Does Ireland need a new left party?

"We have a multiplicity of left parties [in Ireland] of the traditional types... All have maxed out their potential in their present form. Some are still vital, while others have been in decline for some time."

By Helena Sheehan

June 16, 2014 -- Irish Left Review,  posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- Does Ireland need a new left party? Yes. Why? We are involved in a colossal class struggle and we are not winning.

We need to confront the very system that is demanding ever more drastic redistribution of wealth from below to above, accelerated accumulation by dispossession, continuing dismantling of the public sphere in favour of private property and commodified culture.

It is not enough to go issue to issue, to oppose cuts, to denounce austerity.

We need to win consent to a counter-narrative to the dominant view of the crisis. We need to break the grip of the belief that there is no alternative.

We need to fashion a force that will challenge for power that will make the long march through all the institutions of society: schools, universities, media, trade unions, local councils, national and international parliaments, production, distribution and exchange.

We need the best possible left. We need to maximise our efforts.

We need to build on electoral gains by the left in elections of 2011 and 2014. The last general election saw the greatest overturning in Dail Eireann [the Irish parliament] in its history and the next will outdo it, we have every reason to believe. The last elections and recent polls indicate a huge shift, primarily to the left, in Irish politics.

We need to aim to form a left government in the next decade or so.

For this, we need a new left party. A party of a new type. By which I don’t mean a Marxist-Leninist vanguard party. Traditionally parties of the left have been communist, Trotskyist or social-democratic parties. This would be different.

We have a multiplicity of left parties of the traditional types, quite a few of them M-L vanguard parties. All of these have maxed out their potential in their present form. Some are still vital, while others have been in decline for some time.

In the first category are the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party, each of which have formed broader fronts, the People Before Profit Alliance and Anti-Austerity Alliance. In the second category are the Communist Party of Ireland and Workers Party. The two Trotskyist parties and their broader fronts have been especially active on the streets and in electoral politics and they have achieved considerable success. They also built and broke the United Left Alliance (ULA).

None of these formations, in and of themselves, form the basis for the sort of new left party we need. They will be important in the future of any new left formation, but a new left party cannot be ULA 2.0.

We also have two bigger parties of the left, although some may contest whether they are left: the Labour Party and Sinn Fein. They are left, but not as left as what we need. This is primarily because they do not engage in systemic analysis and therefore they do not move in the direction of systemic transformation.

There is a big empty space where a big party to the left of Labour Party and Sinn Fein should be. We need a new left party to fill this space.

What kind of new left party should this be?

We need a party that engages in a critique of capitalism, that convinces of the need for socialism, that projects a convincing strategy of how to get from here to there. I think we should stop dreaming of a revolutionary insurrection, but orient ourselves to a more incremental, but radical, transformation. The long march through all the institutions of society.

We need a broad left party, a Syriza-type party.

It should draw from the older traditions of the left, from the Communist, Trotskyist, social-democratic and anarchist traditions, but bring them to bear in charting a new path. Everyone need not agree on everything. All members wouldn’t agree on the nature of the USSR, although this could and should be a matter for constructive debate in the right time and place. This party should not define itself as Marxist, let alone committed to any particular interpretation of Marxism, although I would like to see a strong Marxist presence and influence in such a party.

Such a party should draw from both old and new left traditions, particularly from recent risings of profound discontent as have been expressed in the indignados and occupy movements. Notwithstanding the negative and unhealthy elements that have manifested themselves in these movements, they have been expressed progressive or potentially progressive striving.

Such parties and alliances of parties have been forming in Europe: Syriza in Greece, Die Linke in Germany, Front de Gauche in France, United Left in Spain, Left Bloc in Portugal. Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe without a party belonging to the Party of the European Left. I would like to see such a party formed here. There is an empty space on our political spectrum where such a party should be.

Overlapping this is European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), the united left group in the European parliament. Ireland has five MEPs in this group: four Sinn Fein and one independent left MEP, Luke "Ming" Flanagan.

Podemos in Spain is a new and interesting addition to this group.

Why a party at all?

There is, of course, the question: Why a party at all? We have seen a rising level of protest in Ireland, despite the caricature that Irish people don’t protest. Many of these elements, here and abroad, are hostile to parties. There is a belief that movements, not parties, are the way to go. We do need to have movements that spring up in response to developments and are more fluid than parties can ever be.

However, they are lacking in the organisation, continuity and discipline necessary to engage in true transformation. They are better at undermining what is than building an alternative to it.  They are better at breaking down than building up. We need to harness the most constructive energies of these movements into a more cohesive force that will challenge for power and construct counter-power.

Look at Greece. So many protests, occupations, general strikes. Such powerful and inspiring resistance. Yet what has changed? What it will take to reverse all the reversals and to move the society along an alternative path is the election of a left government. This is why Syriza, which has pulled together disparate energies of the left into a party that can form a government, is crucial.

Who can build this party? How could it be done? There should be a coming together of left activists of various sorts, both those currently affiliated with existing left parties and those not affiliated but active in various projects and formations. It should not be negotiated behind closed doors by existing parties of the left.

Left Forum, the organisation I’ve been involved in building for the past 18 months, could facilitate this, if others felt it would be constructive. We have created it as a gathering place for various sections of the left to discuss the state of play of the left and to explore how we might move forward. We did invite the various sections of the left to a debate to address precisely the question of whether Ireland needed to form a new left party. It involved speakers from the SP, SWP, Communist Party of Ireland, United Left, ex-Labour Party, LF. Speakers from Sinn Fein and the Workers Party were invited and accepted, but didn’t come on the day. The discussion was constructive, but inconclusive.

Since then there has been a flurry of activity around elections. Now is the time to reflect on what we have achieved in these elections as well as in all our other campaigns, protests and political education programmes and to strategise about how we can move forward. Much done, much more to do.

There are many obstacles to overcome in order to build the new left party that we need.

There are political differences, which are serious, between the various sections of the left. Reform vs revolution is perhaps overstressed, but fresh thought needs to be given to finding a new and sustainable path from capitalism to socialism. The EU is another point of divergence: is it a site of struggle or imperialist in its essence?

The SP and SWP are quite close in ideology and strategy, but there are seething grievances, especially those surrounding the European elections in Dublin and about how the ULA ended. I think that these difficulties could be overcome. These are serious activists who do want to move the situation forward.

My biggest worry is whether there are enough people who would give enough of themselves to make a new party happen. One of the things that I have found most striking about my own experience of Ireland in this crisis is how easy is in everyday conversations to win consent to the idea that that the system is rotten and something drastic needs to be done about it. There is so much anger and alienation. However, I don’t find enough determination to do something about it. People rant and rail and then do nothing.

Some process needs to galvanise them into action. Some process needs to gather those with left ideas but no left activity, those with left activity but no party, those with left party but not one that big enough and effective enough, to create something new.

It needs to happen. I’m not sure that it will happen, but I hope that it does happen.

[This article is based on a talk presented at the “Local Resistance, Global Crisis”conference at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, on June 13, 2014. Helena Sheehan is professor emeritus at Dublin City University and chair of Left Forum.]