Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

‘”The ULA badly needs a ‘third force’…”

with 6 comments

There has been little enough feedback on the 24th January article Where to now for the ULA? by Eddie Conlon and Brendan Young. But better quality than quantity. The quality of this response from John Cane prompted Tomás to invite it up as a guest post. Tomás would not use all the terminology, like “democratic centralism” or “Leninist”, in the same way, but let’s not quibble.


It seems to me from your analysis that both the SWP and the SP have proved incapable of changing their spots – and that they are not going to anytime soon. They are both irredeemable “vanguardist” groups and thus must always put “party-building” first.

I would think this is a major problem for the “non-aligned” groups and individuals in ULA due to the combined weight of the SWP and SP in the organisation (though, of course, I understand that they rarely operate in concert). Frankly, I don’t see any chance of progressing the ULA “project” (of establishing a viable “revolutionary/reformist” grouping in Ireland, as I understand it) as long as it is being driven by the politics of either or both of these “vanguard” revolutionary groups.

The ULA badly needs a “third force” to counteract and challenge the SWP and SP. This can, surely, only come from organising the “non-aligned” groups and individuals on a separate basis within the ULA, to pursue separate goals (when necessary), by separate means (when necessary) – all within the ULA framework, of course. It’s a good step forward to see a separate meeting for the “non-aligned” at your forthcoming conference.

In my opinion, the sooner a new “third force” begins to define itself the better. It should have a name (how about Independent Left?). It should agree on why it thinks it needs to be separate (the rejection of “vanguardism”?; the rejection of “democratic centralism”? ; the rejection of “revolutionism”?). It should decide how inclusive it wants to be (surely very inclusive i.e. anyone not in “parties” or groups espousing the above).

The new grouping (“tendency”?) would, I think, only be able to challenge the SWP and SP (never mind supersede them) if it actively seeks to become a pole of attraction both to those inside the current ULA (i.e. all “non-aligned” and disillusioned SWP and SP members) and, critically, lefties of all stripes outside the current ULA (i.e. disillusioned LP members, groups like Plan B and Occupy, and local-based organisations).

One specific problem in establishing “Independent Left” is, perhaps, the existence of PBPA (especially the “Crumlin group”). It seems to me that there is no point to the PBPA as it stands now. If it is effectively controlled by the SWP then all “non-aligned” groups (including “Crumlin”) and individuals should simply leave it and join Independent Left if they wish to.

All going well (!), the great majority of currently “non-aligned” groups and individuals in ULA would see the value of setting up and working within an “Independent Left”-style “tendency” along the lines above and, this accomplished, it’s hard to see how SWP or SP would have any other option than to accept it as a “third force”. If they didn’t, they would have to fold the whole ULA “project” (and be seen to be doing so). “Independent Left” is, after all, an entirely legitimate exercise in left political plurality (in contrast to the “democratic centralism” of both SWP and SP). As such, its establishment, if conducted openly and fraternally, would be hard for even Leninists and Trotskyists to oppose.

If you could get away with all this, then, I would think you’ll be well on the way to “building” a viable “revolutionary/reformist” left ULA grouping in Ireland (though not a “new mass workers party”, I think!). Perhaps something along the lines of the old SLP and other “Two-and-a Half International” groupings, with “Independent Left” providing the essential (and hopefully, before long, dominant) broad, pluralist, non-vanguardist input.

And even if you don’t get away with it, well, would you be any worse off? There’s no future much for the ULA “project” as it stands now.

22nd February 2012

Written by tomasoflatharta

Mar 7, 2012 at 12:36 am

6 Responses

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  1. I’m not sure that I can discern much of the “quality” you mention in this post, Tomas.

    In fact it seems to me to be a predictable counsel of despair from someone deeply opposed to separate Marxist organisation and without much first hand knowledge of the ULA, the Socialist Party, the SWP or the other groups and individuals involved in the ULA. It takes as a starting point the idea that “Leninism”, “Trotskyism”, “vanguardism” (an idiotic term), “democratic centralism”, “party building”, distinct revolutionary organisation and a whole bunch of other contested things are all terrible sins to be avoided. And then it goes on to assume that any organisation which subscribes to any of those ideas (or to which he imputes any of these ideas) is suffering from some sort of original sin. No analysis is needed beyond that, no knowledge of any of the groups mentioned, no understanding of the dynamics of the ULA or the possibilities which are or are not open to it.

    It seems to make two actual proposals, the main one of which is simply unworkable.

    Independent members of the ULA can’t as a whole become a third organised force for the very simple reason that they don’t agree with each other about basic political questions. Take for instance the political basis John proposes for this “third force”: He assumes that everyone in the ULA who isn’t in the Socialist Party or SWP is substantially to the right of those groups, to the extent that they are opposed to the idea of a revolutionary party. That is certainly the case for some ULA independents, but there are others who would hold similar sort of views to the Socialist Party or SWP on these questions and others again who would be regarded as “ultra left” by those groups. Why on earth would those people cohere into a “third force” founded on opposition to their own opinions?

    This doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain limited things that most independents might agree on and organise around (eg the need for more participative structures). That can and probably will happen. And it doesn’t mean that there won’t arise third, fourth, fifth, sixth… forces in the ULA over time as groups of individuals develop political agreement with each other. But a “pan-independent” third force isn’t achievable or even desirable, for the very simple reason that ULA independents are politically disparate. I think that John will find that “independents” as a whole simply don’t share his tendentious opinions.

    The second proposal he makes, in passing, is that the People Before Profit should dissolve. From the outside that seems reasonable enough, in that it doesn’t appear to have much of a distinct role. As I understand it, the PBPA no longer does anything much as a national organisation. Does it still meet at branch level as an organisation distinct from the ULA? In the end though, this is an issue for PBPA members rather than the rest of us. I don’t particularly care either way.

    To get back to the main point, John’s whole contribution is a combination of despair founded in prejudice and ignorance and a solution based on fantasy. If only all of the disparate independents adopted John’s political views and then organised to marginalise those dastardly organisations which actually set up the ULA, then everything would be so much better!

    Mark P

    Mar 7, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    • Concerning the ULA comments I feel compelled to say the following. I say this hopefully not in a prejudicial way, but in a way that reflects the experience of the non-aligned people involved.

      The ULA has been weakened by rival groups within it jockeying for position and dominance. Winning bigger numbers for their groups has become more important than co-operating in the common interests of fightback forces.

      Many initiatives already were fronts run behind the scenes by some groups for their own benefit, e.g. Enough, Right to Work and so on. The sheer lunacy of it all: each front replicating the same work and manoeuvring for position within the alliance against the others. Groups sometimes use non-committed ULA members as foot soldiers to burnish their electoral images with door-to-door canvassing, postering, picketing, leafleting etc.

      I don’t underestimate for one moment the huge effort put in by the TDs and councillors in building ULA so far. And the genuine commitment and hard work by many (including independents) at the early stages to build this unity venture.

      But long since there has been no real co-operation, beyond a non-aggression electoral pact. The signs of tension and paralysis are well known. If we can’t subordinate the interests of constituent groups, in the interests of people, by making our priority, our first loyalty to building the ULA, then we are cruising for a bruising.

      I don’t deny the right of different groups to build themselves and to organise separate activities. Every party wants to promote its own politics. And rightly so. But not at the expense of promoting the ULA on the key issues we agree on. All we ask is that such groups don’t disrupt the building of a united fightback alliance through reckless behaviour.

      John raises the issue of “tendency” rights and a “third force” for independents “along the lines of the old SLP”. The precedent for politically advanced activists keying-in to a radical climate was the short-lived Socialist Labour Party of 1977-81, the SLP, which was joined by Noel Browne as an elected TD. To the surprise of most, “tendency” rights were agreed at the founding conference, without anyone against. A group could announce itself, list its supporters, hold its own meetings and publish its own bulletins inside the party.

      It seems to me that the ULA should form a Party with the right of tendency for any group within it. Such tendencies could act inside the party, as long as these groups build the party. It should be an action party with interim goals like the ones we all agree on.

      Dealing with the reality of building a party that doesn’t meet your ideal means swallowing some differences. There should be no solo runs in front campaigns. And separate activities must be put at arms length. We need to mazimise unity on the issues we agree on. We need to send out invitations to all left forces to join. We need to build active branded United Left membership and campaigning branches. How else can we reach out to new people/groups if we can’t offer them a party to join (or affiliate to)?

      In this way we could have some as members of political parties and others as independent activists, community campaigners and so on. This is the best way to mobilize people and avoid the stagnation that will inevitably set in as ULA activists become sickened by the jostling exercises we’ve witnessed so far.
      Of course, many would agree that a party is desirable. But for the key ULA players this is always located in the near future, never in the actual present.

      John suggests an “Independent Left” which should be “surely very inclusive i.e. anyone not in “parties” or supporting “revolutionism”. I disagree. This could exclude the non-aligned who are subjectively revolutionary socialists. But that’s my partisan viewpoint, as this would exclude me. I’m also uncomfortable with the notion of absolutely excluding anyone. Should a member of a party/group wish to address the non-aligned on a particular occasion, why not?

      As to the building of a “third force”, Mark notes the fact they are “politically disparate” constitutes a problem. This is true. This is especially so where John’s preference is to make its purpose “to counteract and challenge” the SP and SWP. No wonder their members would be alienated by such an approach. Playing happy families is a non-runner where the differences are extreme.

      But equally the fact remains that for some activists, being independent and being anti-party is a badge of honour. Many brought into activity in recent years have a fear of being trapped in organizations/campaigns, devoid of genuine democratic internal life and ruled over by unelected steering committees. ULA must overcome this understandable contempt, by renovating organisational methods and delivering on its commitment to democracy.

      Ways have to be found to connect with the non-aligned and to cater for their concerns. A forum to bring together these activists would be helpful, especially for those of who might feel isolated. In any event, everyone would benefit from exchange of experience and ideas in new gatherings.

      As Mark says, there are “certain limited things that most independents might agree on and organise around (eg the need for more participative structures)”. They will want more than that if they are to address the ULA democratic deficit. Whether the uncertainty about arrangements for conference, sub committees, communication failures etc is incompetence or lack of political will, I do not know. The excuse that these are teething problems and progress is being made is nonsense.

      Slow progress demoralises people. Independent activists will want to have an involvement and see results. Social recreational activities and political education sessions will suffice for some people. But additionally, we desperately need a common code of procedure for organising methods. I think it is a matter of working together and identifying the procedures that need to be set up to allow a more structured approach to happen.

      Activists must have a real say about what ULA should argue for and do. Accountability issues arise for all TDs and councillors in relation to the agreed action plan. Democratic control should manifest itself via votes at decision-making conferences.

      The ULA is far too small to accommodate the provision of delegates for conference. One person, one vote obviously follows. Representation for non-aligned members on the steering committee is a must. There should be clear definition and declaration of who is non-aligned. There should be a limit on the representation of groups on the steering committee. The standards operating with communications should be critical. Branches should have convenors that ensure that all members know what’s going on.

      Henry’s proposal for a Branch Delegate Council is very good in principle. But in truth, not enough ULA branches exist in practice to implement it. There is no serious possibility to enable the relevant communication exchanges. Perhaps a modified version of the Council would be useful.

      The above is a difficult task for the sub committee on ‘structures’, prior to a quick-coming conference. How could it review best practice elsewhere and outline recommendations in a document to be circulated to branches for consideration before conference? No, no, double-no. There you have it, no way! And we were told the sub committee would “consult all members on these issues”. But rest assured, the concerns of the sub committee can be noted at conference and it can be sent off packing with a request to report back in the near future, i.e. kick it into oblivion!

      Why should anybody on the margins of the organised left groupings stay inside an alliance where components don’t appear to trust one another or adhere to their stated commitments? At the very least, we require a meaningful response to the concerns raised above.

      You may call my notions “despair”. This is simply avoiding the most important issue we face: why has the ULA failed to grow an active membership and branches? Today, when we face a historic crisis of capitalism, failure to address this pressing question would be a massive lost opportunity.

      Bernadette B

      Mar 12, 2012 at 10:49 pm

  2. As all sides said in the early stages, it is essential we work on campaigns together to better understand each other. Only now is the opportunity there with the CAHWT and the Austerity Treaty to properly do that. However, the changing of spots is not an instantaneous event and not just confined to the SWP and the SP. We are all trying to approximate to a new method/best practice of proto- newparty activism, but none of us know or can know what that is until we get there. Who is to say it won’t be John who will look back and see that it was he who was pushing the wrong positions, at the wrong time? It cannot be about bringing the SP or the SWP to the position of a single nonaligned, or any one nonaligned or organization.

    All we can do as we campaign together is set up the structures appropriate to the next steps as we get to them which allow for everyone to be informed, participating and bring everyone along at the same time.

    I wouldn’t be too “forceful” either when talking about a “third force”. Yes we should all get to know each other and cooperate and organize when we find things in common. But that is not to the exclusion of anyone else. We are looking to be a united force; in many ways the point of a left unity project is to organize *against* exclusion and it is only upon that basis we will succeed.

    By and large I think Mark P is correct here, but we should welcome any and all contributions to the future of the ULA as to encourage others to do likewise.

    Julian Assandwich

    Mar 12, 2012 at 11:50 pm

    • Bernadette’s lengthy contribution deserves a more considered response, but it is perhaps worth noting something important about a point she makes early on:

      “Many initiatives already were fronts run behind the scenes by some groups for their own benefit, e.g. Enough, Right to Work and so on. The sheer lunacy of it all: each front replicating the same work and manoeuvring for position within the alliance against the others.”

      In fact, “Enough, Right to Work and so on” are or were fronts for one particular group, the SWP. The other groups involved in the ULA, which is to say the Socialist Party and the Workers and Unemployed Action Group have not run around setting up front groups replicating work which could and should be carried out by the ULA. Too often in these sort of discussions there is loose talk about “the groups” or “the affiliates” as if they are interchangeable. This particular complaint, and it is in my view a valid one, is not a complaint about the “the affiliates” but about the SWP.

      Mark P

      Mar 13, 2012 at 7:18 pm

      • Absolutely. And it is very frustrating. But does one suggest to the SWP to withhold what is, essentially, their right as an independent organization in a loose alliance to run independent campaigns? For the moment I agree with the SP position that the ULA wait until we have all campaigned together in the CAHWT and the CAAT before we take the next steps (if we are ready then),

        The flipside of course is that it we cannot then expect the SWP to cease extra-ULA activity. Cake. Having. Eating.

        And I think this irresistable force/immovable object scenario is the biggest source of conflict at the moment. I’m not excusing the SWP’s behaviour who I think should act in better faith and more cooperatively than they have been(making this far more difficult than it needs to have been), but I think this year we will have to move closer to their position. That makes an interesting contrast with the Young/Conlon article: if nothing changes the alliance is in mortal danger – but also, they are correct that if the wrong change comes we are equally in mortal danger.

        The question we need to find a solution for then is “what is a meaningful progression we can make that won’t unleash a destructive stacking-dynamic?” We’ll need to know what that is before the summer in order to implement it come the autumn.

        Julian Assandwich

        Mar 15, 2012 at 4:22 am

      • Julian,

        I quite agree that the SWP have a right to carry out independent campaigning, under their own banner or as part of a campaign. It’s worth noting though that these rather general front campaigns are neither their own banner nor genuine broad, independent, campaigns but fronts. What’s more, they are so broad in conception that they necessarily involve duplicating work which could uncontroversially and more usefully be carried out by the ULA as the ULA.

        It unfortunately comes down to a method the SWP are very attached to. They think that the by launching ready made front organisations, with name, objectives, policies, structure and leadership pre-decided on Henrietta Street, and then presenting everyone else with a fait accompli, they are “seizing the initiative” and “showing leadership”. What they actually accomplish is to irritate just about every other experienced activist and further develop their reputation for manipulative practices. The Campaign Against the Household Tax is a much better model when it comes to single issue campaigns.

        I don’t expect the SWP to cease extra-ULA activity. I expect them to learn to play better with others, both inside and outside the ULA.

        Mark P

        Mar 15, 2012 at 5:47 pm

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