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Socialism, not barbarism.

Nuclear power, the future of our planet and how to handle differences on the left.

By Éilis Ryan.

Rather than a facade of unity pasted over our differences, what is required is a structure which enables differences to co-habit within an organised, disciplined and, yes, united Party.

Somewhere on the road into Cork City, where I grew up, is a sign declaring you are entering ‘Cork City, a Nuclear-Free Zone’.  The sign went up in the early 1980s, a few years before I was born. As a child in a house full of left-wing politics, I associated the sign with a people’s victory – the little people winning against the might of brutal factory owners. 

The people’s campaign behind that sign, of course, originated in the huge festivals of opposition to the establishment of a nuclear power plant at Carnsore Point in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In a country where victories for the left are hard to number, the victory for anti-nuclear campaigners at Carnsore Point, in the popular imagination, is precious. 

Along with the bulk of the environmental movement since the 1970s in Ireland, there have always been members of the Workers’ Party opposed to nuclear power. And yet for many, inside and outside the Workers’ Party, it has become increasingly evident that that position, from an environmental perspective, was flawed, and must be amended. 

Beyond the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ 

The socialist left is often accused of dogmatism in sloganeering. It is an accusation which should be heard out – because politics based on slogans and tradition, rather than clear-headed analysis, would never allow us to admit we were wrong, or to change our views to reflect changing contexts. This ability to analyse changing contexts, all the time mindful of class structures, is the foundation of Marxism – not dogma. And is precisely what is needed for the left to embrace nuclear energy today. 

The Workers’ Party operates on the principle of democratic centralism. Though often used as a slur to dismiss socialists as authoritarian, fundamentally democratic centralism simply means that the party has a clearly set out structure of elected bodies, from local branches up to the party’s leadership body, the Ard Comhairle, and clear rules as to how the leadership body is elected, and how any major policy or strategy changes. 

It is highly organised, democratically accountable, and has a clear hierarchy. But it is this very clarity which, far from dampening down the views of ordinary members, allows for real democratic decision-making – and so allows views to change over time, as necessary. Far from being a mere rubber-stamping operation, this structure enables debate on issues where there are, quite regularly, real differences between party members. 

Planet before pastoralism – the struggle to build an environmentalism of science, in Ireland 

Nuclear power represents one such issue. Within the Party today, there is a variety of views, ranging from total opposition to nuclear energy to those who embrace it, with many in between who believe that, at a minimum, there is no credible evidence not to include it as one of the menu of energy options which we must examine carefully to save our planet from existence. 

To mediate these differences, the Workers’ Party’s most recent Ard Fheis voted to hold a public consultation with members and branches on the issue of nuclear energy. 

Ireland’s energy future is  important not only because of climate change. For those of us on the left, who wish to carve out a future distinct from the interests of (predominantly) American foreign policy and capital, it is crucial that we have sovereignty over our energy. Given the presence of uranium in Ireland, examining the possibilities of how it might contribute to our future energy needs is only sensible. And given Ireland’s very small energy requirements, it’s highly likely that uranium might become a lucrative export for a new state company, and sustain large number of jobs in prospecting, mining, processing and fuel fabrication. And it would save Ireland on the cost of importing, oil and free it from the vagaries of the international oil market.  

With nuclear as a baseload power, and wind power to top it up, Ireland could be completely self sufficient and even be a consistent exporter of power abroad. Even more importantly, it could do so without releasing almost any CO2 in the process of power generation!

In terms of safety, the reality is that studies consistently show nuclear to be the safest energy source after hydro-electric power. Although renewable sources such as wind and solar power do not have the sort of mega-disasters seen with oil or nuclear, they do require far more raw materials, and manpower for installation and maintenance; and cumulatively they result in far more deaths per unit of energy. And, as with all technology, with sufficient investment, it will be possible to reduce the disasters which have historically occurred even further. Meanwhile, the Simpsons-style image of nuclear waste as enormous barrels of green goo bears minimal relation to reality. The waste from a typical household’s lifetime energy consumption would be approximately 2kg – a tiny and, as a result, highly manageable, amount of material. 

Regardless of our squeamishness about nuclear energy, the reality is that, in the here and now, as climate crisis engulfs us, no other technology exists which can more safely move us away from fossil fuels.  

Indeed we have a concrete example of this fact. In Germany, a decision was taken to transition from both nuclear and coal to renewable energy, which resulted in the closure of the country’s nuclear plants and the investment, to date, of €200 billion in renewable energy. However there has been no reduction in the country’s carbon emissions (over their lifetime, both wind and solar produce significantly more CO2 than nuclear power) and, instead, a new coal-burning plant is on track to open in 2020 because of the enormous shortfall in energy usage. By contrast France, which generates 70% of its energy from nuclear, has one of the lowest per capita CO2 emissions of any EU country. 

The left and ‘unity’ 

Fundamentally, the issue of nuclear power is one which divides. It is also once in which articulating and negotiating these divisions is crucial to the left, including socialists, making progress. This is not unusual. Our knowledge base changes, the context changes, and of course so too should our analysis. 

Any political structure capable of weathering the test of time and becoming strong enough to pose a challenge to the capitalist class must be able to navigate these changes and differences.  

“Left unity” is a concept which features regularly in debates about the future of the left in Ireland. However, too often, the word ‘unity’ is misused, as a way of silencing all dissent. The argument goes that, if one wishes to unite the left, all that is necessary is for us to ignore our differences. This is simplistic and misleading – such an approach might work temporarily, but it will inevitably falter under pressure. 

Rather than a facade of unity pasted over our differences, what is required is a structure which enables differences to co-habit within an organised, disciplined and, yes, united Party. The capitalist class is fiercely organised, and operates in a disciplined manner to defend its interests. To win, workers need an organisation capable of defending its interests with just as much power. That is what the Workers’ Party aims to become.  

Éilis Ryan is a Workers’ Party Councillor for Dublin’s North Inner City and a candidate for that party for Dublin Central in the General Election