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Can socialist politics mount a serious challenge to Leo’s so-called “centrism”?

After Corbyn’s success, Marxist policies are now mainstream, writes Gavin Mendel-Gleason.

HERE AND ACROSS the water, nobody under the age of 38 has ever had an opportunity to vote for anything except Blairism. But recently in the UK, when given the option, the generation who were brought up by Blairism went for the socialist.

Here at home, by contrast as Leo Varadkar was crowned Taoiseach, we heard from our new leader calls that we abandon “outdated” definitions of left and right. We must, we heard, come together around some mythical, non-divisive “European Centre.”

So what chance – or need – is there of Irish politics following a trajectory that mirrors the rise of socialism we have witnessed in the UK in the last month?

Building success for the left in Ireland – the long road

It’s worth stepping back and examining what it was enabled Jeremy Corbyn’s success, to reflect on where we on the left should go from here in Ireland.

The first factor is Corbyn’s own personal credibility, gained from a lifetime’s commitment to socialism, and opposition to austerity, privatisation and war. Ironically, it is the very fact that Corbyn’s ideas and record are old, and not a new, shiny, trend, that has made him so trustworthy.

He’s been hacking away inside the Labour Party, for public ownership, against bank bailouts, against war and apartheid, for increased public spending, for decades. Jeremy Corbyn took the long road.

This is not to say that results in the here and now are unimportant. But it is to say that we should be realistic about the timeframes in which we expect results, and choose our first step accordingly.

Socialists in Ireland are often been accused of being unrealistic for refusing to support “pragmatic” decisions, or for clinging to “outdated” beliefs in state ownership of industry, or public investment in services.

On Dublin City Council for example, the Workers’ Party and other socialists have come in for immense criticism from many who claim to support Corbyn’s politics – Sinn Fein, Labour, the Social Democrats – for refusing to agree to build 70% private housing on land we own.

We are told we are more concerned with our “principles” than with achieving real material improvements for working class people. Meanwhile, others have criticised socialist parties for not endorsing coalition with Sinn Fein under the “Right2Water” banner. “Left unity,” they argue, should be prioritised above all else.

In both cases, the criticisms sound eerily familiar to those levelled at Corbyn and the socialist faction within the Labour Party for decades: stuck with an outdated ideology, prioritising it over realpolitik, divisive, not “team players”. We should be glad he didn’t listen. It was his steadfast refusal to embrace “pragmatism” that gave his politics the credibility he can now build from.

The party

From this personal popularity came a massive recruitment of tens of thousands of new members into the Labour Party, strengthening Corbyn’s hand against his own internal enemies.

Here in Ireland, it is far harder to identify which political party might be able to grow at such a speed. Some, as outlined above, fall short of the type of consistency and principle which have enabled Corbyn to weather the inevitable storm of pressure to abandon radical politics.

We have already seen this happen with the Irish Labour Party. Others style themselves along the lines of “Momentum” – as broad movements, but without the party structure to feed support to.

But, however long it may take, building a party structure is a prerequisite to future success for socialists in Ireland. Historically, it was at those times when the Workers’ Party delivered both socialist parliamentary engagement and street campaigning, that radical politics showed the most potential in Ireland, illustrated at its height by the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands on the streets in the PAYE tax marches.

The politics

Here at home, Corbyn has been embraced by those who believe his victory is a redemption for “social democratic” politics – the ability of the state to regulate and tax big business sufficiently to create an equal society. But it is far from the case.

This is not the social democratic tradition that Corbyn comes from. As recently as 1995, the Labour Party’s constitution committed to gradual nationalisation of industry in the UK. When the Blairites forced Labour to abandon that principle, Corbyn argued consistently in favour of it.

Even Corbyn’s strongest critics agree, the Labour Party’s election manifesto – perhaps the most left-wing from a European social democratic party in generations – was hugely popular amongst the working class, students, women, and groups who have faced cuts in recent years. Marxist political demands are making a reappearance in the mainstream.

It is a socialist economic policy which is beyond anything ever endorsed by social democrats in Ireland. Indeed, it has more in common with the ideas of communist and socialist mass parties across Europe which grew to hold 30, 40 and 50% of support across western European countries such as Austria, France and Italy throughout the twentieth century, albeit at different times, than with the various social democratic parties – primarily Labour, Social Democrats and Sinn Fein today – in Ireland.

The question of who should and should not be included when we talk about “the left” in Ireland is often asked. When answering this we could do worse than to start with the question of who supports the principle of establishing democratic ownership of our economy and industry. Because the “compromise with business” pursued by social democrats across Europe since the late 1980s – and in Ireland epitomised by universal support amongst Irish social democrats for low corporation tax – is dead.

In it for the long haul

Corbyn will continue to face, at every turn, potential revolt by Blairite Labour MPs, and a hostile media. His policies are bad for the most powerful. This means that what seem like “moderate” demands – decent housing, peace not war, good jobs, public healthcare, protection for the environment – will only be realised at the expense of the rich, the elite and the security state. These forces will pull out every stop to ensure that reforms are disrupted.

For socialists who might come close to power in Ireland in the future, it would be foolish to underestimate how great the backlash of the powerful against us will be. It’s no use getting close to power, only to then collapse.

Now is the point when we must ask, how do we build the structures, write the policies, and take the actions now that will lay the ground for an organisation strong enough to withstand that pressure?

It requires us asking, can socialist politics mount a serious challenge to Leo’s so-called “centrism” without activists taking the decision to join – not just cheer on – a political party? Can that political party withstand pressure to compromise without commitment to taking power away from business once and for all? Can we regain the trust of the public in politics if we make compromise after compromise in the name of “pragmatism”?

The scale of the challenges we face make it essential that all of us who consider ourselves of the left take a good hard look at these questions.

Gavin Mendel-Gleason is a Workers’ Party representative for Dublin Northwest.

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