Referendum in Ireland: No choice for the working class

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On 12 June 2008 the European Union was once again thrown into crisis with the Irish electorate rejecting the Treaty of Lisbon in a referendum. The Treaty was itself a recycled version of the European Constitution which French and Dutch voters had rejected in similar referendums in 2005. The apparent paralysis at the heart of the EU is symptomatic of the increasing pressure on the bourgeoisie as they attempt to deal with the remorseless decline of the capitalist system.

The stakes for the Irish bourgeoisie

As a relatively minor player on the world stage, it is difficult to appreciate that the Republic of Ireland has an imperialist orientation. Like all minor powers, it tends to be at the mercy of the larger states and its choices generally run along the lines of which imperialist gangster it will seek protection from. Ireland’s official policy of ‘neutrality’ is an effort to avoid the worst ravages of imperialist conflict but in practice Ireland has always been more ‘neutral’ towards some powers than others.

This basic strategy of playing one power against the other is demonstrated clearly in World War II, when Ireland discreetly supported Britain against Germany. Today, Ireland’s policy in Europe springs from the same fundamental interests. Too weak to compete either militarily or economically against the rest of the world, the Irish bourgeoisie can only pursue its interests in ‘partnership’ with other powers. For these reasons, preserving the EU is a priority for the Irish bourgeoisie and accordingly, the majority campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote.

However, like all bourgeoisies, there is a minority that dreams of a more ‘independent’ line, or which would prefer closer ties with the US than with Europe. The nationalists of Sinn Fein are the classic representatives of this tendency but they were also accompanied by the lobby group Libertas that has connections with the US military. There are fears among some factions of the American bourgeoisie that the Lisbon treaty (which foresees the appearance of a common European defence policy) will undermine NATO.

Democracy: A trap for workers

The No-vote is unquestionably an embarrassment for the Irish bourgeoisie but what should the attitude to workers be towards such spectacles?

Democracy in modern capitalism is an enormous deception aimed at the working masses. Today, no matter which capitalist is in power, the slow collapse of the system forces all of them to attack the working class. Because of this, workers gain no benefit from backing this or that faction vying for power. The real interest of workers is to fight for their own class demands and ultimately to eliminate the rule of the entire bourgeoisie and seize power for themselves, through their own organs – the workers’ councils. Participation in the electoral circus is at best a waste of time, but more importantly it is an instrument that binds the working class to the capitalist state by serving up the illusion that workers really do have some kind of choice in this society.

It is true that referendums are not about choosing a government, but the fundamental framework in which they operate is the same. The questions they pose inevitably demand workers choose between the views of one capitalist faction or another. They offer no means by which the working class can express its own political interests in contradistinction to those of their exploiters.

The Workers Solidarity Movement: anarchists in the circus

One of several groups to support the ‘no’ campaign in the Referendum is the anarchist Workers Solidarity Movement Their leaflet ( called for workers to “Vote No – Organise For Real Social Change”. The leaflet states “this treaty asks us to support changes in the EU to make money transfers and trade relations between them easier. Why should we give them the thumbs up when they couldn’t care less about us? Vote ‘No’ to their restructuring. But a vote ‘No’ is worth little on its own if things are not changed at home. The EU must change but so too must Irish society”. The leaflet goes on to say “through its commitment to liberalisation, this treaty is endorsing the passing of more of our public services in to private hands. This is robbery. It is maintaining, reinforcing, and expanding the undemocratic structures of Ireland today on to a European level”.

Why, indeed, should workers endorse the policies of the Irish bourgeoisie or the wider EU? The WSM’s endorsement of the ‘no’ campaign effectively means  they are “giving the thumbs up” to another faction of the bourgeoisie, the Euro-sceptics. What does the working class have in common with the nationalist Sinn Fein or the arms dealers of Libertas, apparently backed by the US military? Nothing! They are enemies of the working class and the proletariat has no more interest in supporting them than it does the majority of the bourgeoisie who favour the treaty. And because workers have no interest in supporting either side there is nothing to be gained by voting in this or any other referendum or election.

As for public services, they may currently be part of the state, but that state is a capitalist state: the executive committee of the ruling class.  Transferring them to private hands (i.e. another capitalist) certainly isn’t equivalent to ‘robbery’ against the working class. This is because the working class does not own these so-called ‘public services’. To paraphrase Marx, you cannot take from the proletariat what it does not have! This is simply a transfer of ownership from one part of the bourgeoisie to another. Now, undoubtedly, privatisation is usually accompanied with attacks on working conditions – as is the case with a transfer from private to state hands. Workers should certainly fight these attacks but not by getting involved in arguments about which capitalist should own what company or service!

Lastly, the talk about changing ‘Irish society’ reveals the incipient nationalism behind the WSM’s vision. The workers’ struggle does not aim to change the society of any one nation. Workers have no country – their struggle will abolish ‘Irish society’ along with all national societies as part of the creation of a global, integrated human society.

The WSM makes the same fundamental arguments as the Trotskyists on these questions: state capitalism is nicer than private capitalism, ‘national’ capitalism better than ‘global’ capitalism, etc. They also perpetuate the myth that workers have some sort of say in capitalist society either through state ownership or the democratic circus.

Certainly, workers should “organise for real social change”. But they must organise themselves in struggle, not through the ballot box, and defend their real interests against the whole bourgeoisie, not lining up with this or that faction of it.  DG 2/7/8   


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