You don’t matter and other adventures in socialism

elephant says your argument is completely irrelephant

Sometimes when a lefty argument has been going for too long without any real progress or indeed any sort of relevance, I get a bit tetchy, leading to an outburst of ‘We don’t matter, this doesn’t matter!’. I think this is true. Lefties (as in members of leftwing parties or similar) generally do not matter. We are a minute proportion of the population and the size and relevance of any single leftwing party or organisation will be even smaller. So in a very real sense, arguments about intricacies are irrelevant. Our discussions should really have a concrete goal (which can include getting a better understanding of a situation) or just be pursued for pleasure. Either way there’s no point beating our heads off a table over issues that are not relevant if there’s a fundamental disagreement.

Lenin commented that “Politics begin where the masses are, not where there are thousands, but where there are millions, that is where serious politics begin.” We in Ireland are probably never going to be able to engage in serious politics by this definition, but we can at least hope for tens of thousands, even hundreds (semi-serious politics perhaps). At the moment, we are handfuls, a couple of hundred at the maximum, and the Left has only been able to mobilise those tens of thousands when it has cooperated across party lines to organise on relevant issues. Campaigns like those against the Water Tax and Household Tax have shaped Irish State policy in a real, measurable way. Operating alone, a good day for a Left party is when they get their spokesperson on the radio.

Despite this, the organisational boundaries remain set in stone and the United Left Alliance is neglected. I think this is contrary to the actual purpose of the left organisations. We should form a party that has a smaller program than those of the existing parties and organisations, open to the bulk of Irish people to the left of Labour. Following the partyist mentality will not make lefties matter.

What will become of the micro-sect?

So, if there was a dissolution into a larger party, what would happen to the existing parties and formations? In my (limited) experience, small leftwing parties tend to be think-tanks with organisations attached. My suggestion is we hive off the think-tanks into intra-party policy groups which can compete for support for their ideas among the members.

In existing parties, think-tanks may be executive committees or informal cliques but the effect is the same; a small minority come up with policies, the majority vote on and implement them. This can be identified as a problem of engagement or a problem of fact; most people do not want to get involved in policy-making. If the latter, then members should at least have the chance to choose between different policies. If the former, it seems that engagement is probably hindered by the narrow spectrum of debate; if everyone pretty much agrees, what’s the point in getting involved in coming up with ideas?

But I think the narrow policy spectrum actually masks internal division by limiting debate; members may have misgivings about direction which are not articulated by a explicit alternate policy. If a member disagrees with the organisation’s policy, they are faced with a dilemma: get involved in a faction fight to advance their own intellectual leadership (difficult and appealing to few people), put up and shut up (alienating) or leave. And, of course, efforts to articulate an alternative direction can always be argued to be antithetical to the core beliefs/identity of the party. Accusations of heresy are effective ways of limiting debate when the political spectrum is narrow.

To a certain extent this is a problem caused by the need for discipline (i.e. doing political activity that you don’t fully agree with), but it is compounded by the small scale of organisations and the zero-sum game in contests for power.

From this perspective, it would make sense to have a larger party with a greater diversity of intellectual leadership, via policy groups that come up with ideas for activity, analysis and direction. These would have the same characteristics as the leadership of one of our existing parties; small, with a shared analysis and strategic orientation. Having many of these groups co-existing in a large party would allow members to hear a diversity of views on a subject, make it easy to change their mind or support positions from different cliques and a greater freedom for developing their own policy group if needed.

So the idea here is of a lot of different policy groups coming up with ideas and motions which are then voted on by the membership. This leads to the question of the relationship between legislative and executive branches within the party; is it possible to separate the two? If so, won’t this give the executive informal powers to decide what policy is implemented?

About Dara McHugh

Dara is an amateur social critic and a professional pedant. He enjoys punctuation, science-fiction and beer.
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3 Responses to You don’t matter and other adventures in socialism

  1. modulus says:

    Hi, Dara,

    Intresting post (and welcome to Spirit). I broadly agree with what you’re saying. It seems a lot of energy is spent in these arguments that would really do us better organising and trying to create a pole of attraction on the left of social democracy. Here in the Spanish state we’re seeing a collapse of the PSOE–the mainstream social democratic party since our democratic tarnsition–and a resurgance of the left. Mostly concentrated around United Left, but as usual also represented by other tiny parties.

    Given our electoral system which has rather small and uneven districts, and a not-very-proportional representation, any kind of split in terms of party lists is just squandering our votes, like holding water in a basket.

    That said, I think we’ll probably always have these arguments for at least a couple of reasons: some people aren’t very suited to concretely engaging with organising the class. They’re introverted, shy, have difficulties talking to strangers, etc. So these people–amongst whom I would classify myself–find it easier and more interesting to discuss politics than to actually engage in them. I do think it’s a bad thing, but short of a way to make people sociable, I’m not sure how possible it is to overcome it.

    And last, these arguments keep alive a culture of debate and inquiry, and hopefully a high theoretical level, for that longed for time when objective conditions jell and we can start to matter again. Some of those arguments are quite useless, I’m sure, but some do get us thinking and trying to grapple with changes in capitalism, and so on.

    Sorry for such a long comment. 🙂

  2. Dara says:

    Hi Modulus,
    Thanks for the response.

    And last, these arguments keep alive a culture of debate and inquiry, and hopefully a high theoretical level, for that longed for time when objective conditions jell and we can start to matter again.

    I think this can be partly answered by what I wrote:

    Our discussions should really have a concrete goal (which can include getting a better understanding of a situation) or just be pursued for pleasure.

    Additionally, there is also the pedagogical usefulness of intra-party debate, which I did indeed neglect to mention.

  3. modulus says:

    Yes, I guess you’re right. Improving one’s understanding of things or preserving socialist analysis are perfectly valid concrete goals. I suppose I read it more in a short-termist sense of goals which are of immediate applicability, but that’s not what you said at all.

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