Posts By Helena Sheehan

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Ghosts of Alternatives Past

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This is a transcript of a talk given by Helena Sheehan at the “Democracy Rising” international conference, Athens 16 July 2015

What echoes and shadows of left experiments of the past haunt us as we embark on a new era opened by the formation of a radical left government in Greece? What is the plot of the longer story in which this new episode is embedded? How has the weight of the wider world, the power of the global system, borne down upon attempts to move from capitalism to socialism, whether in rupturalist projects, stemming from the October Revolution, or more protracted programmes of transformation, such as those set out by the ANC in South Africa in 1994 and by Syriza in Greece in 2015? What are the dynamics of attempting to forge an alternative in the face of the hegemony of there-is-no-alternative? How to make history in conditions not of our making? How, with so much going for it, nationally and internationally, has the ANC failed to achieve, or even approximate, the society that those who fought and died for it set out to achieve? How could Syriza, in the face of far more formidable obstacles, advance both its immediate programme and a new path toward socialism?

There is now a long history of left alternatives, even of left governments. From the Paris in 1871 to Athens 2015, we have seen hopes rise and the prospect of a new order come into view.

Some left governments have come and gone with little attention from outside their borders, such as that of Akel in Cyprus so recently, whereas others have captured the imagination of the world, even to the point crossing borders to be a part in it, eg, to Spain in 1936, to Greece in 2015.

The storyline looming largest in our story is the October revolution of 1917. It went farthest and lasted longest. It is a foundational myth of our movement. We have varying versions of it, not only about what happened, but about what might have happened.  I have imagined and written my way through its early decades and witnessed its later decades.

If you looked at a map of the world in 1989, countries defined as socialist covered vast territories of this planet. It is not so now.

Why? Volumes have been written by now answering this question. Through 1989 and 1990 I was often in Eastern Europe, exploring the meaning of this vast overturning in its world historical implications. I never accepted the postmodernist ban on grand narratives. There was a dominant grand narrative in play and I believed it needed to be met with a counter-narrative on the same scale. Their story was one of capitalist triumphalism, captured in the mocking joke that socialism was the longest, most painful, most inefficient path between capitalism and capitalism.

Much of the left retreated in dismay and disarray, unable to overcome confusion and to conceive of an alternative narrative or even to believe in the possibility of an alternative narrative. Others carried on, even though our philosophy of history had been dealt a massive blow. We had believed that history, in however complicated a way, was moving from capitalism to socialism, and then we beheld the opposite happening before our eyes. I saw lives turned upside down and nations disappearing from the map of the world.

So why our defeat? Many reasons have been given. There were monumental mistakes within our own movement. There was murder, treachery, suppression, fear. There were honest voices silenced. There were alternative paths not taken. There was an unfavourable balance of forces. There were conditions of underdevelopment. Socialism was meant to be built on other side of advanced capitalism. Not only its economic productivity, but its parliamentary democracy, mass media and complex civil society. It was meant to be a further development, not a suppression, of these advances in history.

Nevertheless, there had been expropriation of the expropriators, social ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, relative equality of opportunity and a radical shift in the balance of power in the world.

The existence of a socialist bloc made the hegemony of capitalism incomplete, but the intensifying hegemony of capitalism made the existence of a socialist bloc increasingly precarious. An advancing globalisation shaped by capitalism was all the time tightening its grip and extending its hegemony into territories and into psyches previously outside its dominion.

Socialism was all the time in a world dominated by capitalism. It was not only the internal failures of these regimes, which made their populations turn against them, but the lure of an imagined other of freedom and plenty that eluded them in reality when they moved towards it. Most fundamentally, It was the external pressure of an increasingly integrated global capitalism exerted upon an inadequately achieved socialism that brought its downfall.

So what then? We had to re-think and re-coup, to analyse our defeat and to seek a new path. Our glorious and tragic past had to yield to a new paradigm. One thing we had to face was that socialism could only be built on consent and in ever more complex conditions. The left would have to stop dreaming of storming winter palaces, of imagining ruling through decrees, purges, guns and gulags.

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Does Ireland Need a New Left Party?

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This article is based on a talk given at conference “Local Resistance, Global Crisis” at National University of Ireland, Maynooth, 13th of June 2014

Does Ireland need a new left party?

Yes.

Why?

We are involved in a colossal class struggle and we are not winning.

We need to confront the very system that is demanding ever more drastic redistribution of wealth from below to above, accelerated accumulation by dispossession, continuing dismantling of the public sphere in favour of private property and commodified culture.

It is not enough to go issue to issue, to oppose cuts, to denounce austerity.

We need to win consent to a counter-narrative to the dominant view of the crisis. We need to break the grip of the belief that there is no alternative.

We need to fashion a force that will challenge for power that will make the long march through all the institutions of society: schools, universities, media, trade unions, local councils, national and international parliaments, production, distribution and exchange.

We need the best possible left. We need to maximise our efforts.

We need to build on electoral gains by the left in elections of 2011 and 2014. The last general election saw the greatest overturning in Dail Eireann in its history and the next will outdo it, we have every reason to believe. The last elections and recent polls indicate a huge shift, primarily to the left, in Irish politics.

We need to aim to form a left government in the next decade or so.

For this, we need a new left party. A party of a new type. By which I don’t mean a Marxist-Leninist vanguard party. Traditionally parties of the left have been communist, Trotskyist or social democratic parties. This would be different.

We have a multiplicity of left parties of the traditional types, quite a few of them M-L vanguard parties. All of these have maxed out their potential in their present form. Some are still vital, while others have been in decline for some time.

In the first category are the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party, each of which have formed broader fronts, the People Before Profit Alliance and Anti-Austerity Alliance. In the second category are the Communist Party of Ireland and Workers Party. The two Trotskyist parties and their broader fronts have been especially active on the streets and in electoral politics and they have achieved considerable success. They also built and broke the United Left Alliance.

None of these formations, in and of themselves, form the basis for the sort of new left party we need. They will be important in the future of any new left formation, but a new left party cannot be ULA 2.0.

We also have two bigger parties of the left, although some may contest whether they are left: the Labour Party and Sinn Fein. They are left, but not as left as what we need. This is primarily because they do not engage in systemic analysis and therefore they do not move in the direction of systemic transformation.

There is a big empty space where a big party to the left of LP and SF should be. We need a new left party to fill this space.

What kind of new left party should this be?

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To the Crucible II: A Further Irish Engagement with the Greek Crisis and the Greek Left

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This is a sequel to To the crucible: An Irish Engagement with the Greek Crisis and the Greek Left published on the 21st of January, 2013.

The Dominant Narrative

“Things have gone very quiet in Greece, haven’t they?” So many people said that to me in the past six months or so. I responded that there was a lot going on, even if international media weren’t covering it. There were civil mobilisations of teachers and transport workers, as well as rising unemployment, emigration and impoverishment, being met with continuing protest, strikes, occupations. Even so, I sensed a lull in the rhythm of resistance, since the big demonstrations opposing the passage of the third memorandum last autumn. Obviously people couldn’t keep going at that pitch all the time, but how many were succumbing to exhaustion, despair, defeat? How many were quietly going about their work in solidarity networks, policy development, political education?

The story circulating in May, promoted by its government, was that Greece had stabilised and protest had subsided. Grexit had given way to Grecovery. Antonis Samaras, who was most actively articulating this, touring the world with the good news, even heralded a Greek ‘renaissance’. The feeblest of economic indicators were offered as evidence, although international commentators, even ones who wanted to believe this story, found it hard to get past the fact that most indicators still pointed in the opposite direction. In other statements, Samaras conceded that they hadn’t really changed the numbers yet, but insisted that they had eliminated the ‘negative psychology’.

Many Greeks were scathing, pointing out that tiny shifts from rating agencies and bond yields paled into insignificance aside the continuing freefall of the economy and the still deteriorating conditions of life for non-oligarchic Greeks. Among indicators being trumpeted were lower wages, which might be good news for investors, but hardly for workers. Yanis Varoufakis labelled the Greek success story as the ‘latest Orwellian turn of the Greek crisis’ and laid the economic facts on the line’

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To the Crucible: An Irish Engagement with the Greek Crisis and the Greek Left

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A Greek tragedy

A monumental drama is playing out before our eyes. It is a true Greek tragedy. The plot: A society is being pushed to its limits. The denouement is not yet determined, but survival is at stake and prospects are precarious. Greece is at the sharp end of a radical and risky experiment in how far accumulation by dispossession can go, how much expropriation can be endured, how far the state can be subordinated to the market. It is a global narrative, but the story is a few episodes ahead here.

Greece is the crucible.[i] It is a caldron where concentrated forces are colliding in a process that will bring forth either a reconfiguration of capitalism or the dawn of its demise.

Salaries, pensions, public services are falling, while prices and taxes are rising. Massive asset stripping is underway. Water, power, ports, islands, public buildings are for sale. Unemployment, emigration and evictions have brought a sense of a society unraveling. Homeless people wander the streets and scavenge for food in bins or beg it from the plates of those eating in tavernas. If they are immigrants, they are terrorised. Those looking into a horizon without hope either drift into desolation or perform the ultimate decisive act of suicide. Some have done so in private spaces, while others have chosen public places to underline the political nature of their fate, as they jump from heights, set themselves on fire or shoot themselves. In April 2012, Dimitris Christoulas, a retired pharmacist, who felt he could no longer live a dignified life after his pension had been slashed, shot himself in front of parliament. His last words were: “I am not committing suicide. They are killing me.” He urged younger people to fight.

Speaking to Greeks, it is hard to find any without a far reaching systemic critique. They tell you so many details of the deceits of the troika, the corruption of government, the decline in their own standards of living, the pervasive sense of social disintegration. When asked if they see any hope, few answer in the affirmative.

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