Reform or Revolution (reflections on the ULA)

This is a partial response to some of the concerns raised in this article by the communist party of great britan. The piece is worth consideration on the grounds that the misconceptions within are endemic on the left. The author (Anne McShane) correctly claims that Ireland needs a new revolutionary party; the ULA (it is argued) provides no such scope. The SWP in particular are credited with attempting to prevent the ULA establishing itself as a revolutionary organization; ''In essence the SWP wants a “radical” (non-socialist) party which is “broad and democratic”. The SP, on the other hand, wants the ULA to adopt a “a socialist plan and a plan for economic development”. The insinuation that the SWP tact towards reformism is based on a common misapprehension which il address here.

McShane highlights an important tactical difference between the SP & SWP; but draws an incorrect conclusion about the objectives of the latter. The SWP; advocate a united front; ie. aim to create a space for leftists to partake in struggle & develop their ideas through interaction with the revolutionary left. To this end the SWP urge against an explicit revolutionary socialist program. The consequence of this tactic will be to establish a broad membership; with an expanding socialist nucleus which radicalizes more moderate elements. McSahne needs no reminder that this is how the bolsheviks advanced within the RSDLP. The SWPs (long term) aim is to develop the front into a vehicle for revolution; but this will only become possible once we ascertain enough support to advance on that basis. In order to ensure this, we need to remain as open as possible, resisting the tendency to erect barriers through the imposition of ultimatums on those who can (and will) move towards socialism through struggle.

The communist party (like the SP) take a formal approach which can lead to isolationism. They propose that the ULA establish itself on a revolutionary program. This however would hinder its capacity to engage broader sections of the population. While a formal orientation towards revolution might seem radical at face value; it would (in practice) alienate many who through a broader configuration could move towards socialist ideas over time. In this respect; the sort of abstract revolutionism advocated by the communist party is a dead end; it would sacrifice our ability to radicalize large numbers on the alter of tactical purity. This is an error made by many on the left; who stagnate under the dead weight of their own morality. Ordinary people wont be convinced of socialism through an abstract document; rather the development of a full program will be the consequence of concrete experience.

The immediate task facing revolutionaries is to convince people to fight for concessions that the current system is incapable of providing. Trotsky referred to such calls as (transitional demands). McShane (due to her failure to differentiate between reformism & transitory propaganda) misconstrues the SWPs approach as a type of ''reformism'' when she claims that ''the last thing we need is a neo-Keynesian attempt to construct ‘socialism’ in Ireland''. In actual fact; the appeal & application of transitional demands leads to a revolutionary juncture. Economic initiatives to cancel the debt; socialize developers assets; nationalize key industry & impose capital/price controls are transitional demands insofar as they cannot be gained within the constraints of the current system. To this extent certain ''reforms'' are revolutionary; & therefore disqualify as exhibitions of''reformism''.

McShane criticizes the SP/SWP for supposedly failing to inform non-party ULA members on developments. The ULA (while in its preliminary stages) has moved towards monthly branch meetings where members are kept up to speed on all issues. McShane goes on to accuse the SP/SWP of being ''united in denying the ordinary membership any real voice''. It is claimed by McShane (& others) that the SWP/SP are holding back the development of branch activity; however as clarified at the recent ULA national forum (which McShane attended), the SWP propose ULA branches organize meetings as frequent as they see fit.

It is also claimed that the predominantly SP/SWP makeup of the ULA steering committee reflects some aversion to democracy; nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that the SP/SWP have a majority on the SC reflects the fact that the majority of active members where members of those tendencies when it was set up. The SWP advocates one person one vote with respect to electing the SC; this is the most democratic method. Unless McSane is proposing that SC positions be apportioned according to factions (an anti-democratic suggestion) - her accusations have no real basis. The ULA will move towards a conference where SC/branch structures are decided; but until then the leadership are representatives of the majority.

Ian McDonnell (SWP Maynooth/ULA North Kildare)


  1. Ian,

    Just a couple of points.

    Firstly I wonder where you get the idea that 80-90% of the ULA are members of the SP or SWP. If the attendance at the national forum is anything to go by then it would seem a lot closer to roughly 1/3 SWP, 1/3 SP & 1/3 individual members and members of constituent groups not in the SWP or SP.

    At the national forum it was clear that individual members are concerned over the lack of structures which facilitate our equal participation in the ULA. This was reflected in the repeated references to making the ULA, “membership-led”, needing to be a “bottom-up” organisation, creating structures that “encourage diversity” etc.

    This was also concretely addressed by Joan Collins at the end of the final rally with her direct call on the steering committee to come up with proposals that will deal with this democratic deficit.

    As regards the method of Trotsky's Transitional Programme I think you are significantly misinterpreting his political method.

    Any particular demand that forms part of the TP may, or may not, be realisable under capitalism - but that is not the point. Demands are only "transitional" to the extent they are part of a coherent overall programme that presents an internally consistent path pointing towards the seizure of power.

    For instance when the SWP calls for a general strike is that a transitional demand when taken by itself it is clearly compatible with the continuation of capitalism?

    Such a demand might, or might not, be transitional. That can only be determined by looking at it in the context of the overall programme being presented.

    For instance if Professor McDonough's 5 point plan, or some variant of it, is taken on as the ULA programme then it is only transitional to the extent that is directly linked to demands that pose the seizure of power. If instead it is presented like it was at the forum, as a realistic and realisable programme under capitalism with socialism posed as some future stage, then it is not transitional.

  2. Alan

    Point taken on the 80% figure: my point was that the SWP/SP majority on the SC reflects the fact that those where the largest tendencies when it was established. Iv corrected the error. The ULA has grown quite rapidly since then; with many new members joining at the national forum. Its worth keeping in mind that a significant portion of the members your referring to are new/semi-active.

    On lack of structures; while improvements can be made, RBB highlighted the SWP position that branches move towards more frequent meetings on their own initiative & according to their own capacity to do so. The fact that many ULA branches only have monthly meetings is a reflection of the fact that they have very few members & are still establishing themselves; many are composed of people who haven't been politically active before ect. Its simply not the case that the SWP are engaged in an attempt to hold back the development of branches (as insinuated by yourself & others).

    On program; there's a difference between transitional slogans/demands & a transitional program. The SWP/SP both have maximum/revolutionary programs; the point is that we should make transitional demands within the united front, then present maximum demands once the objective consciousness within the front facilitates them. To present people with maximum demands at this stage would be abstract in the sense that the lived experience of most people won't correspond with the need for ''soviets'' ect.

    The problem with Anns critique (like yours) is that she extrapolates individual SWP demands from there broader context. A general strike alone isn't necessarily revolutionary; but as a component among other demands (outlined in the article) it is part of a revolutionary strategy.

    On McDonough's 5 point plan; he presented it as a (realistic and realizable program under capitalism). There are however transitional aspects within the 5 point plan; demands that we can incorporate into our strategy.

  3. Well my experience in Cork is that we have had 2 branch meetings with 20 at the first and 36 at the second. We have committed to more than weekly activities for the next period and yet both the SP & SWP members argued, and bloc voted, against having either fortnightly branch meetings or an email list to keep members informed. Cork is one of the most advanced/active branches and yet the SP & SWP opposed reflecting that in the structures.

    I can understand, and agree with, your argument that in branches where "they have very few members & are still establishing themselves" monthly meetings would be appropriate but that clearly isn't the case with Cork.

    I must say that is a very interesting interpretation of the method of the TP - which is completely at odds with how Trotsky understood the political method he put forward.

    How do you fit:

    "the point is that we should make transitional demands within the united front, then present maximum demands once the objective consciousness within the front facilitates them. To present people with maximum demands at this stage would be abstract in the sense that the lived experience of most people won't correspond with the need for ''soviets'' ect."

    With Trotsky's explicit argument against the approach you outline:

    "But we cannot adapt the program to the backward mentality of the workers, the mentality, the mood is a secondary factor -- the prime factor is the objective situation. That is why we have heard these criticisms or these appreciations that some parts of the program do not conform to the situation."
    ‘Discussions With Trotsky: On the Transitional Programme’, 7 June 1938)

  4. There seems to be some confusion here.

    Firstly, the Steering Committee does not in fact have a Socialist Party / SWP majority on it. The Socialist Party has two representatives and the SWP has one (with a second sometimes representing one of the local groups). This entire argument about whether or not it is justifiable for these two parties to have a majority on the steering committee is based on a misapprehension.

    It's worth noting in this context that the very concept of an "SP / SWP majority" is in any case somewhat misleading, as those two organisations are politically at opposite poles of the ULA. The Socialist Party advocate that the ULA takes a more socialist, more radical political approach and moves more to the left. The SWP advocates that the ULA take a less openly socialist, broader, political approach and moves more to the right. At the moment at least, these two organisations, far from operating as a majority bloc, are likely to be on different sides of key internal ULA discussions.

    Bolshevik is correct that Ian misunderstands the concepts of transitional demands and a transitional programme. The point of such demands is not just that they are (a) perfectly reasonable and (b) that taken as a whole they are unachievable without transcending capitalism but that they are also (c) used to "build a bridge" to the goal of socialism. If you do not argue for a socialist transformation of society and you do not link your demands to that goal, you are not using a transitional method.

    This isn't merely an issue in the "abstract" or an issue of "jargon", two terms which some SWP speakers applied very liberally. If nobody argues for socialist ideas in the course of a struggle, we will not win people to those ideas in that struggle. Further, the absence of a socialist goal places our public representatives in an extremely awkward position when it comes to public discourse, interviews, panel debates and the like. The fact is that there is no solution to the current economic crisis on the basis of capitalism which does not mean barbaric austerity. This is true if the state tries to pay off the banker's debts, but it is also true if there is a default. The latter may allow for some more leeway, but ultimately when a hectoring interviewer puts it to a ULA speaker that "the money isn't there" to avoid what would still be drastic attacks after a default they are correct on the basis of capitalism. The only argument which our representatives can be consistent, honest and principled in putting is that there is a need for a socialist transformation of society. They should make that argument and they should be reflecting ULA policy in so doing.

  5. Alan

    Im not familiar with the situation in Cork; but if SWP/SP comrades voted against more frequent meetings im sure they had reasons. Perhaps it had more to do with time constraints on activists who have numerous other meetings ect. The position of both the SP/SWP is to develop branches asap. RBB outlined the SWPs take on non-affiliated majority branches at the forum.

    On the TP: your taking the trotsky quote out of context. Trotsky (due to his isolation ect) believed capitalism was approaching terminal collapse in 1938; so advocated maximum demands. His view of the ''objective situation'' was incorrect; which means his proposition on program was predicated on a flawed analysis.


    The steering committee is mainly SWP/SP (which is what all the fuss is about). Its true that both have tactical differences; however as trotskyist organizations they have more in common (in terms of end goals) than other factions. Iv recently been informed that non-aligned groups currently have 2 SC positions each; which means that a shift towards votes from consensus would likely result in an unfavorable outcome for those upset with the current ''lack of structure'' ect.

    On the SP being more radical/socialist than the SWP; this is incorrect as explained in article. The SP advocate ultimatums; which in practice would limit their capacity to radicalize sufficient numbers. Their programmatic orientation towards socialism is a barrier to building a radical mass movement (which is a pre-condition to actual revolution).

    On transitional demands; arguments to take key industry under public control entail "building a bridge" towards socialism. The difference between the SWP & the SP is that the former understand the content of a demand as determining its transitory value; not the label. Nor is articulating socialism through demands that people find acceptable a barrier via the media; on the contrary, calls for ''the revolutionary re-consititution of society'' would be a huge impediment. The ULA should refrain from the imposition of a program in order to pull in broader layers of people; who we then persuade to adopt our demands/programs. Putting the program first is to expect people to move beyond their own development.

  6. Ian,

    Couple of points.

    Firstly Trotsky was quite conscious that what he was presenting was a restatement of the general approach of revolutionary Marxism against the minimum-maximum approach that had been reintroduced by the Stalinists rather than some conjunctural programme for a specific time and place.

    But even, for the purposes of argument, if I concede the point and say you are right that Trotsky was being more affected by the specifics of the immediate situation than he realised you are still left with a problem.

    Have a look around! Read the prognosis of the situation in your own paper! The whole international system of capitalism stands on the edge of collapse, or at least, major rifts and chaos. We are in the midst of the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s depression.

    The idea that the objective situation, or the "logic of the class struggle" as Trotsky refers to it in the TP itself, does not point towards including in our programme those things that you, borrowing the language of the reformists and Stalinists, call "maximum" demands is frankly bizarre.

    There is no reformist solution to this crisis that will not mean more pain for working people - no matter the illusions you might have in Professor McDonough's cunning plan to save Irish capitalism.

    The only real solution to this crisis is the socialist transformation of society and it is the job of socialists to argue for that.

    You guys, on the other hand, call yourselves "revolutionary socialists" and yet that seems to amount in your concrete politics to supporting reformists and criticising anyone who argues for socialism.

    You claim to stand in the political tradition of Trotsky's Transitional Programme but when challenged with Trotsky's own understanding of his programme you cry foul and then attack that very same Trotsky for having a view of the objective situation which was "incorrect" and meant his proposition on programme was "predicated on a flawed analysis". If so why lay claim to that "incorrect" and "flawed analysis"?

    Really you couldn't make this stuff up...

  7. Ahoy there RedWriters. On my most recent blogpost there is a proposal there for your consideration.

    I realise this blog is more than the ULA so maybe it could be broadened out. Regardless, have a browse and see what you think. Thanks!

  8. Hi Julian.

    I like the spirit, if not the form of what you're proposing. We need more open discussion and debate within the left. Indeed that's what Red Writers is intended to facilitate. However, two of our contributors are anarchists and would not be comfortable coming under the umbrella of a "ULA" Blog(osphere), but I certainly think something like what you're proposing, without the implicit ties to Trotskyist ideology would be something we could get involved in.