me, you have attended meetings for left unity, and come away exasperated and firmly convinced that such unity is a chimera, you will be less than confident in the ability of Boyd Barrett to move the squabbling, screaming sectarians along. Despite his combination of articulacy and ability he has failed to learn the lesson that if there is something the comrades hate more than global capitalism it is any design to curb their fondness for the cult-like life, the jealous protection of their own little sect affords them.

Undeterred, Richard Boyd Barrett persists in his hope that a united left body could be formed by next year in advance of the local and European elections. His optimism is based on a belief that ‘the Lisbon Treaty vote clearly demonstrates the need for a new left because the entire political establishment, including the official left in Ireland - the Labour Party - backed an agenda for Europe which was rejected by the majority of Irish people.’

This basis for the latest unity call suggests that the victory against the Lisbon Treaty was secured by the Left and that ‘now is the time to grasp the opportunity.’ Really? But is the current juncture any more favourable than the moment in the immediate aftermath of the Nice referendum? And what became of Left unity then?

Boyd Barrett foresees the body-to-be tackling privatisation, usurping neo-liberalism, vigorously fighting for workers' rights and a democratically planned economic system. Like much else in Irish political life the first hurdle will come up earlier than anticipated. It is called detail. A democratically planned economic system is instantly decoded as a rerun of old style bureaucratic socialism. And the undoubted benefits which it brought for the poor in terms of work, health, housing and education, were outgunned by other sections of society with different priorities against whom it was impossible to hold the line democratically.

There is surely a need for a left strategic response to the currently unfolding economic malaise. The attitude of the employers during the recently collapsed social partnership talks should serve as a reminder to the most vulnerable sections of Irish society just how precarious their situation is. The credit crunch, perhaps a recession, is biting hard and already the state, through its planned cutbacks on the basis of having been in receipt of insufficient revenue returns is developing strategies of displacement whereby the worst effects of the economic downturn will be borne by those least able to resist.

But a left counter culture out of which could perhaps mushroom a strategic alternative capable of making substantial and sustained political interventions on behalf of those experiencing deprivation does not exist. In its place is a left caricature made manifest in the silly spectacle of social oddities selling papers and shouting slogans about the class struggle. Rather than the public being given even the ‘active but fragmented left’ that Boyd Barrett claims is out there at the minute, this sorry shower conjures up imagery of an ineffective and demented left.

Already Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party has put a dampener on the Boyd Barrett suggestion. And while tempting to say, ‘well he would wouldn’t he’, his position is a lot more grounded than the rush to unity. Higgins not unreasonably claimed that despite the vacuum which his own party has witnessed for the last decade or more, ‘unless the conditions are correct it would be wrong to launch a new left party.’ He proceeded by asking the obvious question of how such a party might come about.

The only answer on offer is that composition of the proposed new body would include activists from the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party, Independent left TDs and left leaning trade unionists. Nobody from Sinn Fein, the Greens nor the Irish Labour Party seems to figure in Boyd Barrett’s calculations despite each containing left wing activists at grass roots level. Seems that left unity is to be achieved by uniting the comrades alone.

Might as well believe in moving statues.


  1. I'm a big fan, but I'm not sure what your point is.

    Yes, the left is pathetic. Yes, left regroupment is very difficult. Yes, it seems that left sects spend too much time on the space shuttle. Yes, there are more failures than successes -- but there have been successes. And it is important to think about those -- the Left Bloc in Portugal, the Left Party in Germany, the SSP in Scotland, the EACL on the level of the EU -- they all gave it a go and working people were better off because of the effort.

    We don't do things because they are easy or that we are necessarily going to win -- we do it because it is right.

    You know that more than anyone.

    Reading Foucault and Bourdieu is fun, but it doesn't move the ball forward.

  2. The point is very clear - left unity will not come from the sects. And if the sects ever did manage to unite of what significance would it be? Unlike you I do not believe 'the Left is pathetic' for some of the very reasons you point out. I have for long thought the Irrelevant Left is pathetic. Reading Bourdieu and Foucault probably is fun for those who have the time. A bit like reading Marx I imagine.

  3. I stumbled in a totally unrelated websearch via the highbrow-- albeit recommended-- "http://www.3quarksdaily.com" science-art-lit blog upon this post earlier today. Not that you need another cautionary tale of the appeal of the womb, the cult, the persecuted mania of the micro-radical fringe. Still, reminders help. http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2008/01/27/free_bob_avakian/