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3 August 2006 Edition

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What is "the Left"?

Paul O'Connor

Twenty years ago it was quite clear what socialism meant. Now it is arguably less clear. Over a decade after the fall of communism, does the left still have the ambition to create an alternative society? Or is our goal no more than to soften the more glaring injustices of the existing order? And what does it mean to talk of socialism in an Ireland of cappuccinos and chiabattas, SUVs and second homes in Spain?

I believe the goal of the left must be the revolutionary one of creating an alternative society. But in the 21st century, left-wing politics will be about values, not class. Socialism in the 21st century stakes a claim for justice, solidarity and a participatory democracy. It holds up the moral vision of a community of equal citizens against the neo-liberal nightmare of a world where (in Margaret Thatcher's words) "there is no such thing as society, only individuals" competing ruthlessly in a global marketplace.

"The left" therefore should not be simplistically equated with either the theory of Marxism, or the practice of socialist governments in the 20th century. The term "left" first came into use during the French Revolution. To be on the "left" meant to be committed to the revolutionary principles of liberty, equality and fraternity - to the construction of a new society of equal citizens in place of the old regime of inherited privilege.

Marx was only one of a series of socialist thinkers who, in the fifty years after the French Revolution, took its doctrines to their radical conclusion: if a tyranny based on tradition and divine right was wrong, so was a tyranny based on capital. Marx's brand of socialism was distinguished from others by its historical determinism and its claim to be based on a "scientific" analysis of society. Ultimately it came to be the dominant socialist theory.

Marx formulated his ideas against the background of the industrial revolution sweeping across Europe. Industrialisation created a new working class which, crowded into the growing cities, became the vanguard of radical politics and remained so for most of the twentieth century. Yet in essence both Marxism, and the organised working class, simply demanded the application to the most oppressed section in society of values that had been promised to all in the founding charters of revolutionary republicanism. And the fact that Marx's theories have been partially discredited, and the traditional working class is shrinking in numbers, does not affect the validity of those values, or their relevance to contemporary society.

The cheerleaders of globalisation would have us believe we have reached "the end of history". Liberal "democracy" and free market economics represent the final stage of human evolution. No other world is possible. But far from being redundant, left wing politics are more relevant than ever. Instead of creating a paradise of opportunity, unrestricted capitalism is undermining democracy, threatening working conditions, creating gross inequality, destroying communities, and depleting the earth's resources.

Multinational corporations are now wealthier than many states. A majority of the world's hundred largest economies are corporations. And as business has gone global, freeing itself from many of the restrictions of national laws, the freedom of governments is increasingly restricted by the international economy.

This poses fundamental questions for the future of democracy. If corporations, which are accountable to no one and whose sole purpose is to increase their earnings, are more powerful than governments - if governments can no longer implement the will of their people - what is the meaning of democracy?

Popular pressure and campaigning by trade unions and socialist parties in the first half of the 20th century built up a framework of workers' rights and social protections in most western countries. But with corporations more powerful than governments, that framework is under threat. Increasingly mobile companies are able to "shop around" for the country with the lowest tax rate, the most compliant labour force, the poorest wages and the worst conditions. The outcome is growing inequality. A greater and greater proportion of the world's resources are being concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest few.

With the values of the marketplace in the ascendant, the bonds of society are being frayed. As people work longer hours, they have less time for involvement in their communities. Many, living in dormer towns and commuting long distances to work, have little knowledge of their neighbours. Drunken street violence has become a fact of life. Family breakdown is on the increase. Out of control teenagers terrorise estates. Advertising and the media promote a "me, me" culture of hyper-individualism and instant gratification.

At the same time, the earth's resources are diminished and air, water and land are poisoned by corporate freebooters.

In the corporate earth, the protection of the state is gradually withdrawn from its citizens, who are left fending for themselves as isolated individuals within a global marketplace. If the dream of the left is to create a community of equal citizens, unchained capitalism is leading us to a world where individuals are without social loyalties, and exist only as employees and consumers.

But few people want a society based on injustice. Few people want to see freedom and democracy die and hand over control over their lives to faceless, selfish corporations. Most people would like to live in a world of strong communities where the weaker and less fortunate are protected and cherished. And as national governments become increasingly unwilling to look after the interests of their citizens, many people are becoming alienated and angry.

These people are the natural constituency of the left. Their various grievances and demands can all be related to one common demand - for a community of equal citizens, for a government that is truly by, and for, the people.

The problem is that currently, these various groups of people do not relate their different demands to an overall vision. The old left - of Marxist socialist parties - had its base in a single social class united by geographical concentration in urban areas. It was therefore able to create a common identity and sense of purpose among its members. The challenge for republicans is to do something similar for the divergent constituencies that make up the left in Ireland today.

The Peace Process has opened to republicans the possibility of gaining popular support on a scale unknown before. But only the possibility. The political dividend from the Peace Process in terms of electoral gain has been received and banked. The process itself is stalled. Almost a decade after the signing of the Agreement, it remains to be implemented.

Republicans are faced with the need to inject a new momentum into the struggle. South of the border, the task of building a mass movement of republicanism is scarcely begun. I suggest that the way to do this is to unite the various constituencies of the left behind a republican agenda based on the demand for a community of equals, an agenda based on the clear realisation that the goals of national and of social liberation are inseparable, and that one cannot be prioritised over the other. This is the historic challenge for republicans of this generation. Whether or not we rise to that challenge will determine the success or failure of republicanism in our time.


An Phoblacht Magazine


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