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Anarchist Lens: What’s Wrong With This Photo?

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Mick Barry Says...What’s Wrong With This Photo?

For a lot of people, the photo on the right is just another snapshot of a candidate looking for votes in the forthcoming Irish general election. On one level, that’s a perfectly fine way to view the photograph. However, the picture also captures a fault line in left politics that is worth looking at.

The anti-water tax campaign is the most serious movement to emerge, to date, in Ireland in opposition to austerity. It is a campaign with plenty of strands to it but one thing is clear: community (and collective) action has been decisive to its success. Although resistance has been at times sporadic and uneven, no one doubts that the current upsurge in struggle against water meters is one of the largest mobilisations seen in the country for decades. Large numbers of ordinary citizens have been drawn into political action in which their own self-organised efforts have been decisive to the outcome. As a result it has also been, for many people, an empowering experience that has renewed an awareness of the existence of community, shared interests and the power of taking common action to achieve goals.


The Barry photo, however, is not about any of this. Although the candidate is a socialist (and a member of the Socialist Party now trading as the Anti-Austerity Alliance) you will notice that there is little – sorry, nothing – on his banner about collective struggle. Instead the focus is on the candidate. The banner, prominently on display during a recent protest march in Cork, is mostly about ‘bigging-up’ the candidate as a potential spokesperson for the anti-water tax campaign. This is in turn the core idea behind the Right2Change platform which aims to get the anti-water tax movement to buy into the idea that ‘trusted’ politicians will sort out the water tax issue on our behalf. Needless to say for aspiring politicians this is a win-win situation: they get to promise that electing them is the solution to all our problems and in turn they use the grassroots campaign as a platform on which to build their careers.

The bitter disappointment that was Syriza (in Greece) has not quite sunk in for many on the electoral left in Ireland. For that reason many still see Syriza’s strategy as the way forward. Recall that it took the Coalition of the Radical Left (translation of Syriza) nearly eleven years to reach their dream of forming a government in Greece. During those eleven years considerable time and energy was put into the electoral project. When they finally made it into power they discovered that they were toothless in the face of the establishment. Capitalism, let’s face it, is an entrenched system of power and privilege. It won’t be unseated by a few parliamentarians throwing temper tantrums. Embedded authoritarianism and a resourceful State structure stand bang smack in the way of even basic progress. In the end, in Greece, Tsipras and a range of politicians were humiliated and they couldn’t do anything about it.

A Hefty Price-tag

The more ambition left politicians in Ireland have a Syriza style movement (and strategy) in mind – minus the tragic end, one hopes! They are hoping to see this emerge from the current anti-water tax fight. On one level this looks attractive: after all what could be simpler than voting austerity out of existence?  But really, I ask you, is it going to be that easy? More importantly an unspoken, hefty price-tag  has to be paid if the electoral route is followed.

Time and again grassroots movements have experienced a decline in momentum and power as soon as they switch to an electoral focus . An example of of this was the fate of the German Green Movement in the 80s and 90s analysed here. A more relevant and recent example it that of Podemus in Spain. We Can (translation of Podemus) was formed in 2014 and has  shamelessly cashed in on the network of organisations created in Spain from 2011 onwards to fight austerity. As the Podemus electoral project grew in scope it sucked energy and activism from those organisations which had led the fight against austerity in the communities – for example the anti-eviction movement PAH. Not only that, as Podemus grew, it in turn began to shed its more radical political positions in favour of a business friendly political image. Where have we seen that before?

There is a real danger now that the same outcome could come to pass here in Ireland in the anti-water tax campaign.

The Fault Line?

No!So back to the fault line in left politics. What is it then? The alternative view of how change can be brought about involves avoiding the parliament (and persona based politics). Instead the aim is to resource the grassroots movement that has emerged around the anti-water tax campaign and then extend it outwards so that it can link up with and encourage similar developments in other areas where social conflict is happening. So important strikes need support. Direct action efforts around homelessness needs support. The aim all time is to build popular activism, to move in a horizontal direction as opposed to a vertical one; to emphasis participation and democracy as much as possible. To take one example, a crucial fight is happening right now in respect to the LUAS strike in Dublin. The Establishment has realised this and the LUAS workers have been pilloried in the media at every turn. Will the LUAS workers have to fight on alone or will a grassroots solidarity emerge to help them win their battle.?How could that type of solidarity be built and what shape would it take? These are matters that a grassroots movement could and should address.

An alternative strategy then would never have a banner like Barry’s near it. The alternative banner would show a large group of people – similar to what is shown just above – under the slogan: Tgether we are strong. Together we have the power. Somehow that slogan just doesn’t seem to fit with getting elected to the parliament. But therein lies the important difference.

Anarchist Lens: Fear At Work…

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Jimmy Savile with ThatcherScandals (and industrial accidents) are often interesting for unexpected reasons. Usually an investigation or inquiry follows and via this we get a view of what is going on inside these organisations and institutions at the center of the trouble. These snapshots, so to speak, are often very revealing.

A case in point is the investigation into the Jimmy Savile affair. Next month former British judge Janet Smith is set to publish her final report into Savile’s rampage inside the BBC. The celebrity had an association with the UK broadcaster for over forty years. Savile was very successful but it has since emerged that he was not what he appeared to be. According to an early (leaked) draft of Smith’s report, Savile perpetrated:

rapes and indecent assaults on girls and boys… in “virtually every one of the BBC premises at which he worked”. He carried out abuse on the sets of Top of the Pops and Jim’ll Fix It, at least once on camera.

Savile died in 2011 but he is implicated in four definite rapes – two of girls under 16 – and at least one attempted rape. It is estimated that he sexually assaulted in total 61 individuals and that these attacks took place “in corridors, kitchens, canteens and dressing rooms” run and maintained by the BBC.

It gets  worse. According to The Guardian, Smith’s final report is expected to include ‘devastating detail of the corporation’s “sheer scale of awareness” of the late star’s activities’. In one bizarre way, of course, this is not that surprising. Savile’s criminal activities were reckless. Many of his assaults were carried out on BBC property and inevitably some of these were witnessed. Or, as is often (and was) the case, a number of victims had attempted to alert people in authority about what had happened to them at Savile’s hands – to no avail. Savile died with the extensive cover-up of his worse abuses intact.

So, what was going on?

Here’s where the ‘snapshot’ element of Smith’s investigation is most revealing. As part of her remit Smith has had the means and time to speak to a wide range of people who are (or were) working for the BBC during Savile’s tenure. She has been able to approach people at most levels. The BBC’s top management have had their say quite a number of times already and, needless to say, they have done quite an amount of hand-wringing: “It’s terrible”, “It should never have happened”,”It’ll never happen again” and so on and so forth. But Smith has also spoken to many others: those on short term contracts, permanent  and full-time employees as well as middle managers. Here is what she has had to say about that:

I found that employee witnesses who were about to say something to the review that was even mildly critical of the BBC were extremely anxious to maintain their anonymity,” she wrote. “These people were, and still are, afraid for their positions. Even with modern employment protection, people fear that, even if they do not lose their jobs, their promotion prospects will be blighted if they complain.

Not to put too fine a point on it then many BBC employees work at the broadcaster under a climate of fear. No doubt they can speak freely about many things but there are many matters that they are simply not allowed to air their views on. If they do they will suffer the consequences.


Even more poignant is Smith’s observation that the situation has actually deteriorated for employees in the last number of years:

potential whistle blowers [are] … even now more worried about losing their jobs. Short-term and freelance contracts [mean] a workforce “with little or no job security”, which [is] even less likely to speak out about the behavior of colleagues.

Authoritarianism in the workplace is part and parcel of capitalism. Most of us have come across it in one shape or another at some time in our life. For many, a big objective in life is to get into a situation where authoritarianism had a limited or minimal effect on one’s working life. Also some companies aren’t as bad as others. Or if you are in a union that has clout  you and your co-workers can win yourself quite a bit of wriggle room – what’s is often termed here in Ireland the ‘not a bad number’ type of job. But for vast numbers of people authoritarianism at work is a huge daily blight in their lives. Stress and depression are common responses that workers suffer. A job where you work in a climate of fear will often more illness and even an earlier death.

The inquiry into Savile crimes in the BBC exposes this and much more. Firstly, it shows, how commonplace and pervasive fear at work is. [Who would have thought and in the BBC too?! Right?] Secondly the deteriorating situation for many workers is underlined by Smith candid observations – thinks are getting worse and not better. So-called ‘workplace reforms’, in effect those changes to workplace conditions initiated by Thatcher, have hugely disadvantage workers – leading to increased casualisation, short term or zero-hour contracts as well as explosion in the use of sub-contracted labour. The effect has been to increase the power of management, making their rule even more absolute. This means greater fear in the workplace and even more silence. Workers, who are often the real eyes and ears of society, are now even less willing to speak out.

Climate of Fear

dictatorship_of_the_bourgeoisie_by_party9999999-d5j1e76The case of Savile and the BBC is no aberration. In essence it is quite similar to a host of other examples from right across the spectrum of work where a climate of fear has actively contributed to disasters and tragedies of various orders of magnitude. If we look closely at event like the Deepwater Horizon explosion or say the Bhopal disaster – to use just two well-known cases – we can read that clear warnings made by workers either went unheeded or were actively censored leading to the tragedies that we now know all about all too well.

Savile ruined a lot of lives and damaged many, many more. His long reign of terror in the BBC is one of the best examples out there now of how damaging authoritarian really is.

Anarchist Lens Review: Blacklisted

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BlacklistedAnarchist Lens Review: Blacklisted – The Secret War Between Big Business and Union Activists by Phil Chamberlain and Dave Smith [New Internationalist]

Last April workers at the Irish supermarket chain Dunnes Stores went on strike for one day to protest zero-hour contracts.  Their action received plenty of support and was widely viewed as just.  However shortly after the protest, Dunnes’ management targeted a number of the workers involved. According to their union, Mandate, this amounted to “sanctions including dismissals of a small number of staff, cuts to hours, changes in roles and changes in staff patterns”.  The experience of the Dunnes workers would not be out of place in Blacklisted – a timely and important new book written by building worker and stalwart campaigner, Dave Smith in cooperation with journalist Phil Chamberlain. Blacklisted is a comprehensive account of the ongoing war that was (and is still) being waged by employers across the building industry in the UK.  In terms of subject matter it is largely confined to the situation in the UK but in many ways that only strengthens its main argument.  Bear in mind that in the UK (and here in Ireland too) workers have some legal protection against excessive bullying and harassment by employers.  Consider what it is like for workers in countries where such legal protection is non-existent.  Last year attention focused on the predicament of building workers on the World Cup site in Qatar – where it was reported that workers were dying on that huge building site at a rate of one every two days.  Qatar is not an exception unfortunately.  Take a look at the excellent site and you’ll get a very good idea of the scale of the problem faced by workers the world over right now.

What Is Blacklisting?

“Blacklisting” is the process whereby certain workers – usually for reasons to do with speaking up for their rights – are and were denied work in their industry over a consistent period of time.  Blacklisting of course occurs in many industries but the building trade has been notorious for the practice.  This is in part to do with the greed of the building companies but it is also to do with the problem of casualisation.  Workers are employed for short periods on a particular building job and often let ago at the end of that job.  If a worker gets a reputation for speaking up then it is simple to say when he next turns up looking for a job ‘Sorry there’s no work here just now.’

Parents Dalli Kahtri and Lil Man who have lost two sons.

“When I complained, my manager assaulted me, kicked me out of the labour camp I lived in and refused to pay me anything. I had to beg for food from other workers.” Click on photo for full Guardian article.

Many workers know full well that speaking your mind is “bad for your health”, but in the building trade the process went way beyond that.  Blacklisted recounts how the current practices got underway in the UK after the successful mobilisation of workers around the Building Workers’ Charter (p52) in the early 70s. That struggle improved wages and conditions across the industry and generated fear in some of the big building companies.  Afraid that workers might be getting too well organised they turned to systematic victimisation.  The Consulting Agency (CA) was the vehicle they used.  A relatively small operation, the CA worked under the radar from an ordinary house in the West Midlands not far from Birmingham; it was composed of a few staff and a well maintained database.  To check a name against the CA’s database cost an employer – or its HR department – £2.20 per name.  Forty-three building companies used the CA and were free to access its database after a sign up yearly subscription.  For example Carillion were invoiced for £32,393 + VAT for the a period of checking lasting from 1999 to 2004.  In other words it checked quite a lot of names!

The person behind the database was a man named Ian Kerr.  He had a record of involvement in right-wing groups and was clued-in to the intricacies of left wing politics.  He collected lots of information, purchased and scanned a whole range of left literature looking to cull information on anyone he could find that was connected to the building trade or its various trade unions.  He noted down all sorts of things about individuals, building up substantial files over many years of work.  He was dedicated, thorough and well disposed to policing the industry for his masters.  Comments about individuals like ‘will cause trouble, strong TU’ (p35) and the like were not uncommon.

A particular strength of Blacklisted is that it is dotted with examples of the type of discrimination that went on and the impact that this had on individual workers.  Alex Rayner, an electrician, typifies the experience of many construction workers.  He made complaints about safety standards on a job and suspected that from that time onwards he was being targeted.  He says (p75): “I knew I was [blacklisted], but I couldn’t prove it.  I was on a job and I complained about safety.  Sometimes it was silly things.  On another job I complained about asbestos, which is deadly.” Rayner was blacklisted for 45 years.

From HSE report 2013:

From HSE [Ireland] report 2013: “The construction sector was responsible for the second highest number of fatalities, with 11 deaths. Last year was also the third consecutive year that the number of fatalities in the sector increased.”

Safe reps were systematically targeted.  On a job refurbishing a Tesco branch, Dave Smith (the co-author) organised for the distribution of a UCATT leaflet on asbestos awareness.  He was dismissed from that job but a copy of the leaflet also found its way into a file held on him by the CA.  This dossier ran to 36 pages in total and showed that he was repeatedly dismissed when he was elected as a union safety rep.  Another case was that of Roy Bentham.  He was centrally involved in a successful strike in 1995 at a major North Wales power station that forced employers to use direct labour rather than self-employed contractors.  Despite the success of the strike Bentham and a number of other were later targeted by management and were let go. Bentham knew this was retribution for the work he had done organising at the site but it didn’t end there.  A file was opened on him with the CA and after that he ‘couldn’t get work anywhere in the north west [of England].’  Occasionally he got small bit of contracting work but he ‘suffered long and frequent spells of unemployment’.  A Liverpudlian and a Hillsborough justice activist he recalled how he had hopes of getting work on the huge shopping centre site, Liverpool One, in 2004.  But he said, “They were crying out for skilled men … but I couldn’t get work on there at all over four years’.  It had a major impact on his home life and well-being.  Many of those blacklisted were eventually forced out of the industry which was exactly what the employers wanted.

The CA’s operation was uncovered after an investigation by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office, a body charged with overseeing data protection matters in the public interest.  Since Kerr and the CA were acting under the radar (and avoiding any disclosure of what they were at) they were in breach of these regulations.  It was on this basis and this alone that the CA was prosecuted and its murky activities exposed.   The uncovering of the CA’s existence was a huge relief for thousands of building workers who were exposed to blacklisting over many years and decades.  For most of those blacklisted, they were aware some sort of discrimination was going on but they could never prove it.  Eventually with the legal prosecution of the CA, many victims were able to see the files that were held on them and small amounts of compensation were also eventually paid out.

Blacklisted is a powerful book.  It details the real world of capitalism and how neglect of health and safety is often one of the first consequences of the hunger for profit.  It will come as no surprise to many that health and safety is a core issue of concern for building workers.  It might seem obvious too that speaking out about safety is the right thing to do but as many building workers have found to their cost this is not the case.  Take the case of Garry Gargett (p200), an experienced electrical supervisor.  On the massive Crossrail site in London in 2013 he witnessed a dangerous situation where a section of 11,000-volt electrical cables was covered by scaffolding and debris thrown on top of it. He took a photograph of the problem and printed this off.  He was taking this to his supervisor when a manager intervened: Gargett was removed from site and dismissed on the grounds that he hadn’t permission and shouldn’t have take a photo on site!  That’s just one of a huge number of examples in this book.

Blacklist campaigners Pic: Chiara Rimella (from East London Lines)

Blacklisted spends a good number of pages recounting and discussing the various ways workers have resisted and fought back inside the industry.  These struggles were carried out in conjunction withe the various building unions but more often than not they were led by rank & file networks.  One example – the BESNA dispute – began when a number of building contractors tried to abandon a longstanding agreement with electricians; they wanted to put a new contract in place – called BESNA – which would have involved a 35% cut in wages.  A series of strikes got underway (in 2011-12) which in turn had to address the matter of blacklisting.  After defeating BESNA, more electricians were victimised but this time the network that had defeated BESNA remobilised and tackled this development.  It took further strike action to force an end to the new round of attacks on the rank and file activists.

Despite the revelations surrounding the CA and positive coverage given to the Blacklist Support Group – which has campaigned for justice and compensation for victims of blacklisting – the practice of blacklisting continues.  Some of the major of building firms were embarrassed when their links to the CA were make public but other defended their actions claiming they had a right to vet who worked for them.  For most of the building firms what happened in regards to the CA amounted to no more than a knuckle rapping.  As is made clear in this book blacklisting has not gone away.

The nature of what went on with the CA is further exacerbated by two other aspects discussed in Blacklisted.  One is the murky role of the police and Special Branch who – are we surprised? – colluded with the CA (see Ch 9).  The second matter is the collusion of some sections of trade union movement with the CA (see Ch 8).  The efforts to unearth the extent of this collusion between some union officials and the building firms (and the CA) has been particularly fraught.  Comments were found on some CA files were sourced back to active union officials.  When the BSG and others attempted to get  explanations, they were blocked.

Blacklisting and its relative, whistle-blowing are indicative of one very obvious feature of the workplace today: it is not free.  Not only is it not free, in many, many situations the workplace is run like a dictatorship; step out of line and you’re gone.  True the situation varies widely and depends hugely on whether trade union organisation is in existence at a workplace or not, but it largely the case for most workers that speaking your mind can have a myriad of negative consequences.  Why?  We live after all in a democratic era where it is accepted as normal and right that we should have a say over how we live? Why not the workplace then?  Why does work – a core human activity – not come under the umbrella of basic democratic rights?

The answer of course is no great secret: the workplace is un-free because capitalism requires it to be that way.  Making money and extracting it from the workforce is the aim, but actually making that happen requires that owners and managers have the means to exercise control.  Recall the Thatcherite mantra from the 80s: ‘Management must be allowed to manage’.  What she was really saying was management must able to order you about – end of story.

The authoritarian workplace is central to capitalism.   Ask a garment worker from Bangladesh, a miner from South Africa or a Foxcon/ Apple worker from China and s/he will tell you how bad it really is.  To change this is really the challenge of our time. Blacklisted ends with a great quote from someone on the front-line.  Speaking about the reality of fighting for your rights at work, Paul Crimmins, a victim of blacklisting,  states “It’s a thankless task but someone’s got to do it.’  That is the other amazing story recorded in Blacklisted: against the odds, time and again, workers have fought back against the authoritarian workplace.  They keep insisting on their rights and when they resist collectively and build solidarity they often go far beyond even their own aims. There’s a lesson in that no doubt – but that’s for another day.  In the meantime this books needs our support.  Beg, borrow and share it!  Promote it wherever you can.

Related Articles and Links:

Death toll on World Cup site (The Guardian)

Interview with Dave Smith (Hazards Magazine)

Information on the current prosecuction of Dave Smith/ Blacklist Support Group (Unite The Resistance)

Blacklist Support Group (on Facebook)

Mandate Campaign and Dunnes Workers

No Payslip, No Holiday Pay (Rebel City Writers)

Decency for Dunnes Workres

Anarchist Lens: The Green Experiment

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Petra Kelly

In this second post, Anarchist Lens returns to the subject of electoral politics and how it demobilises the struggle for change.  The example of the German Greens is examined.  In the late 70s, Die Grünen (The Greens) emerged as a new force on the German and European left. Radical and activist led, they claimed to be aware of the pitfalls of the electoral process and were, in their own words, an ‘anti-party party’. Yet, in less than twenty years, they had capitulated on all their key principles: tolerating nuclear power, rubber-stamping German participation in NATO and even agreeing to capitalist-friendly market reforms. How did this transformation come about? 


The town of Wyhl is located in south-west Germany in the state of Baden-Württemberg, not far from the Alps.  Wyhl and its hinterland is largely agricultural and is also rich in terms of natural beauty.  Even so, in the early 70s, Wyhl was chosen as the preferred location for a nuclear power plant.  The technology had been under development in West Germany since the 1950s but it was really only in the late 60s and early 70s that the German state moved to make nuclear power the cornerstone of its future energy needs.

There was immediate opposition to the proposal in Wyhl and over a number of years planners and politicians were lobbied to oppose the project – all to no avail.  In February 1975, building contractors moved onto land near the town to prepare for construction.  A few days later local activists and farmers occupied the site and prevented preparatory work from progressing.  The police intervened and removed the protestors but the subsequent publicity – which exposed heavy-handed police tactics – drew attention to the struggle in Wyhl.  A short while after nearly 30,000 people – including large numbers of students from nearby Freiberg University – converged on the site and all work was halted on the construction of the power station.  Less than a month after, faced with ongoing protests and occupations, the grand plan to make Wyhl nuclear was abandoned.  In an ironic twist the site for the power plant was later turned into a nature reserve.[1]

The victory at Wyhl is considered to be one of the first major successes of West Germany’s impressive anti-nuclear movement which held sway mainly in the 1970s and 80s.  Other significant confrontations were to follow – such as that at Grohnde[2] and Brokdorff [3] – but Wyhl is noteworthy for the decisiveness of the victory.  How did this happen?  A key factor was local involvement and resistance.  A second feature was the willingness to commit to direct action – such as the site occupations.  A third and vital factor was the movement’s ability to win practical support in large numbers when the West German state opted to use its repressive hand.  This wider support and solidarity was vital to what was eventually achieved.

atomkraft-nein-dankeThe German green movement was an important component of the broad anti-nuclear mobilisation in that country.  They played a role in building that struggle and were, at the same time, fundamentally influenced by it.   Local activity, which focused on local issues and which utilised local action, was a key ingredient in growth.  Grass roots participation was also highly valued as was consciousness-raising around the issues and concerns of the day.  In other words before the greens ever became Die Grünen, the political party, they were a coalition of all sorts of practical activists – citizens action groups, campaigners against nuclear power, anti-militarists and pacifists as well as anti-capitalists.[4]  Politically speaking they drew their membership largely from the radical left – anarchist, New Left and Maoist ideas were all part of the mix – but no one ideology wielded a decisive influence.[5]

Two factors were important to the political challenge that the green movement came to represent.  The first was the emerging importance of “environmentalism” and “ecologism” as political issues.  Seen from the perspective of today, environmentalism and concern about the earth’s resources appear to be a mainstream issues, but back in the early 70s, concern about the impact of human development on the earth’s ecology was decidedly new.[6]  Central to this was the green perception that capitalism itself was a key part of problem that the environmental movement faced. Capitalism’s unrelenting demand for growth, its voracious search for new markets and cheaper raw materials were core to its dynamism.  Yet these same elements were directly at odds with the earth’s environment and green movement’s contention that the planet had exhaustible, finite resources that needed to be carefully managed and minded. For this reason significant sections of the Green movement held that social and economic transformation away from the dictates of the ‘free market’ would have to take place if the environment was to be saved.[7]

A second factor was that the early green movement was also about a different way of doing things.  Its evolution – as indicated by protests such as that at Wyhl – emphasised grassroots involvement and participative democracy.  But in practice too there was a commitment to doing things ‘a different way’.  This translated into an anti-professional, participatory and decentralised attitude to party organisation.   Horizontal organisational forms were favoured over traditional ‘top-down’ arrangements, as were internal organisational practices that promoted and maintained grassroots empowerment and participation.

The overall praxis then – maintaining a radical organisational form that encouraged and facilitated participation as part of the process of building a movement for change – was seen as core to the green perspective.

Key protests such as that at Wyhl had been successful because such actions were locally based and relied heavily on the active participation of grassroots members.  However this ‘local’ nature of the early green movement also meant that from early days and in some regional areas, sections of the greens also openly intervened at city and regional level elections.  These initiatives were initially tactical and relied heavily on the emerging movement’s ability to exploit the rivalries that existed between the dominant political parties in West German politics – the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats.[8]  Broadly speaking these electoral initiatives fared well (winning modest, locally valued concessions) with the result that there was increasing openness to using such methods if the opportunities presented themselves.   In the early days these electoral tactics were used in conjunction with (or parallel to) tactics involving direct action.[9]  This parallel approach – using extra-parliamentary action alongside a visible parliamentary presence – was an old strategy of the Left’s and quite viable.[10]

Inevitably, however, the greens moved to consolidate this base of operations and this culminated in the formation of the German Green Party (Die Grünen or The Greens) in 1980 at Karlsruhe.[11]  The central tenets of this new organisation were environmental concern and action, social justice,[12] grass roots democracy and non-violence.[13]


 Die Grünen had negligible impact in the Federal elections of 1980 but this was not surprising given that it had only just formed.[14]  The situation, however, changed radically just three years later when the new party burst onto the Federal and European political scene capturing 27 seats or 5.7% of the vote. Further significant growth followed, fortuitously accelerated by a series of high profile controversies.  The first, involving the deployment of Pershing II[15] missiles on German soil, further underscored the precarious position that West German society found itself in at this time i.e. at the epicentre of any future East-West nuclear war.  The other equal worrying issue was radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl[16] nuclear accident (1986) which underlined further the dubious safety record of nuclear power plants as well as the silent danger that nuclear radiation posed.  Not surprisingly when Die Grünen marshalled their forces for the 1987 Federal elections they achieved another high vote, this time of 8.3%.

The meteoric rise in support, however, papered over a serious internal crisis.  This schism, which revolved around the extent to which The Greens were remaining true to their original principles and aims, was sharpened considerably by the reality of German unification.  The ending of the Cold War in the late 1980s and, with that, the uniting of East and West Germany, precipitated a new round of Federal elections.  Die Grünen however was unable to agree a unity programme with their counterparts from the former East Germany, Alliance 90, with the result that its vote actually shrunk to 4.8 percent and – crucially – came in under the politically decisive 5% threshold mark – reserved within German parliamentary politics as minimum level of support needed to establish a parliamentary presence.[17]

A decisive and bitter period of internal conflict, often termed the ‘Realos’ versus ‘Fundis’ debate, now broke out within Die Grünen.  This was a conflict over the movement’s political soul and future direction and it resolved itself decisively in favour of the ‘Realos’ faction in the early 90s.  Consequently, in 1993, The Greens (in a new alliance with Alliance 90) re-emerged as a serious electoral force, capturing 7.3% of the popular vote in the Federal election.[18]

With the issue of internal party wrangling more or less finished with, and the Realos faction in the ascendency, Die Grünen as a political party moved closer to the centre of German politics and went on to emerge as the third largest party in the country in the 1998 elections.  In effect they now displaced the right-of-centre Free Democrats from their sitting role as coalition king-maker.[19]  Soon after this Die Grünen entered into their first Federal level coalition with their old rivals, the SPD and the ‘red-green’ coalition emerged.

On the one hand it could be said that The Greens had achieved success but the nature of this was tempered by the knowledge that the organisation had abandoned its core principles. This became glaringly clear when Die Grünen backed the decision to allow German participation in the NATO intervention in Kosovo in the early 90s.  Not only did Joschka Fischer (Green leader and Foreign Minister in the ‘red-green’ coalition) actively defended participation in the aerial bombings of Serbia, he was supported by one time ’68 hero Daniel Cohn-Bendit.[20]  The controversy provoked a massive crisis inside Die Grünen and nearly a full third of its membership resigned in the immediate aftermath of Germany’s bombing of Serbia.  In any case just as significant was the party’s endorsement and participation in the implementation of a raft of neo-liberal economic ‘reforms’ (the Agenda 2010 programme) which sought to revitalise the flagging Germany economy via ‘workplace’ reforms.  As one commentator noted, ‘this led to [the] plundering of the public assets, social insurance and pension funds, while repressing wages and granting tax cuts to business worth billions of euros – effectively a redistribution of wealth from poor to rich’.   In a sense so much for social justice.[21]


It could be argued The Greens were naive and ultimately unprepared for the process they engaged in, but this is far from being the full story.  As is obvious from some of the early, formative debates in the movement there was a good deal of discussion about what the road ahead involved.  In part this reflected the influence of New Left[22] ideas inside Green party ranks, but in part it also reflected an acute awareness of the past compromises and capitulations – particularly poignant in terms of Germany’s own tragic history.

To recap the socialist movement in Europe, during the early 20th century, was numerically strong and hugely popular.  In many countries this translated into electoral success and many socialist parties had actually entered into government.  Yet sell-outs and betrayals were the order of the day – an outcome that was particularly true in the case of Germany where the once powerful Social Democratic Party[23] (the GSPD) had not only voted for war in the prelude to WW1 but had also played a pivotal part in the suppression of the workers uprisings in 1919 – a course of action that did, in time, pave the way for the rise of Nazism.

Another factor was the influence of anarchist ideas and in particular that movement’s critique of the parliamentary process.  As a political theory anarchism had warned about (and predicted) a good deal of what had come to pass in the mainstream socialist movement in Europe in the 20th century i.e. dilution and abandonment of political principles as part of full engagement with the parliamentary process.  These predictions had been made during various debates with Marxists and other reform oriented socialists in the late 19th century and in the early 20th century period.[24]  But, for the most part, these concerns and criticism were swept aside.


Syriza: radicals or playing the game?

Many socialist leaders believed that they understood the project of reforming capitalism and that all that was required was that they be handed the levers of power and the working masses would see the benefit.  In addition these same socialist leaders held a superficial (even innocent) appreciation of how the State (as a structure) operated on the political front.  Many regarded the ‘state’ benignly: a ‘bad’ thing in the wrong hands, a force for ‘good’ once steered in the correct direction by enlightened vision.[25]  How the State was actually structured – its hierarchical core – and how this affected decision-making as well the means for the mobilisation of resources – was largely ignored.

Yet the evidence of the 20th century history had done much to vindicate the anarchist critique.  So much so that the critique and the debate itself – centring on whether the parliamentary process was fatal to ideals – was to the fore in Die Grünen in its early days.  Thus Frieder Otto Wolf, a former Green European MEP, noted about the organisation:

 One key debate was about how far social emancipation could be a matter of party politics as they had been in the 1920s. This debate involved addressing questions of internal party democracy and challenging political scientist Robert Michels’ ‘iron law of oligarchy’. Michels argued that parties are always doomed to degenerate into apparatuses by which the leadership dominates the mass membership. To counter this effect, the Greens devised the principle of ‘grassroots democracy’. The party developed a strong set of institutional rules to prevent the development of a permanent party elite and to ensure that power spread constantly out to the membership. This would renew the leadership with fresh energies and experience. [26]

To an important extent then the parliamentary process was viewed by Die Grünen as treacherous.  What was devised to protect the organisation and its aims was the construction of an organisational bulwark known as basisdemokratie.  It was inevitable that the party would taste electoral success and popularity, the point was to prepare for it.  Basisdemokratie was essentially a set of ‘institutional rules’ designed to protect the new party and organisation from the corrupting aspects of the parliamentary success.[27]  Its key features were:

  • Any party member could attend any party meeting at any time. Although this might seem like a basic matter in a democratic party, in reality the majority of political parties don’t allow this; for example an ordinary member is not allowed attend a meeting of, say, the parliamentary party.
  • Consensus would be sought in important debates and was to be preferred over outright majority rule. However majority vote decisions were acceptable after an appropriate amount of debate.
  • Important items of policy were subject to a collective decision making process – involving the grassroots. This was considered to be particularly important and was to act as brake on the scenario whereby key party policy decision could come to be seen as decision that should be the preserve of the elected parliamentarians.
  • There would be strict limitations on the holding of party officer-ships while also holding a parliamentary seat.
  • Green deputies were to be mandated and bound by the party conference and the agreed party programme if they took up elected ‘member of parliament’ status. Note that this was an effort to introduce a modicum of ‘direct-democracy’ practice over representational parliamentary democracy.
  • Members elected to state and Federal assemblies would step down halfway through their terms of office – to be replaced by the next Green on the electoral list.
  • Party roles and officer positions were rotated to as to avoid the development of career politicians.
  • The party was committed to gender balance in officership roles.
  • Finally The Greens were committed to basisanbingdung or “tied up with the grassroots”. This concept stressed the ‘importance of ensuring that members in senior offices within the federal party maintained a direct link with those active at local and regional levels’.[28]  This was to be achieved by attending meetings or activities organised by local branches.

Underpinning the idea of basisdemokratie was a specific concern about ‘professionalisation’.  This was not just the issue of career politicians and the deformities that could arise from the influence of a particular ‘shining light’ or ‘leader’.  It was also about confronting the process of change that occurred within a party through prolonged exposure to the electioneering process and the media limelight.  In traditional parties, the Federal MPs often became ‘the face’ of those parties.  Consequently they accrued power, linked to their media profile that was outside the grassroots mandate.  It was a development that distorted the internal culture of the party unless specifically countered; basisdemokratie was an attempt to provide that.[29]


Early electoral success meant Die Grünen was flooded with offers to participate in coalition arrangements.  These had to be acted upon.  In favour of forming coalitions was the age old desire to achieve a certain number of real reforms.  If well chosen, these could then be further used to underline the party’s future potential.  The downside was that Die Grünen might have to support unsavoury measures that clearly weren’t in the party’s manifesto.  Such measures were capable of damaging the party’s prized image of being ‘new’ and ‘different.  They also risked antagonising the party’s activist base – which was a corner stone of Die Grünen’s organisational achievements.

Liberation or trap?

German suffragette poster

It proved impossible to resist the lure of office.  In Hesse in 1984, Die Grünen formally agreed to enter into a full coalition arrangement when they agreed to support a minority SPD government.  Interestingly this arrangement was opposed by the Federal Die Grünen organisation but local autonomy was highly prized and, in this case, triumphed.  As a result, and with time, other local Green organisations in Berlin (1989) and Lower Saxony (1990) also entered into State coalition arrangements.[30]  Moreover, in an early sign of the seismic shift underway in the party, in Brandenburg and Bremen, the Greens entered into three-way coalitions with the SPDs and their ideological adversaries the right-wing Free Democrats (FDP).  In the state of Hesse the coalition lasted until the Greens pulled out following the decision by Hesse state parliament to grant a new licence for a nuclear power station! [31]   This case highlighted the challenging situation that Die Grünen was now finding itself in on the policy front.

What was happening internally? As the opportunities for coalition proliferated, the practices of basisdemokratie moved more centre stage – as might be expected.  However, the manner in which happened was not fully anticipated.  The nub of the matter was that at some level basisdemokratie actually worked.  It stipulated certain ways of acting and this was given legal effect by Die Grünen’s rule book.  In effect a brake was put on the headlong rush to reconfigure Die Grünen into a traditional ‘professional’ party.

In particular basisdemokratie was effective in the decision-making arena. Die Grünen’s rule book instructed its politicians, if involved, to refer back to the party’s membership before signing off on important decisions.[32]  However this style of ‘horizontal’ consultation jarred with the ‘top-down’ operation of the State.  If Die Grünen had been the sole political party in an administrative structure, it might have had some means to insist on an accommodation (from the State) but instead, in those early days, it was often working in coalition partnerships.  These partners were also antagonistic to the practices ordained by basisdemokratie.  Thus Die Grünen discovered quickly that its consensus decision-making stipulations were the source of considerable friction.

‘Top-down’ decision-making, of course, has a logic all of its own.  State power rests on a number of pillars, but one of those is the State’s ‘right’ to make decisions on behalf of the rest of us.  Most of officialdom accepts and supports top-down decision making.  This is a product of the elite mindset, but there is also an element of ‘custom and practice’: this is how things are done and have always been done. To up-scuttle the ‘top-down’ way of doing things is, in and of itself, not easy and this is precisely what the Die Grünen discovered.  The Greens found themselves battling a conservative civil structure, sceptical coalition partners and, in time, a section inside its own ranks that did itself support basisdemokratie – because it was causing too much friction with the various coalition partners.

This internal faction, elements of which became the Realos wing of the Die Grünen, had existed from the party’s foundation.  Recall that Die Grünen was a heterogeneous organisation in terms of its constituent identities.  This was widely viewed as a positive aspect, as Petra Kelly explained:

The variety of currents enrich our party, even in the absence of a common consensus in the analysis of society.  I don’t want to exclude communists and conservatives and I don’t have to. One current learns from the other.  There is not mutual destruction, but a convergence of views. That what is new about our movement.[33]

However Die Grünen was not operating in a political vacuum.  It faced, as does any radical movement, strong political headwinds; these were forces that wanted to steer policy and The Greens away from change and towards an accommodation with the status quo.  It is worth noting that Die Grünen’s anti-capitalist tendencies were seriously resented by privileged interest in Germany, not to say opposed by Germany’s formidable industrial sector.

As happened then with the socialist movements of the past, Die Grünen found that it contained within itself the seeds of its demise. A pragmatic wing that was content to compromise on long-term aspirations if it meant leveraging any immediate gains came to the fore.[34]  In time this wing grew stronger and larger.  Election successes accelerated its rise.  The balance of forces within the party shifted[35] and as they did the electoral road took on an even more important role.  A middle ground in the party – swelled in numbers by electoral successes – moved towards seeing further success in the electoral arena as the sure way to move forward in terms of the party’s prime objectives.   It was still worthwhile to have an occasional large protest or mobilisation, but within the movement itself the real fight, as they saw it, had now moved decisively from the street arena to winning elections and, eventually, a majority in the parliament.

Naturally the newer members of Die Grünen were also less likely to see the value in basisdemokratie – and many indeed considered it to be outdatedAdditionally a further problem appeared.  Basisdemokratie supporters – drawn heavily from the grassroots base – became disenchanted as they were forced to work with traditional professionalised parties that were sceptical of (or even antagonistic to) their ‘alternative’ ways.  Many didn’t even stay to fight the swing to pragmatism seeing the battle, from early on, as unwinnable.

The conflict inside The Greens intensified.  However continued electoral success now became a defining factor in deciding the outcome.  As De Grünen continued to poll well it became easier for the ‘Realos’ to argue that those who supported basisdemokratie were ‘out of touch’ and ‘hung up on principles’ and ‘old ways’.  Realos supporters could argue that even though the party was operating in mixed coalitions and adopting ‘professional’ ways, it was still winning public support. If the electorate was with Die Grünen and trusted its promise, what was the need of basisdemokratie and its cumbersome rules?

The logic of the ‘Realos’ faction was further buttressed by a conservative media and political establishment which desperately wanted Die Grünen to ‘behave normally’ and play the game.  In their logic Die Grünen needed to be more like the other parties; this was the perquisite for success but also the price to be paid.

The organisational strictures at the core of basisdemokratie became the target.  Consensus decision took too long and was unwieldy.  For example too much consultation was cited as key reason why the Green were unable to strike an arrangement with Alliance 90 ahead of the first ‘unified’ German elections in 1990 – the poor performance at this juncture becoming as it did a major bone of contention between the Fundis and Realos wings.

Also under threat was the rotation of officer-ship positions.  It was argued that it took a party member a long time to gain experience of how a governmental role functioned.  But due to the party rules, just as she did, she had to be moved on anyway – in order to minimise the ill-effects of ‘professionalism’.  So this rotation concept was also deemed to be quite problematic; best to get rid of that too.  And so on.  The ‘separation of role from mandate principle’ insisted that Die Grünen parliamentarians did not necessarily sit on party councils at local, Lund/State or Federal level.  But this was discredited as the parliamentary arm of the party grew numerically and politically more powerful.  The party council – containing ordinary members – was deemed to be ‘removed’ from the reality of the parliamentary arm.  Now instead of the dog wagging its tail, the opposite made sense.   The parliamentarians moreover were at the cutting edge of where decisions and policy was being implemented: they needed to be able to direct Die Grünen’s resources accordingly.   And so – in a way that we’ve come to know only too well – a complete upturning of common sense came to make more sense.

At the Neumunster Conference (1991) Die Grünen took the controversial decisions that gutted basisdemokratie.  From that point on, the party moved quickly from its activist origins towards the professionalised party model.  Symbolic elements of ‘rotation’ and ‘participation’ were retained and occasionally paraded to the public to insist that Die Grünen were still ‘new and different’, but these were largely for show.  Basisdemokratie and, more importantly, the thinking that lay behind its development and inclusion, was abandoned so that in time a leadership could come to the fore which was able to sell to the membership the twists, turns and compromises of high office.

If any one person was to typify the scale of the transformation that Die Grünen had now undergone it had to the Green leader of that era, Joschka Fischer.  A one-time squatter activist in the 1970s, Fischer was a key proponent of the ‘red-green’ coalition which saw Die Grünen abandon all its main principles for the trappings of power.  Later on Fischer would take up a number of lucrative private sector roles as a lobbyist and handler for corporate business interests.[36] His own personal wealth benefitted accordingly.

The fate of the German Greens had a significant impact outside Germany.  Die Grünen, to an important extent, was seen as the flagship party of the broad electoral Green movement that emerged in the 80s and 90s in Europe.   Organisationally and intellectually it led the way, with the result that the fight for its political soul was intense.  But, once the battle inside Die Grünen was lost, it appeared to catalyse a generalised wave of compromise across a range of other similar political parties internationally.  In other words, key principles were compromised upon, aims were moderated and organisational structures were modified in favour of the traditional professional party model.[37]

DB - I Cut The Dole

Irish Green politician, Dan Boyle, adbusted for his party’s support of neoliberal policies following the economic crash.

However, the fact that various Green parties succumbed to reformism and moderation in a variety of conditions can also be interpreted in another way.  The multi-country experience underlines the fact that the experience of Die Grünen was not a ‘German’ event or something intrinsic to the character of German politics.  Rather, instead, the multi-country experience upholds the anarchist analysis that a fundamental process of political corruption is at work when radical organisations – seeking egalitarian objectives – enter into the parliamentary process.  The concerted manner in which that process happened to the Green parties at this time in a multitude of scenarios is surely proof that the anarchists are onto something.


The transformation of Die Grünen from radical movement into conventional political party was repeated in a number of other countries in Europe in the same time period.   This was no accident.  Anarchists then are right to argue, as they have in the past, that electoralist strategies are corrupting and destructive to movement that wish to overthrow capitalism.   The rise and fall of Die Grünen is one of the best, recent examples of the anarchist argument that radical democratic movements are undermined and demobilised when they involve themselves in electoral (or parliamentary) strategies.


 [1] See

[2] See

[3] See

[4] Jon Burchell, The Evolution of Green Politics, Earthscan, 2002, p53.

[5] Daniel Bensaïd et al, New Parties of the Left, Resistance Books, 2011, p98.  See also Jachnow in What Became Of The German Greens? New Left Review 81, p101

[6] For a good example of how far things have come – in the good and the bad sense – take a look at the recent UN study reporting that ‘global warming’ may now be irreversible

[7] An important restatement of this central argument is in Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything. See for the book’s video trailer and

[8] Technically on the left, the SDP is actually centre party with the left pretensions.  The CDP is centre-right and the other main party in West Germany (and laterally Germany) is the FDP which is firmly on the right and pro-neo-liberalism.

[9] It is useful to define what ‘direct action’ means.  It is often confused with unproductive forms of action like taking part in a march for example. Essentially though it is when people take action to further their goals, without the interference of a third party. So if, rather than appealing to State arbitration, a group of workers go on strike and force an employer to grant their demands: that is direct action by the workers.  If, rather than appealing to the State to build new homes, a group takes over some vacant properties and uses these as their homes that is direct action.  If, rather than appealing to the government not to build a nuclear power plant, the proposed site is occupied and work is prevented from proceeding, then that is direct action.

[10] The traditional socialist left conceived of itself as having two prongs to attack with – its parliamentary and extra-parliamentary wings.  In England the Labour Party worked with its trade-union support.  They both had the same overall aim of bring the means of production under workers control.  But early on it was resolved that the parliamentary wing was the dominant approach.  See also

[11] Jacknow, op. cit., p101, “…At a stormy conference in 1980, a thousand delegates from local campaigns, as well as several hundred from left, feminist and counter-cultural groups agreed to constitute what Petra Kelly described as an ‘anti-party party’.” An attempt to bar from membership hard-left and Maoist groups was defeated.

[12] Gender equality was also a tenet, putting the German Greens at the forefront of this type of initiative.  There was to be 50:50 men to women in party positions and men’s and women’s names would alternate on electoral lists.  Jachnow, ibid, p102

[13] See’90/The_Greens

[14] CDU/CSU – 244; SDP – 193; FDP – 34; GP – 27 seats; total seats 498.

[15] A missile system armed with nuclear warheads.  See

[16] See

[17] A legacy in German from the disastrous Weimar period when large numbers of parties obtained small percentages of the total vote leading to the fragmentation of the parliamentary body.  The Weimar experience was decried as contributing to instability.  Post-WW2 Germany introduced a minimum threshold level of support as a way around this.  See

[18] CDU/CSU – 294; SDP – 252; FDP – 47; GP – 49 seats; total seats 672.

[19] The FDP wavered in the amount of support they could muster but this placed them in a strong position when neither of the two large parties won an overall majority.

[20] Jachnow, op. cit., p96

[21] New Left Review

[22] See

[23] See

[24] See and references therein.

[25] ibid. and references therein,

[26] See Wolf’s article

[27] See Burchell, op. cit., p105-6

[28] Ibid, p105

[29]The process of course was well known. The ego is massaged in the limelight.  With time the party’s public representatives end up leading quite different lifestyles to the ordinary grassroots members.[29]  Naturally this leads to divergent perspectives.  This situation is exacerbated further when income source intervenes. If a parliamentary deputy’s income derives mainly from her role as a public representative then this inevitably influences her relationship to that role. Objectivity and impartiality can be blurred. See also Anarchist Lens: Clare Daly Affair.

[30] In both cases these coalitions were with the SPD

[31] The Greens went into state government in Hesse in coalition with the SPD.  Fischer became the first Green state-level minister for the Environment.  It was a harbinger of what was to come.  Hesse SPD were regarded as being ‘in bed with’ the region’s nuclear power and pharmaceutical corporations.  Nonetheless Hesse Greens continued anyway and according to Jachnow broke virtually ‘every pledge they had ever made’.

[32] Two clearly divergent decision-making processes were at work here.  The ‘top-down’ method of decision-making involves just a few people and happens quickly.  The horizontal method involves greater consultation and naturally takes longer.  Both methods can give the same output but one trades speed for democratic involvement.

[33]W Hulsberge, The German Greens, London 1988 p124

[34] Burchell, op. cit., p21-24 and J. Jachnow, opp. cit., p104

[35] Burchell, op. cit., p p19-20 for a discussion on the different constituent groups within a number of European green parties.  Poguntke (p 19) identified two clear allegiances that he termed moderates and fundamentalists.  Whereas the Moderates believe in the eventual success of piecemeal reform, the Fundamentalists fear the pacifying and demobilising effects of this strategy.

[36] Jachnow, ibid, p 99

[37] Jacknow, ibid, p114 for a discussion on the eco-capitalist forced in Die Grünen

Anarchist Lens

with 4 comments

Anarchist Lens is a series of blog posts looking at topical issues from an anarchist perspective.  The emphasis is  towards non-breaking news with the intention to better explain anarchist ideas and concepts by relating them to events and debates that are happening around us in the world today.

Anarchism’s critique of power relations in society; its analysis of authoritarianism and its dangers; its commitment to meaningful democratic expression as well as its acknowledgement that we live in a world where class warfare in an ongoing reality for many, many people are just some of the strands of understanding that Anarchist Lens will use.  Bear in mind, of course, that this is a work in progress and that ideas, suggestions and comments will always be welcome.

Follow Anarchist Lens post via Twitter at @AnarchistLens

Jan 2013

List Of Posts

The Clare Daly Affair

The Green Experiment

Written by Kevin Doyle

January 18, 2013 at 6:12 pm

Anarchist Lens: The Clare Daly Affair

with 12 comments

Clare Daly’s was elected to the Dáil in303848_309803329035607_1821912624_n 2011.  A founder member of the Socialist Party, Daly was initially hailed as a bright new voice for Ireland’s parliamentary Left. But in strange and controversial circumstances, Daly left the Socialist Party in 2012 on foot of her defence of fellow TD and tax fraud, Mick Wallace.  In this edition of Anarchist Lens, Daly’s about-turn is examined from an anarchist point of view.

Follow Anarchist Lens post via Twitter at @AnarchistLens


In early September 2012, Clare Daly, one of two Socialist Party TDs in the Dáil (the Irish parliament) resigned her membership of that party citing irreconcilable differences.  Re-designating herself a member of the United Left Alliance (ULA)[1], she declared that it was time to “prioritise the building of the ULA” which she described as an “an alternative political force, that can present a real challenge to the establishment parties”.[2]  Daly’s statement implied that she had undertaken a re-assessment of the possibilities for the Irish left and in so doing she had discovered that the Socialist Party (SP) – her political home for twenty-five years – was sorely wanting.  She implied that in recognising that it was not possible to change the SP from within, she had reluctantly taken the decision to move on.  The ULA was a much wiser venture.

On a superficial level Daly’s explanation of her decision to migrate to the ULA made some sense.  However it was far from being the full story and almost anyone who had taken any interest in the matter knew this to be so.  In the months prior to her departure from the SP, Daly had become increasingly linked to the independent Dáil TD, Mick Wallace.  A controversial figure with left leanings, Wallace had also won a seat in the Irish parliament, at the same time as Daly, for the Wexford constituency.   Unusually – given his views – Wallace was also a building contractor and a property developer[3].  During the Celtic Tiger period he had amassed a significant empire that he subsequently lost in the financial crash and economic meltdown that began in late 2008.  Emerging from this with a good deal of his personal wealth intact, Wallace successfully traded on his reputation and misfortunes and resoundingly won election to the Dáil in 2011.

However, in the early half of 2012, Wallace’s past caught up with him.  The Irish Revenue Commissioner took proceedings against the Wexford TD accusing him of failing “to make full tax returns on apartment sales over a two-year period” [4].  Wallace’s company, MJ Wallace Ltd, had collected monies from individuals and families it sold its apartments to but it had not subsequently passed this money onto Irish Revenue even though Wallace continued to collect a generous salary as director of MJ Wallace Ltd.  The sum of money demanded by the Irish Revenue was €1.4 million[5].  It also emerged that on another occasion Wallace had withheld pension contributions totally nearly €50,000 that had been deducted from his employees in order to maintain his companies in credit[6].  In due course Wallace pleaded guilty to charges put to him.  M.J. Wallace Ltd was fined a substantial sum by the Irish Revenue but the original sum of money owed to the tax department along with the fine were never to be recouped as Wallace’s building company had become insolvent[7].


The complications for Clare Daly were not initially of her own making.  Her party, the SP, were bound together with Wallace in the Dáil in a practical arrangement known as a Technical Group (TG)[8].  The TG had no common political programme and was little more than a ship of convenience used by its members to make more efficient use of certain Dáil services based on the number of members it contained.  TG participation allowed its members to propose and promote Dáil Bills and put questions to the Government etc; the TG also received a certain amount of administrative and financial benefits due to is size.

Wallace was adamant about continuing as a Dáil representative despite his past business transgressions.  However within the TG of which he was a vocal member, there was considerable unhappiness about his position and the controversy surrounding his tax dealings.  This was not surprising given that the Irish electorate was by this time (2011-12) well exercised by the matter of corruption in high office.  There was widespread public sentiment that there was simply too much double standards and that this had played a significant role in bringing about Ireland’s economic meltdown.  Surely, the electorate felt, it was time for a new beginning and for an end to duplicity? A sentiment encouraged no doubt by the reality that Wallace had stood for election under a slogan that proclaimed: ‘For A New Politics’.

Socialist members of the TG were particularly uncomfortable over Wallace.  Within the TG the leftwing TDs operated under two banners: their individual party banners – Socialist Party and People Before Profit for example – but also under the collective banner of the United Left Alliance.  In all of these organisations and in the ULA itself there was disquiet among the rank and file about the proximity of the left TDs to Wallace given his tax irregularities.  It could not be any other way.  For many Wallace openly seemed to be having the best of all worlds: he had been through a financial disaster but was still very well off.  Now he was collecting a very lucrative salary as a Dáil TD while claiming to be part of the new future in Irish political life.


The Wallace tax scandal unfolded over the spring and summer of 2012, just as tentative steps were being taken to develop the ULA into a national political party with proper structures and membership requirements[9].  This was a delicate process given that the ULA contained within it different factions and a multitude of difficult individual egos.  Nonetheless the goal was clearly set out by Joan Collins, a member of People Before Profit[10] and one of the ULA’s influential Dublin TDs:

I want people to stand under the banner of [the ULA] for the local elections in 2014. We need an electoral alternative to cuts in the budget. There is a need for a principled opposition.[11]

The Wallace scandal detonated silently inside this shaky alliance.  It was noted by ULA members that four of their five TDs had been silent on the matter of Wallace’s questionable standards; Seamus Healy, the Tipperary South TD, was the only consistent dissenter.  No immediate statement was issued by the ULA distancing itself from Wallace or explaining to its membership what its position was on the matter of Wallace and his ongoing career in politics.  Some put the silence down to the cumbersome, consensus-based decision making arrangement that the ULA had lumped itself with during its formation.   Other rumours however – largely emanating from the more right-wing sections of the press – suggested that there was more to the paralysis than was at first apparent.  The increasingly ugly spat eventually spilled over into the Campaign Against the Household and Water Tax (CAHWT)[12], which Wallace had linked himself to via his Wexford constituency[13].  The Campaign was a nationwide grassroots movement to oppose austerity and in particular a household tax that was being imposed on all house owners by the Irish government.  It had a large, politically and geographically, disparate membership and it included in its ranks both the anti-parliamentary and parliamentary left.  In the CAHWT there was little equivocation about Wallace and the Campaign issued a statement dissociating itself from the TD and his past fraudulent actions[14].

The scandal deepened in early June when Wallace’s plans to attend the European Soccer Championships in Poland became known.  It seemed to some that Wallace’s lifestyle had been largely unaffected by his tussle with The Irish Revenue[15] and this provoked renewed criticism of the Wexford TD and his apparent lack of remorse.  On June 12th the Socialist Party reacted and declared that “Mick Wallace’s failure to pay the original sum of €1.4 million in VAT is disgraceful, unacceptable and indefensible”[16].  The statement while clear cut on one level, went on to explain that Mick Wallace had no connections with the SP or the ULA (despite their close links with him in the TG) and that the campaign against Wallace was being fuelled by a right-wing media which had it in for Wallace, due to his past utterance.  (Wallace publicly opposed Irish Government support for the US war in Iraq in 2003 – a stand that put him at odds with pro-US newspapers like The Irish Independent.)

Around this time it also became more publicly known[17] via more media reports that Clare Daly was ‘friendly’ with Mick Wallace, an Irishism for stating that they were in a relationship together.  This news – as an explanation for Clare Daly’s puzzling stand – came more fully into the public light when Daly refused to back a Socialist Party supported motion designed to discipline the Wexford section of the CAHWT which was refusing to dissociate itself from Wallace despite directions from the Campaign nationally.[18]   Daly’s position was now increasingly explained as being one to do with a personal ‘loyalty’ to Wallace[19].  In other words she was refusing to join in the public condemnation of the troubled TD because she was in a relationship with him.  Importantly also, Daly’s stand was offered as the reason for the initial reticence of the SP and the ULA to condemn Wallace and his actions.  Later in the summer, after Daly refused to support a motion in the CAHWT, supported by her party (SP), proposing to censure the Lock Garman (Wexford) section of the Campaign which was standing by Wallace, the SP went public with their dissatisfaction and stated:

Unfortunately, two United Left Alliance (ULA) TDs, Clare Daly and Joan Collins, spoke in opposition on the grounds that the motions infringed the democratic rights of the Loch Garman group. This argument, against the agreed policy of the ULA, ignores the fact that the issue is of such importance to the campaign across the country that it is a decision to be made democratically through the national structures of the campaign.[20]

Shortly after this, Clare Daly dramatically quit the SP and issued her statement committing herself to the ULA and its potential to be “a real challenge” to austerity politics.  Needless to say few activists inside the Socialist Party were convinced by the reasons she was giving for her volte face and within the ULA itself there was also considerable scepticism re Daly’s about turn.  Had Daly really been converted to the aspirations of the ULA or was she just using the ULA to cover over the debacle with Wallace and move on?

Daly’s departure from the SP ended a twenty-five year long association with the Party.  But the acrimony and headaches did not end there.  Citing dismay with the ULA’s wavering on the matter of Wallace and its tolerance of Daly within its ranks, the important Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG) associated with the Tipperary South TD Seamus Healy departed the ULA in September[21].  More significantly the Socialist Party continued to grumble and made it clear that it was openly at odds with Daly and her supporters inside the ULA. As 2012 approached its end, a real question mark hung over the future of the party.  The SP, while at the same time announcing it would not leave the ULA, launched a broadside against the new venture stating that it was “not measuring up to the political challenge”[22].  In other words a right mess for all those left activists committed to the parliamentary road to socialism.


Many on the Left have been flummoxed by Daly’s loyalty to Mick Wallace and by the manner in which his predicament appeared to have influenced her decision to end a twenty-five year association with the Socialist Party.  There has been much incredulity and, it must be said, much dismay too – as indicated by the acrimonious divisions with the ULA.  But, seen from an anarchist perspective, is Daly’s political migration really that unusual?  Unexpected certainly, but unusual?

In Left history, anarchist theory has played a vital role in critiquing the process by which parliament not only contains but also disarms the drive to bring about meaningful change in society.  This critique has become all the more important and relevant given the repeated emphasis placed by socialists and Marxist-socialists on using the parliament.  This despite the fact that the parliamentary road to socialism is an entirely failed entity, littered with repeated disasters, compromises, examples of ditched principles and, in many cases, outright betrayal of the interests of the working class.  [For specific examples and the overview in Many Roads, One Destination in the WSM pamphlet Parliament Or Democracy[23]].

Anarchism indeed has presented a coherent and consistent analysis as to the why and the how of the phenomena.  There are, it should be emphasised, different aspects to the critique.  For example working-class self-activity – a key component in the struggle for change – often declines significantly when a strong parliamentary socialist movement emerges.  There is also the significant issue to do with the feasibility of using the State (an intrinsically authoritarian structure) to bring about fundamental processes of liberation.  There is the important issue of disconnection that emerges when socialist candidates obtain parliamentary office and how that disconnection impacts and impairs movement objectives.  In regard to much of this, anarchism has been proven to be an insightful political theory when it comes to understanding why seemingly ‘committed and principled’ socialists renege on their promises when they achieve high office.  The Clare Daly debacle is perhaps best understood within this anarchist critique.


To understand better what is meant here it is important to look at the journey that Clare Daly has made.  First and foremost, Daly was catapulted into a very different world by her election to the Dáil in 2011.  Some socialists like to pretend that this does not matter and that a person with principles can stand above material trapping at will.  But in practice that is actually not always the case. There is no iron rule here, of course.  Some individuals are impacted more than others; sometimes the effect takes a long while to materialise whereas with others it is felt immediately.  In Daly’s case it should also be borne in mind that her arrival in the Dáil was a long time coming.

Daly after all was a founding member of Socialist Party (SP) – formerly the International Militant Tendency.  She worked tirelessly throughout much of the 80s and 90s at a grassroots level for the cause of socialism in Ireland; very few people, if any, dispute this.  During that time she worked for the Irish airline, Aer Lingus, in their Catering Department, where she was an active member of her trade union, SIPTU; she held the elected post of shop steward for over 10 years. In 1999 she first tasted electoral success in the public sphere when she won a seat for the Socialist Party on Fingal County Council; she was subsequently re-elected in 2004 and 2009[24].  In 2011 with austerity in the air she finally made the long sought-after breakthrough and won a Dáil seat for the constituency of Dublin North.

Her election to the Dáil gave her a new, powerful platform from whence she was able to make her views known about the causes of the crisis and what should be done about it.  In the initial period she performed ably and well and was, notably, a new and a fresh voice in Irish political life.  She featured regularly on significant Irish media fora such as the flagship current affairs programme Today Tonight (RTE) and on the influential Tonight with Vincent Browne (TV3).   During this period it was certainly clear that Daly was following through on her track record and on the mandate she had received at election time.  She certainly championed the cause of social justice at a time when mainstream politics in Ireland was roundly focused on delivering a swift dose of neo-liberal medicine to its unprepared public.

However in taking up her seat in the Dáil, Daly was facing an old and difficult bogey for a socialist.  How would she cope with her new found status?  The most obvious and immediate factor is the special position that is reserved for TDs[25].  Lucrative salaries, allowances and expenses are part of the deal but this is accentuated by the special attention that is focused on politicians particularly in the modern setup where media/ celebrity status is increasingly valued.  So a TD can easily gain much greater access to all sorts of privileges that an ordinary person would never dream of encountering.  This sort of limelight can affect a person’s orientation and indeed the trapping of high office have long been viewed as potentially corrupting to core principles.  Not so much a problem for a mainstream politician but a considerable headache for a revolutionary socialist whose commitment must remain loyal to those excluded from power and privilege in society.

The benefits of parliamentary success are not accidental creations, of course.  Within the narrow confines of modern ‘Western’ democracy, parliamentarians are expected to see themselves as leaders and, in theory at least, they are also potential decision makers within and for their communities.  In that sense it seems quite logical that they should be rewarded with privilege and status.  Such endowments send the right sort of signal about parliament’s role in society and it ably assists in binding parliamentarians to the institution and the process of standing for election.  Again, in practice, this presents no real problem for a mainstream politician but for a Marxist party such as the SP and its membership there are pitfalls.

Longstanding activists of Clare Daly’s ilk are not unaware of this problem.  Nor, for that matter, is (or was) her former party.  The Socialist Party for example ordains that all its members follow one simple rule on attaining Dáil office: all Socialist Party TDs must commit to only taking a wage that is equal to the ‘average industrial wage’.  The surplus money that accrues to the elected party members is instead donated to the Party for its uses in the wider struggle.  In this way, in theory anyway, no SP TD can personally benefit from being elected to the Dáil. But in practice of course the problems associated with Dáil privileges and status present themselves in a number of ways – amounting to a lot more than just the jingle of coins.  A party member may well eschew the material trappings of office (money and material aggrandisement) but as is evidenced in the Clare Daly case there are plenty of other trinkets in the shop window to catch the unsuspecting eye.


For an elected member of parliament the road to pragmatism and moderation is both well known and well worn.  There have been the famous cases – ‘grand’ examples so to speak – such as that of the pre-WW2 German Social Democratic Party.  The GSDP grew meteorically after its formation and had radical aims[26], but as high office beckoned it was to discover that its leadership had become increasingly dominated by a very pragmatic viewpoint.  The socialist Edward Bernstein articulated this well when he said that electoral politics was ‘the high-school of compromise’.  Throughout his life Bernstein retained a commitment to the eventual aim of socialism – redistribution of wealth via the ending of capitalist production – but crucially, he argued that the more immediate and tangible goals should and did take precedence over long term aspirations[27].  Bernstein’s influential viewpoint culminated in his now classic re-formulation of the priorities of the GSPD when he stated:  ‘the movement means everything… what was usually called the final aim of socialism … nothing’.[28]

Recent Irish history illustrates the same process.  For example Irish people have just been through a budget where the Labour Party justified its role in imposing severe austerity on the grounds that if the Labour Party didn’t deliver the medicine to the public, an even less sympathetic coalition of parties might impose something even worse – a sort of mental mind-flip worthy of Orwell’s 1984 surely.  Another interesting example is that involving the formation of the political party, Democratic Left[29] in 1992 as a breakaway from The Workers Party.  On that occasion a majority of The Workers Party’s seven Dáil TDs, left to form a new left-centre party.  At the time, the acrimonious split cloaked itself with a number of pragmatic reasons including the desire by the seceding group of TDs to distance themselves from the image of Stalinism that had clung to The Workers Party.  But in reality the new Democratic Left party was decidedly more ‘centrist’ than ‘left’ and quite amenable to capitalism too.  In time all of Democratic Left’s TDs merged into the Labour Party and today one of those originals, Eamon Gilmore, leads the Labour Party where he has played a key role in imposing austerity on Irish workers.  QED?

Compared to the above examples, Clare Daly’s migration does not amount to a great deal.  Her defection is partly personal and it is also limited in its scope by the reality that it doesn’t involve a tranche of other supporters following suit.   However it does come at a bad time for the Irish parliamentary Left which itself is in the midst of manoeuvres to establish a stable and viable electoral alternative intent on occupying the space vacated by the Labour Party.

But where Daly’s case is of interest is that we rarely see the process identified by anarchists working itself out so thoroughly and dramatically in an individual case.  It is far more common (as with the Democratic Left example above) to see the process working itself out within a political party where it can sometimes stay hidden from full public view.  In Daly’s case though her travails are largely hers and hers alone and, for reasons that are not entirely fair to her, they have become quite public too.


Commenting on the experience of being elected to parliament, a member of the Australian Labour Party commented thus, as far back as the early half of the 20th century:

[Our supporters] “commonly criticised their MPs for not being icy enough.  They saw Parliament as a comfortable club which seduced Labour members with facilities way beyond the reach of the a typical toiler – higher wages, comfortable leather chairs, billiard tables, dining rooms, well-stocked library, free rail travel and invitations to lavish functions.

This of course is a familiar refrain – the danger of being seduced by the material trappings of high office – but the same observer went on to make this other significant point:

Close contact with [our] adversaries could be disarming too.  After lashing union bashers on the hustings it was different matter altogether to confront them in relaxing surroundings and find they are not bad blokes to share a drink with or a game of cards with.  Many Labour men were obliged to adjust and often did so without being aware of the process. [30]

Leaving aside the sexism of those times for the moment, the key observation is that a person (an elected socialist) might find himself in due course and as a result of his exposure to the hum-drum of parliamentary life ‘obliged to adjust’ his behaviour.  He noted also that that such a person “often did so without being aware of the process”.

So we are led back to the unexpected and, some would say, uncharacteristic about turn by Clare Daly in September of last year.  A theory has floated about that explains Daly’s move as being one of a sudden bout of bad judgement perhaps brought on by the heady emotions of being in a new relationship with Wallace.  But this hardly does justice to Clare Daly.  By any measure she is not a novice.  If anything she is a seasoned and an influential activist.  For example it was openly suggested that she would one day be the next leader of the Socialist Party.  So hardly an example of someone who would blow with any wind.

Another aspect of Daly’s about turn has been her steadfastness.  For the best part of a year she hardly wavered to any significant degree on the matter of Wallace.  Rather, in her confrontations with her formers comrades, she has been trenchant and, even now, with her move into the ULA she has not shown any desire to compromise – a factor that is likely to do terminal damage to that party.

What seems much more plausible and fair to Daly then is to accept that she has changed.  Her political outlook had shifted and it appears to have shifted significantly since her election to the Dáil.  Some of this no doubt is to do with the new situation she finds herself in but it also has to do with the people she is now in closer proximity to.  Daly’s support for Wallace could (reasonably) be viewed and described as ‘seeing things from Wallace’s own perspective’.  Recall that Wallace himself does not really believe he did anything particularly wrong in terms of his tax affairs[31].  He was simply a man trapped in a collapsing building (the financial crash).  He had to take harsh measures or else he might never have got out alive.  Clare Daly’s own pronouncements to some extent echo this viewpoint.  She had stated that she has condemned Wallace for his past misdemeanours.  But, as she puts it, these aspects are now in the past and it’s time to move on to more important issues.


In keeping with her surprising support for Wallace, Clare Daly has also become more closely associated with a reformist wing within the ULA which aims to mould it into a social democratic electoral party.  A ‘social democratic’ party might sound like a fine aspiration to some but recall that it is light years away way from the revolutionary socialist position that Daly adhered to while a member of the Socialist Party and which she articulated and stood over for decades.

There is no knowing for sure, of course, what has gone on with Daly – and my conjectures here are just that.  Time will tell us more no doubt.  But the evidence is mounting that Dáil tenure and the ‘limelight’ of office has got to Daly.  In this sense anarchists may well be quite justified in engaging in a bit of ‘I told you so’.  But for Ireland’s troubled parliamentary socialist movement the fallout is a lot more serious and worrying.  For parties such as the Socialist Party much is made of (and huge effort is expended on) the matter of getting someone elected to the Dáil.  Consider for example what the SP put into Clare Daly’s slow but steady rise.  It was actually huge.  With her election won, the hope and expectation was that she would work hard to increase the Party’s profile and standing.   But now all of that has come to naught.

Once more then, Dáil office (and power) – The Holy Grail for Ireland’s parliamentary socialists – has proven to be a graveyard for its political ideals.  Some might hope that in time this latest debacle will provoke a sobering reassessment in that quarter but it would be naive to expect anything dramatic either.  Sadly, some socialist traditions seemed fated to repeat the same errors again and again and again precisely because they neither understand the nature of power (the electorate versus the parliamentary machine) or how this power dynamic works steadily (and stealthily) against the processes of liberation.

References, notes and links below:

[1] The United Left Alliance was set up before the Irish General Election in 2011.  It is a coalition of left parties and independent left activists and includes the Socialist Party, People Before Profit (an organisation controlled by the Socialist Workers Party) and the Workers and Unemployed Action Group.  While it contains within its ranks Trotskyist parties such as the Socialist Party and other left groups, it is nonetheless seen as a more moderate populist organisation and very much a work in progress.

[2] Clare Daly on 31/8/12

[3] See the entertaining but jaundiced view of Wallace in Business and Finance, a mainstream Irish business magazine.

[6] Wallace later paid back all the monies that he owed to the Construction Workers Pension Scheme.  See

[9] However it should be said that this was and remains a very uneven process and is more advanced in some areas than others.   For honest analysis on this process see the blog

[10] PBP was set up by the Socialist Workers Party and is widely views as being controlled by this party.  Its programme is here Currently PBP has to TDs in the Irish Dáil – Richard Boyd-Barrett and Joan Collins.

[12] See Campaign website

[15] Wallace had a longstanding interest in soccer in Ireland.  He let it be known that he was intending to travel to the Euro 2012 in Poland to see Ireland’s performance but this caused a furore given the fact that he had a large sum of taxes unpaid but was still intending to travel to Poland.  Wallace eventually said he wouldn’t travel to Poland although report later indicated that he did in fact make it there.

[19] See in this report the trouble over Wallace’s resignation from the Technical Group.

[24] See and Clare’s Record

[25] In this interview in Dole TV (May 6th 2012), Daly made clear how aware she was of the rarefied environment that is the Dáil.  See The same material is also covered here

[26] See the adoption  of the Erfurt Programme by the GSDP

[27] Norman Wintorop Ed., Liberal Democratic Theory And Its Critics, (Croom Helm, 1983), p214

[28] ibid., p214

[30] R. McMullan, The Light On The Hill (OUP Australia, 1991), p89-90

[31] See this the Irish Times report which details some of the dealing by the MJ Wallace Ltd before its final collapse at and also



Written by Kevin Doyle

January 16, 2013 at 2:47 pm

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