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Ultraleft must change the rhetoric and modernise the ideology.

Rory Hearne’s piece in the last issue of Village was certainly provocative – as all hymns to revolution will be – though it seldom rose beyond the predictable and even most Village readers will have probably filed it under evidence-free Marxist rant. Those not sympathetic to his, sadly not untypical, analysis-cum-diatribe will have probably glazed over its paragraphs and turned the page.

A heavily centralised government of the kind supported by Hearne may run contrary to my own idea of a free society but radical agitation at least serves to prevent establishment politicos from getting too comfortable. As a result, I am strangely disposed to seeing the left in Ireland achieve at least some success despite their incoherent vision.

It is therefore with a sense of being constructive that this attempt is made to delve into the meaning and consequences of what Hearne actually says.

As early as his second paragraph we get our first mention of Marx and it’s from this point that it is beyond doubt that Hearne’s piece will not be breaking from normal – discredited – ultraleft conventions. During a crisis when many are engaged in ad hoc struggles the establishment of universals is going to be a challenge – but Hearne’s continued emphasis on nineteenth-century ideology makes this challenge almost insurmountable.

This is an ideology that has been discredited by most since it was based on false predictions of revolution in the industrialised nations. Where it did find space to manifest, the demise of the Soviet Union and the ongoing problems in Venezuela have encouraged little in the way of international sympathy.

We are further subjected to the declaration that “neo-Marxist thinkers like David Harvey, Erik Olin Wright and Hardt and Negri (first names unspecified) show that international capitalist globalisation” underpin the social catastrophes of “oppression, inequality, environmental destruction and climate change.”

There is no supporting evidence offered for any of these claims. It is as though the mere invocation of the names of those who propose them should be enough for us to accept their veracity. Bear in mind Hearne has a PhD. Also worth noting is that none of these four “catastrophes” are particular to “neo-liberalism” and all can be found in states who have advocated, or continue to advocate, Marxism and its derivatives.

Another assumption seems to be revolutionary nationalism. “Is this neo-liberalism”, Hearne asks, “what the leaders, particularly James Connolly, fought and died for?” Apparently this is a “fundamental, and for some, wrenching, question”. I would argue that it is instead an example of tired nationalist romanticism that is in keeping with his and the left’s apparent refusal to join the rest of us in the twenty-first century.

It would have been edifying instead to read of his support for some recent acknowledged leaders of the left. His brief inclusion of Naomi Klein is a start but what about other populist leftists? Martin Luther King, Mandela, even Russell Brand! What about Scandinavia?

Ultraleftism needs all the back-up it can find as, while capitalism may be currently under the microscope, fully-fledged resistance to it has been notably desultory.

In Ireland there was mindless acceptance of it under the boom, but little principled resistance through bust and alleged rebirth. Massive, stressful growth followed by depression is hardly what the public wants but people remember that that a relatively free-market appeared to deliver full employment during the boom.

As the economy ostensibly improves it is time that revolutionaries accept that their failure to take a discernible advantage of either the crisis – or the ideological space created by the uselessness of our political parties – imposes a giant question mark over the entire left. They failed to score in an open goal.

A common complaint by radical leftists laments their difficulties in communicating their message to the traditional working-class they claim as their kin. This is not due to any intellectual disadvantage, of course, but simply as a result of a lack of interest.

Hearne is all about the people but the view he offers is one the people have long and resoundingly rejected. Where is the democracy and the grassroots in that?

Beyond the issues themselves, the language used by Hearne is distinctly disaffecting. Here I revert to a parallel essay by the same author in the Irish Left Review which bears a striking resemblance to the Village rendering – though with a lot more clichés.

Mercifully the ‘neo-liberalism’ count in Village came down from a full twenty in the Review piece, which did the tour from Pinochet to McDowell via Reagan and Thatcher (the solution was Zapatistism), and culminated in the view that Ireland is a “neo-colony of neo-liberal capitalism.”

Above all, the problem with the likes of Rory Hearne is just how unmodern their approach is. There is the lack of attention to effective communication, the absence of evidence or factuality and the use of jargon.

There are then the straw opinions (mostly attributed to ‘neo-liberals’ – though no-one would ever describe themselves as a neo-liberal) and the enthusiastic use of terminology that is almost designed to be alienating (‘class’, ‘collapse’, ‘fight’, ‘revolution’).

It’s unclear whether he expects his vision to be shared and his goals to be achieved or whether he even expects to be treated seriously.

But the tendancy to alienate is much more than just a communication problem. In his enthusiasm for his people he manages to be entirely disparaging about everyone else. Indeed, he implausibly lumps them all together. So the ‘state’ includes “its key civil servants and its main political parties, business, NESC, IBEC etc” who all tiringly prescribe ‘neo-liberalism’.

As to those on the left he’s not much more enthusiastic. There is a sense of fractiousness in his assertion that civil society and the usually Labour-supporting Unions – stoic, passive, oppressed and with a negative self-image – are “indistinguishable, enmeshed in dependency and the ideology of the elite”.
His Review article also notes: “The radical left, as the collapse of the United Left Alliance has shown, is not providing great leadership either for those supportive of left-wing values.” On that point he is correct.

Yet Hearne’s solution ironically is “critical engagement.” Most of the leftists he derides would claim that their strategy is just that but Hearne seems always to be dismissive of any concrete effort to “engage”, resiling to the “critical” part of his formula on every occasion, by default.

What is most contrary is that despite his contempt for the non-revolutionary and his lack of interest in communicating with them he invokes a call to arms: “Fight (for a New Republic), campaign, study, don’t be afraid.” Well maybe if he had more respect for his prospective foot soldiers!

The vacuum caused by the failure of the left to engage or coalesce, however loosely, has meant that potential dissentient allies have been frogmarched by the angriest towards selfish single-issue policies – often of a right-wing hue – rather than towards a broad left vision: opposition to property taxes, to environmental taxes, to pylons, to restrictions on turf-cutting, to windfarms, to planning in general. To an incoherent future that looks like Ming Flanagan and Michael Fitzmaurice.

Hearne fails to find extant models within the Irish system. Perhaps this is because the failures of the local left are wide-ranging. One example he does offer is that of Claiming Our Future – a campaign which began with some promise but whose engines are beginning to cool just as those of Occupy Dame Street’s so comprehensively did.

The left should ask themselves how they can defeat this trend on future occasions.

Occupy represented a potentially seminal moment in how being left would be perceived in Ireland but it failed partially as a result of interference from the radical left. What began as a genuinely spontaneous, youthful and progressive mobilisation eventually descended into farce.

And while it was certainly not the sole reason – the construction of a miniature fortress serving to exclude newcomers – the eventual, and not entirely conspicuous but certainly deliberate, attempts by the organised left to be included played a significant part in diminishing its efficacy.

Whether or not the public support was strong enough for it to continue without the later enthusiasm of the ‘professional’ left is a justifiable question – but the unwanted intrusions meant that this question was never given enough time to be answered. Meanwhile, the ordinary people who injected such potential into Occupy are back at square one.

Subverting his own rhetoric, Hearne finishes his piece with pragmatic and encouraging suggestions. A de-centralisation of politics and education is a logically sound means of providing genuine solutions as an alternative to the haphazard strokes of national government.

It also allows for the general public to view alternatives without fear that they may be unilaterally imposed. Working outside the political system is likely to be a more effective means of challenging the dominant systems which the radical left so detests.

The current strategy of agitation and inept efforts at electoral politics only serve to sow a wariness even among progressives that is self-defeating.

If their ambitions are as large as they appear they must start small and muster real alternatives rather than exercise sporadic resistance and hope that they can hijack the nation’s political and economic systems.

That’s significantly more difficult than turning up at protests and denouncing the establishment.
But nobody said revolution was easy. •