Ireland’s Trotskyist left and its structured campaigning, issue by issue, until the people overthrow capitalism
By Oisín Vince Coulter.
On 10 March 2016 Richard Boyd Barrett was defeated by 111 votes to 9 in the election of the Taoiseach during the first sitting of the 32nd Dáil. Ruth Coppinger had nominated him with the Connolly quote: “The day has passed for patching up the capitalist system. It must go”.
In retrospect, almost four years later, that defeat may well have been the high water mark, both for Boyd Barrett personally and the Trotskyist left of which he is a part. The left was then riding high on the wave of the Right2Water campaign, the country’s largest mass movement in a generation. The 2016 general election returned 6 Trotskyist TDs, 3 from People Before Profit (PBP) and 3 from the Anti-Austerity Alliance (now Solidarity). With Labour and the Greens both sidelined after their respective disastrous coalitions, the Trotskyist left hoped to carve out a space for their particular brand of anti-capitalist politics.
They had little interest in working with Sinn Féin to do so, putting Boyd Barrett forward against Gerry Adams for Taoiseach despite some co-operation in the Right2Change electoral vehicle and during the Right2Water campaign. The potential for Trotskyism to burgeon into a permanent and dominant fixture of the Irish left seemed real.
But current polling for this election does not look good for the Trotskyist left. Many of the social movements that they have poured their energy into over the last three years have failed to take off, from housing to healthcare, even though the issues are as relevant as ever. Their progress has stalled, and unless circumstances change they are facing into a decade of decline and growing political irrelevance.
The 2016 election result had come after a decade and a half of victories and defeats that saw them go from total marginality to having a widely acknowledged and outsized influence on national politics. After involvement in the anti-war movement and Shell to Sea, the Celtic Tiger years ended with the only Trotskyist national representative in the form of Joe Higgins losing his seat in the 2007 General Election. However, since then both what are now the Socialist Party/Solidarity and what are now the Socialist Workers Party/People Before Profit have grown to have a few hundred active members between them: councillors, TDs and MLAs in the north – not to mention significant roles in most of the major issue-based campaigns of the last decade.
History and Background
Some history is needed in order to get a grip on who PBP and Solidarity are. First, they have never been the same party. Trotskyism is rightfully infamous for unending fractious splits, but the two largest Irish Trotskyist parties descend from quite different intellectual traditions, namely two British Trotskyist parties: the International Socialists (IS) and the Militant Tendency (Militant). Both are ‘Trotskyist’ in the sense that they are communists in the tradition of Leon Trotsky, a key leader in Russia’s October revolution. Trotsky ended up the main rival of Joseph Stalin, and was eventually driven into exile by him and assassinated in Mexico on his orders.
The Socialist Workers Movement was launched in Ireland in 1971 by supporters of the British International Socialist and was later renamed as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – the name of their British sister party, and one they are often still known as. They rebranded again recently as the Socialist Workers Network, and run in elections as People Before Profit (PBP).
The Militant Tendency in Ireland, like its British counterpart, existed within the Labour Party here until the late 1980s when numerous expulsions of their members drove them out. They were known as Militant Labour until 1996 when they adopted their current name of the Socialist Party. They used to run in elections as the Anti-Austerity Alliance, but recently rebranded to Solidarity.
There are a number of ideological differences between the SWP and Militant traditions in Ireland. Historically there were disagreements on the best way to organise politically, the nature of the Soviet Union, and various other theoretical questions. In terms of current political differences the biggest is the ‘national question’. The SWP has always been more sympathetic to republicanism and the belief that Northern Ireland is an ‘imperial holdover’. The Militant in Ireland and the UK, on the other hand, have always been hostile to what they regard as ‘crude nationalism’, generally trying to avoid engagement with the issue by focusing on their professed goal of uniting “all workers” regardless of culture and national identification in the pursuit of socialism. There are also differences on issues like sex work, with People Before Profit arguably taking a more ‘sex positive’ position. The relationship between the ‘Party’ and other political forces, among many continued theoretical and strategic differences that 99% of the population would find impenetrable, continues to divide them.
Both parties owe their success to a quirk of history as much as anything else. Ireland never had a mass communist party in the European tradition, like that of Spain or France. The closest thing to that and the most successful far-left party of the last fifty years was the Workers’ Party, which peaked in the 1980s and collapsed along with the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. However, in most of Europe, the dominant political force to the left of social democracy emerged from the remains of their traditional communist parties. When the Workers’ Party split, the resulting group – Democratic Left – ended up merging with the Labour party rather than becoming akin to Die Linke in Germany. This left a space open to Labour’s left in Ireland, and the two Trotskyist parties fought hard and with some success to fill it.
Strategy, Success and Failure
To quote Trotsky, “The task of the Communist Party is to lead the proletarian revolution”.The Trotskyist left in Ireland consider themselves revolutionaries seeking to overthrow capitalism. If you know this, and have some knowledge of their strategy and theory of revolution, then you understand them. They are Leninists (followers of Vladimir Lenin), and both the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Network are ‘vanguard parties’ in the Bolshevik tradition.
So, all communists who draw their ideological lineage from the 1917 October Revolution are ‘Leninists’ – however, the divergence comes in who they regard as best upholding that intellectual tradition over the last century. Some look to Stalin, but Maoists look to Mao and Trotskyists to Trotsky. What this means in Ireland is that both parties aim to be the leadership of the working class in the fight for socialism and both follow democratic centralism, summed up by Lenin’s phrase “”freedom of discussion, unity of action”. Under democratic centralism once a decision has been made all members must follow it, and open disagreement with party policy is strictly frowned upon.
Leninist parties often have substantial numbers of ‘professional revolutionaries’ in the form of party organisers, staff and elected representatives. Trotskyist parties have peculiarities of their own: often the leadership are elected on a ‘slate system’ where the membership fills all roles at once by choosing from different groups of candidates. This generally means the existing leadership run together, and the membership choose whether to reelect them all together or not; it’s rare that the latter is chosen.
If the Irish media find Sinn Féin’a decision-making process sinister, due to the influence of men in backrooms, they have aneurysms trying to get their heads around how decisions are made in Ireland’s two largest Trotskyist parties, where the interplay of front groups, two leaderships (one of the electoral party, one of the revolutionary party), professional staff and slate leadership elections make decision-making particularly hard to follow.
But what makes these parties Trotskyists above all else is their answer to the question ‘how do you win the public over to Socialism?’. The answer is: with entryism, a ‘United Front’ and front groups. These are the methods by which “The Party” seeks to influence other political forces: other political parties, grassroots groups and trade unions. All of them are efforts to grapple with the same problem: that even though Trotskyist parties seek to be the leadership of the working class, the working class don’t currently agree with their politics.
Entryism is the tactic of joining larger organisations in the hope of either winning them to socialism, or else recruiting from amongs them and then splitting. The former goal generally involves achieving a controlling influence somewhat secretly – after all, entryists’ primary objective is not necessarily the success of the organisation they have entered. The Militant were long proponents of entryism into the Labour Party, both in the UK and Ireland, operating as a de facto separate party inside the larger party and achieving substantial and controversial influence before being expelled. After the failure of this strategy the Socialist Party has operated more openly.
In Trotsky’s own words:
“The united front tactic is simply an initiative whereby the communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups and all unaligned workers in a common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie”.
Like entryism, it is a tactic that involves forming temporary coalitions with other forces on the left, with the primary aim of winning over their supporters by trying to force them to choose working with Trotskyists (and giving them a chance to influence things) towards radical ends, or else sealing them out and seeming sectarian and conservative.
Both Solidarity and People Before Profit are front groups: that is, organisations used by their respective ‘Vanguard Parties’ to attract a broader support base than they would achieve by operating openly as revolutionary Trotskyists. Front groups in Ireland break down into two forms, electoral and campaign-based. People Before Profit, the Anti-Austerity Alliance and Solidarity are all examples of the former, created to run in elections and functionally having little independent existence. They generally aim to take a softer, less radical approach to make them more palatable electorally. Every single TD for PBP and Solidarity is a member of their respective vanguard parties, as are the leaderships of both front groups.
One of the clearer distinctions between the two parties is the relationship between their ‘electoral’ and ‘core’ parties. A member of PBP once described their view to me that “The Socialist Party is a person wearing a hat called Solidarity, PBP is a person with a Socialist Workers Network spine”.
Since 2010 PBP has moved substantially towards existing (at least day to day) as a unitary organisation while the Socialist Party has maintained a more orthodox approach, with each occasionally criticising the other over their respective approaches.
Campaign-based front groups are looser, and generally organised around issues like racism or feminism. They seek to radicalise and recruit people interested in these social problems.
The process is pretty simple: let me outline it with some fictional groups. John goes along to a demonstration, organised by, say, ‘Communities Against Racism’ (CAR), to protest about something. He isn’t particularly political at the time but decides to get involved in fighting racism, and so he joins CAR. Little does he know, the CAR leadership is dominated by and the whole organisation created by the ‘Workers Militant Party’ (WMP), who run in elections as the ‘United People’s Group’ (UPG). After a few weeks of growing involvement John is invited along to some UPG meetings; after all, why not take a stand on more issues than just racism? If he is successfully recruited to the UPG he will probably be asked not long afterwards to join the WMP.
In this way Trotskyist parties hope to recruit people who would normally be turned off if asked to become Marxist revolutionaries, by slowly raising their consciousnesses’. It should be noted that this isn’t the only way that Trotskyist organisations recruit, and that they would point that it is only natural that people who get active on issues like racism or sexism might be drawn to groups that seek to fight oppression on multiple fronts, and have broader theories as to how to do that.
2007 – 2013: Victory and Defeat
The last decade and a half has been one of steady growth for the Trotskyist left. In 2010, two years into the Recession, they had some activists, a handful of councillors and no national representation having lost Joe Higgins in 2007. Most people knew little about them and their influence was mostly confined to a few college campuses and small geographic areas. Within a year the 2011 General Election saw the United Left Alliance win five seats, with People Before Profit getting into the Dáil for the first time.
Over the next five years the far left would see repeated, though never groundbreaking, electoral gains at local, national and European level. This was combined with an increased party membership for People Before Profit and the Socialist Party, which launched the Anti-Austerity Alliance as a broader grouping. Both parties had growing influence in grassroots campaigns, with involvement in the student group FEE (Free Education for Everyone) and the Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes.
The late 2000s and early 2010s saw serious opposition to the growing austerity of the Fianna Fáil/Green coalition, and with it the political opportunity the Trotskyist parties had been waiting for. November 2010 saw Irish students (including FEE activists) make international news during an occupation of the Department of Finance, ending with a horse-mounted Garda baton-charge and 36 complaints of police brutality. Less than a week later an estimated 100,000 people took part in the Trade Union-organised March for a Better Way. It seemed possible that Ireland could be facing the kinds of unrest that would see hundreds of thousands take to the streets in Spain and Greece in 2011.
Instead the early part of the 2010s saw many defeats and setbacks for the left. The Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes failed to stir a mass movement against austerity, and with the entrance of Labour into coalition in 2011 the chances of the trade union movement leading the revolt against austerity dropped to zero. FEE began a steady disintegration, along with their hopes of sparking the student movement to greater radicalism. By 2013 the momentum had stalled, and the United Left Alliance collapsed amid the Mick Wallace VAT controversy. At the same time Clare Daly and Joan Collins left the Socialist Party and People Before Profit respectively. This marked the end of the 2008-2013 phase of growth for the Trotskyist left, and sparked fears that their once in a lifetime chance was over.
2014 – 2020: From Right2Change to General Election 2020
Luckily for the two Trotskyist parties the largest mass movement in a generation was right around the corner. The first of over 100 Right2Water marches occurred in October 2014. The campaign was kickstarted by the creation of Irish Water and the attempted introduction of water charges, something a large proportion of the population regarded as yet another expense being loaded on them after six years of austerity, tax hikes, and public-service cuts. Water charges would see the devastation of the Irish Labour Party, and open the door to both Sinn Féin and the Trotskyist left.
Both PBP and the Socialist Party quickly recognised that this movement could be what they had been waiting for since 2008; a broad anti-austerity protest movement that could catapult their brand of left politics into the mainstream. Alongside a coalition of trade unions, political parties and other organisations PBP and the Socialist Party threw themselves into Right2Water. From the beginning they marshalled the tactics of the united front, nominally working alongside the others while trying to outflank them by being more radical. It’s worth pointing out that the Trotskyist parties also believed that only by more radical actions would the water charges be defeated, so this was both a strategic and practical decision.
The Trotskyist left would distinguish themselves from Sinn Féin by loudly calling for non-payment of the charges, forcing Sinn Féin – which had avoided taking a strong position on the issue – to harden their stance and eventually align with them. Having been diminished by Joan Collins and Clare Daly leaving, the Trotskyist left (namely the Socialist Party) would go on to win two by-elections in 2014 and get both Ruth Coppinger and Paul Murphy elected. It’s impossible to pin down exactly, but non-payment clearly played an important role in the eventual defeat of the water charges as it became clear the charges would be unenforceable.
All of this culminated in the Jobstown protest of November 15th, 2014 against Joan Burton of the Labour party, which saw her car blocked for a number of hours. Paul Murphy took a leading role in this protest and was eventually prosecuted unsuccessfully alongside five others for taking part.
The success of the water charges movement in mobilising hundreds of thousands of people the length and breadth of the country, and uniting a range of political parties and trade unions, seemed to point again towards the potential of a new sunrise for the Irish left, Trotskyist elements included. For decades the received wisdom had been that Ireland was due a realignment along more traditional left/right lines, and the question of who would register prominence as that left-wing force was continually contested.
The idea of launching a broad-left political alliance, potentially a proto-party, took shape in the form of Right2Change. Based on the document “Policy Principles for a Progressive Irish Government” the Right2Change coalition sought to bring together its members, most prominently the trade unions Unite the Union, the Communication Workers Union, and Mandate alongside Sinn Féin, the Communist Party of Ireland and a number of left independent TDs with the goal of running a united panel in the 2016 general elections and forming a united grouping to deliver a left government.
Much like the United Left Alliance before it, Right2Change would end up failing to deliver on its potential and eventually falling apart and fading into irrelevance. The exact circumstances are deeply contested, and actually saw PBP and the Socialist Party take different stances. In the end PBP would agree to co-operate under the Right2Change banner while the Socialist Party pulled out, pointing out that the kind of ‘co-operation’ being discussed could well mean in practice submersion in a Sinn Féin-dominated venture. Regardless of anything else it’s clear that the interests of the organisations involved simply didn’t align, as the Trotskyist left have a clear preference for maintaining their independence and also fundamentally don’t agree with winning elections and passing reforms as the main goal of politics.
The main recent development has been a series of splits within the Socialist Party, which split three ways over the last year or so. As is so often the case the details are byzantine and difficult to parse but the crux of the issues centre on identity politics and the willingness to engage with Sinn Féin. Paul Murphy has left to form his own new group, RISE, which seem very similar in most positions to the Socialist Party. Another small group of members left as part of a broader international split within the Socialist Parties international group the Committee for a Workers International. Murphy remains within the Dáil grouping of Solidarity/PBP and seems to be growing close to PBP during the campaign, so we may yet witness one of the rare mergers of the Trotskyist world if RISE joins PBP.
Since 2010, inclusive of elected representatives and groups of members, there have been at least seven splits from Ireland’s two Trotskyist organisations, leading almost inevitably to jokes based on the Monty Python skit about the People’s Front of Judea vs. the Judean People’s Front. The only way of explaining this is that Trotskyist organisations marry a deep belief in the existence of an objectively ‘correct position’ on a given issue with democratic centralism, which means that disagreements can only end with submission or split.
The Trotskyist parties face into the 2020 General Election with 6 seats; a good day would see them keep all 6, although that seems unlikely based on current polling. In the local and European elections their vote dropped sharply, leading to worries that they might not get the 2% of the national vote-share they need to receive state funding.
Without state funding, the ability of the two parties to continue to pay their full-time staff would diminish substantially possibly even seeing them forced into marginality. Perhaps the polling is wrong, and they will consolidate, or grow in, support.
The reasons behind this apparent drop in support are manifold, but have as much to do with the success of other parties as the failures of the Trotskyist left. The Green Party have done a remarkably good job of shedding most of their post-coalition toxicity, allowing them to hegemonise the substantial and growing environmental vote – particularly among those too young to remember the last time the Greens were in power. Most importantly Sinn Féin have clearly succeeded in becoming the dominant anti-establishment party of working class discontent.
The Trotskyist left are also undermined by the fundamental problem of communist parties for the last century: revolution or reform? Are they seeking to enter a left government to bring about legislation to resolve the problems of housing, health and other issues or to lead a 1917-inspired revolution to smash the state and capitalism?
Balancing both entails a tightrope journey that none have walked with any success. Voting for Trotskyist parties during times of crisis is one thing; when people’s primary concerns are building housing and tackling climate change, Trotskyist parties can seem ill-equipped to be the change people are crying out for.
Conclusions and the Future
Some might find the continued popularity and existence of Trotskyist parties hard to understand, given how different they are from the more conventional parties of centre-left or centre-right. But their complete devotion to a fully-structured worldview, and principled stances on issues of the day, will probably always draw those for whom the triangulation and compromise of many parties is off-putting.
It’s unlikely that Ireland will ever see the ‘end’ of Trotskyist politics. But if the next election cycle isn’t kind we might see them decline back to their pre-2008 levels of support: one or two TDs, and some councillors and activists. That would see them sidelined from all but protests and social movements, where their dedication could continue to allow them an outsized influence.
But it’s possible that wouldn’t be altogether bad for them – after all, if your primary goal is revolution, and you believe the circumstances aren’t currently ripe for it, the survival of your organisation is far more important than selling out your principles for electoral success.