Why I joined the ULA

Well, at least they didn’t support the war.

I recently joined the United Left Alliance and shortly after I received a number of questions from people about why I would bother.

One person asked me why I thought that it would have any chance of success given the history of the two constituent parties which are left. Others have asked what the point is in being involved in something which is currently little more than electoral alliance.

Of course having had an anarchist pedigree, a number of my friends are surely questioning my sanity in being involved in a political party which takes part in elections, especially with the history in Ireland of betrayal of mass parties by elected officials.

These are good questions.

Firstly, I had not joined the ULA previously because I believed its chances of success were not sufficiently high for me to get involved. In meetings with the ULA Dublin central branch, there were a large number of SWP members who would dominate the meeting and try to insist on signing people up for a constant level of pointless activity. I had left the Workers Solidarity Movement (WSM) with the intention of getting away from “always on” headless-chicken type politics which insists on people keeping up activity in exercises so pointless that nobody in the organisation will individually defend them when you talk to them 1. I was not interested in repeating the experience with a new bunch even more manic and less contemplative than the WSM.

Secondly, the long term animosity of the SWP and SP makes the prospect even less enticing. It’s not clear how committed either of the parties is to the construction of a large and inclusive socialist party. The SP have published an article describing why they think the time is not yet ripe and the ULA was not the mass workers party that we need.

Moving to establish a party without the actual involvement of significant numbers of ordinary working class people, would lead to it becoming an irrelevant political sect. The ULA is not the new party, nor is it likely to just become the new party at some future date. – Kevin McLoughlin

A peculiar sentiment given that part of the reason for the low enthusiasm for joining is because of the lack of enthusiasm from the constituent parties in making it into a party and not an irrelevant political sect. Similarly, an SWP memo described how the SWP were taking a step back from active involvement in the ULA and promoting People Before Profit.

However, even prior to any of these revelations, when friends of mine took odds on the probability of one or both of the parties scuppering the project, nobody gave odds lower than 60% based presumably on the historical behaviour of the two parties.

There is some reason to be optimistic despite this. The unaligned movement has gained sufficient traction in the organisation that I think it is possible that the ULA might survive despite these high odds of one of the Trotskyist parties leaving. That fact in itself actually reduces the chance of either of them leaving. Further, I think there is space for activity in the organisation which is not on a narrow ideological orthodoxy.

Now, I can’t at all say that I have high hopes for the success of the organisation, I still think that the odds are not very favourable. What I can say is that I think that the possibility does now exist.

What good it would do to join a formation like the ULA even if it didn’t destroy itself on the rocks of sectarian infighting? Here I would have to take a step back and describe briefly what I think we need strategically on the left and which tactics might be appropriate to cope with it.

Firstly, the state of the left is not just poor in the ULA, it’s bad all over. We’ve almost no traction anywhere and this fact is evidenced both in terms of our raw incapacity to stop the ever increasing trend of neo-liberalisation or to combat the conquest on the intellectual and cultural field.

Further, there is no freedom of movement within a possibility of immediate rupture. Even in the incredibly unlikely possibility that Ireland suddenly obtained an insurrectionary movement from Mars (which is apparently what the Trotskyists and Anarchists are banking on), it wouldn’t be capable of taking on international capital. The immediate term possibilities are much more constricted.

We need to be realistic about the balance of forces currently and attempt to generate a larger and more coherent left movement in Europe which poses the question of taking on finance capital. At the scale of Europe, the possibilities of success are much greater.

Europe is essentially a huge, closed economy. A unified European state would make threats of capital flight much less credible and imposition on capital much more possible. But it really can’t happen at the level of Ireland, or any other of the nation-states for that matter, so any long term socialist strategy needs to be at least European in scale. Since this is obviously not on the cards at the immediate juncture, we need to make steps in this direction first.

The immediate term goal then has to be more modest. We need to provide practical interim solutions to people now that mitigate against the vicious cuts we are experiencing in such a way that we don’t shut off future possibilities of development, by, for example, advancing a left-nationalist programme. The remedy to this is complicated and can’t be solved by any one specific tactic. Instead it requires a host of inter-dependent approaches which reinforce each other. The following list will not provide an immediate break with capitalist society. which would require decades of building, but would present at least a chance in hell of success which I don’t believe we have otherwise.

1) A left media capable of winning people over to socialist ideas, demonstrating a different world view which does not reinforce dependency. One which does not blame the trade unions for ruining the economy by enforcing sectional interests or the working class for causing a bubble by living beyond their means. One that can serve as a forum to present various ideas about how to move forward and give people confidence to attempt to do so.

2) We need a network of productive enterprises to help support the movement. Currently the socialist groups are reliant on either state funds or individual contributions. The state funds are quite a bit more generous especially given the depressed nature of the economy, but neither are sufficient. This would mean developing cooperatives and finance institutions dedicated to improving the conditions of the working class and dedicated to defending themselves politically. In other words, the surplus gained from co-operatives can be ploughed back into building a left-wing media and socialist political party.

3) We need a mass political party which is capable of defending the legitimacy of working class activity politically. Winning a large share of the vote really increases the legitimacy of a movement. As an opinion poll, the electoral system could be a very effective means of establishing the general sentiment. While in opposition there is very little which a political party can actually do other than act as a platform, but it is possible to use the position to demonstrate what alternative policies would be better.

4) We need to build broad left networks in the trade unions to try and win people over to supporting the unions they are involved in and to revitalise them. We need to encourage people to join unions and increase the union density in the private sector.

5) We need to encourage the development of student societies with the intention of involving people directly in activity against the cuts, in developing the general intellectual capacity of the left but perhaps more importantly with a view to getting students involved in the general socialist movement after they leave, by encouraging them to join their union or help set up cooperatives and by being active politically.

Too often the focus of students is on immediate political activity with no talk about the future or how they could be integrated into a broader movement on a life time scale. The problem with our socialist organisations isn’t just “burn-out”, it’s that we chew through people like bubble gum. We need to help people integrate into a mass movement that can actually coexist with their lives.

6) We need a greater level of intellectual development generally on the left. The current level is far too low. The individual parties have been averse to exploring ideas outside of their tradition and are often quite keen on polemics. The SP and SWP are fond of calling various programmes (of Syriza or each other) reformist. At the same time they helped to create the ULA’s own reformist programme. I have nothing against the demands listed there, I’m fully in support of these reforms, but it demonstrates the essential inconsistency of the position.

There is more to be said about the origins of this curious contradiction, but I believe it stems from the Trotskyist 2 ideology itself.

Changing the intellectual level is going to mean less exegesis from sacred texts, less obsessive consistency with the party line and more constructive conversation and critique. We need more forums for discussion and we have to be actively attempting to look for solutions. The insistence that the solutions are already known across the board has led to a snail’s pace of theoretical development on what we can actually do.

And oddly, perhaps the least widely accepted proposition on the far left of any of the ones I have presented so far:

7) We need a united left. It’s absolutely imperative that we have a diversity of ideas in order to achieve the level of intellectual development and you don’t get that diversity by being a standalone super-coherent ideological organisation. A movement where useful innovation can be appreciated and where tactical solutions to new problems can be incorporated will encourage participation as well as leading to more capable problem solving.

And, more simply, we will need a diversity of people in order to fill all the tactical roles necessary. Some people are good at chatting on the doorstep; others are talented at agitating on the street, while others have a theoretical contribution to make. The sheer variety of tasks requires a matching variety of people and for that size alone is a help. A small organisation is just going to struggle getting the numbers to be diverse.

Getting away from sectarianism does not mean refraining from critique. In fact it is quite the opposite. Sectarianism is the approach of cutting off your nose to spite your face, the insistence that there can be no useful conversation and so it follows that there is little point in remaining in the same organisation. If scientists behaved in this manner then science would have stagnated ages ago. 3 Given the left’s tendency to split itself into antagonistic, autarchic units its not at all surprising that the it is so incapacitated. The collective process of debating a wide range of analyses, strategies and visions should lead to a stronger mass organisation.

We need, therefore, more critique in a more comradely fashion and an insistence that such critiques do not make one a heretic to be excommunicated but instead are contribution to the organisation.

If we can incorporate the above propositions I think we can take real steps towards a broad European movement which might actually pose the question of transition to a sustainable economy structured to benefit people rather than maximise profit for a few.

The ULA is hardly an ideal organisation and it’s clearly not what I’d like it to be, but then no organisation is ever going to be perfect. The reason I joined it is that at this juncture, of all the available left groups it has the greatest chance of developing into what is required in these trying times.

  1. A good example of such an activity is paper distribution of a small bi-monthly publication that almost nobody reads. A paper too short to give interesting analysis, and too infrequent to be news. This activity takes a large amount of time with no apparent benefit and fragments the already fragmented resources on the left which might otherwise be capable of supporting a real left publication which could present analysis and be frequent enough to qualify as news.  
  2. I’m not myself anti-Trotskyist or anti-Trotsky, I think Trotsky does have some useful political analysis, but I certainly wouldn’t consider Trotskyism to be a useful political analysis for the present political context. Further, Trotskyism has, on the question of producing democratic mass movements an objectively worse record than either Anarchism or Stalinism in the west. Trotskyism takes an insurrectionary view, i.e. that the ballot box is only useful as a tool to popularise the insurrection. Any reform is only considered useful by consistent Trotskyists if it can never actually be realised and can be used to push workers further towards supporting insurrection. Trotskyist organisations therefore very often come up with sets of what they believe to be unrealisable demands, sometimes sprinkled with other popular demands and generally resulting in a hodge-podge. At the same time they feel justified in denouncing other reformists who they believe are simply presenting reforms rather than transitional demands. This is most entertaining when it involves two Trotskyist groups denouncing each other as reformists. I think the entire view towards transitional demands is of very dubious value in the West, and it has never proved effective. I think that we can gain traction from slower reforms and create a mass movement by building trust in the working class. However, this entire line of thought requires its own exposition.  
  3. In fact they do on occasion but it is rightly considered by the community to be a black mark on their reputation.  

About Gavin Mendel-Gleason

An ex-patriate American living in Ireland. Former anarchist, present mass partyist, but always committed socialist.
This entry was posted in Politics, Proletarian politics. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Why I joined the ULA

  1. Pingback: Interesting take on the state of the ULA from the CPGB « The Cedar Lounge Revolution

  2. Adam says:

    Excellent post, really sums up a lot of my thoughts about the left and what could be done with a bit more positive co-operation.

  3. Pingback: anarchist joining the ula misunderstands an essential part of Trotskyism « revolutionaryprogramme

  4. James O'Brien says:

    Over on his website*, Alan writes:

    Reform and revolution are not just less and more radical versions on the same road but rather distinct and competing strategic paths forward for the working class. There is of course the basis for non-sectarian principled unity around specific campaigns about defending the immediate interests of our class but that is a very different thing from the fake unity over strategic issues that would have to exist in the kind of broad pluralist party Gavin seems to be advocating.

    The dichotomy between reform and revolution seems to me to be not very useful, but that is a question for another day. Here, I’d like to address the idea of fake unity, since it is likely to be an issue that crops every time a nascent socialist party is in formation.

    Let us assume agreement on the core goals of the project, i.e. democratic socialism – the collective ownership of the means of production, democratic administration and so on.

    Let’s also assume there are a wide variety of views on the best strategies to achieve that goal. Some people place emphasis on co-operatives and parliamentary representation; others on revolutionary trade unionism; others still on the need for insurrection and the smashing of the state.

    What sort of unity is possible between advocates of these diverse strategies?

    Alan appears to be advocating revolution not only as a strategy, but as a principle. That is, it should be a basis of unity. The corollary of that is that if there isn’t agreement to a strategy then there will be a split.

    We think that the “how” questions should be one of strategy, not ones of principle. Commitment to goal of socialism itself should be the primary basis for unity. Everybody from the most cautious Menshevik to the wild-eyed council-communist can sign up to that.

    Adherence to a particular strategy should not be a condition of unity, either for the ULA or for any future socialist party. Naturally, there will be have to be a degree of organisational loyalty, but this is quite a different issue. The advocates of the various strategies should have to win over the majority of the party to their particular vision, whether it is parliamentarianism, revolution, trade unionism or whatever. And they should have to do it day in, day out, year in, year out.

    Obviously this requires a party that tolerates, even encourages, political discussion so that the various tendencies can be expressed and the membership can educate itself as to which strategy it prefers.

    If the minorities are confident that the party as whole shares a commitment to the actual goal, i.e. socialism, and are confident that the party facilitates the winning of the organisation to their particular strategy, there is every reason to hope that divergent tendencies can productively co-exist in a broad party.

    Thus, the unity involved is not fake. It is, in fact, quite honest about differences; it just doesn’t allow them to paralyse it by elevating them to a point of principle.

    If, however, there is suspicion that a victory for any particular tendency will lead to a shutting down of that space for democratic struggle and the imposition of strategic unity as a point of principle, there will be constant, bitter struggle to avoid defeat since it would be impossible to win back the majority to one’s own point of view. And upon the imposition of adherence to strategy as a point of unity, there will be be split.

    Making strategy a point of principle – and therefore a condition of unity – must lead to a much narrower formation, such as is commonly seen in the far left in the Anglo-phone world. The insistence here on adherence to a particular strategic line encourages a splintering of organisations, who to outsiders look to be extremely close to each other.

    This splintering has been a singularly unproductive approach, in particular for Trotskyism, but also for anarchism, left-communism, and Maoism. In other words, there is a pattern here that we should pay attention to.

    Given that in practice there is often co-operation on mere tactical issues of immediate interest to the class it is strange to rule out the possibility of collectively working for socialism itself.


  5. Alan Gibson says:


    My reasoning is in terms of programme being a guide to collective action. The different strategies of reform and revolution are not abstract theoretical constructs about aspirational goals – they manifest in very real and major differences in concrete activity in the class struggle.

    As I argue there can be an overlap in terms of immediate campaigns to defend and extend the interests of our class but I do not see how it is possible for the level of strategic divergence between the two approaches to be contained in any organisation that seeks to act in a disciplined collective manner to change the world in the interests of our class.

    Of course if you think political organisations are not about disciplined collective action and/or progamme is merely about abstract ideas and aspirational goals unrelated to concrete political activity then this argument will have no impact on you.

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