Remarks at the Dublin launch of 'We Make Our Own History'

The last year has left me a confused state between optimism and pessimism which made it quite difficult to work out what I had to say tonight on the topic of how are social movements doing in Ireland and what are the prospects for real change. 

Fundamentally I think we are in a moment of transformation where the established organisational methods and structures established on the left over the last 150 years are evaporating away. And, in part as a consequence of that the new resistances that are emerging are sometimes profoundly unattractive whether thats ISIS in Iraq and Syria or the anti-refugee panic nearer to home.

The phrase that will probably stick in my head from 2015 is the solidarity destroying slogan that ‘we have to look after our own’.

The organised revolutionary left was always weak here but now it almost does not exist. The Leninist parties have shrunk down to small secretive cadres trying to maintain control over their respective electoral front organisations. And the formal extra parliamentary left which was historically even weaker has collapsed from its relative highpoint of the first decade of the 21st century to almost nothing.

But and the But is important.

The other side of this is the flowering of three movements over the last year any one of which would have been of major significance in the last two decades.

The first and most obvious one is the water charges campaign. Striking in terms of its numbers - its by far the largest and most widespread semi-spontaneous self-organising movement I’ve seen here. It’s also a stage on which you can see the arguments for and against centralisation being played out. In particular with the attempt of the Right to Water cadre to establish a hegemonic influence over the campaign as a whole on the one side and the often chaotic but sustained street resistance of local groups on the other.

The second is the antidote to the anti-refugee panic and that this is the, again semi spontaneous and self-organised emergence of the Calais solidarity movement over the summer. It emerged as a reaction to conditions at the Calais came one inspired by the massive resistance to Fortress Europe that we saw flow from Lesbos to Calais and other sites of resistance. In the aftermath of the publication of the photo of the 3 body of 3 year old Alan Kurdi washed up on the beach we saw this island wide solidarity effort that emerged even in small rural towns I’d previously never heard of.

The third example I want to mention is the militant response to the deepening housing crisis which in Dublin has seen multiple direct actions in the last months from the occupation of multiple buildings by the emerging squatting movement to the occupation and attempt to being back into use of the Bolt Hostel by an alliance of housing groups as well as numerous occupations of DCC offices and other protests.

I said 3 but a 4th that is interesting because it didn’t emerge this year but back in 2012 is the pro-choice movement centered around the Abortion Rights Campaign. This is significant because although it emerged once more as a semi spontaneoeus self organised movement in late 2012 it has since provided a recent experiment in trying to create a more long lasting formal organisation. With considerable success as shown by the thousands who took part in this years March for Choice even though for once there wasn’t a tragedy forcing people to mobilise. Have’n been involved in some 30 years of work around pro-choice struggles that was characterised by mobilisation in response to tragedy followed by demobilisation that’s no mean achievement and one I hope will be sustained.

So how to resolve that contradiction between the pessimism I opened with in relation to a revolutionary politics of transformation and the very much more positive reality of the bloom of social movements. That is where I become stuck.

One the one hand the actual practise of self organisation is far more wide spread and intense than it has been at any point in my active political life.

On the other there is no revolutionary organisation of even minor significance in the traditional sense and not that much of a collective understanding of what a revolution might look like. Often when people say ‘we need a revolution’ they mean little more than getting the current government out of power.

The optomistic reading would be that technological and cultural development have removed the necessity for revolutionary organisations with a party form. I’m using party here as Malatesta used it to include much of traditional anarchism. Under that reading the development of a movement of movements will be in itself enough as experience accumulates and networks build.

I’m not going to state a strong opinion on whether that is the case because I simply don’t know. But I’m going to end on a quotation from the introduction that suggests how that answer should be discovered
“the building blocks of theory are ordinary people’s efforts to make sense of and change their social experience; theory is produced wherever this happens. The producers of theory are – potentially – everyone who reflects on their experiences so as to develop new and improved ways of handling problematic aspects of that experience ”

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )


The Dublin launch of 'We make our own History, Dec 9th 2015

Some quotations I noted down while reading the book

“to agree that we need movements, even movements independent of political parties, is not the end of a discussion but the start of one – what should we do? How can we win? ”

“Ireland and Norway – like India, and indeed the large majority of states in the world today – have been made and remade by social movements, not once but several times ”

“the building blocks of theory are ordinary people’s efforts to make sense of and change their social experience; theory is produced wherever this happens. The producers of theory are – potentially – everyone who reflects on their experiences so as to develop new and improved ways of handling problematic aspects of that experience ”

“Theory, in this sense, is a tool that we use to figure out what is happening to us, why it is happening, and what to do about it, by going beyond the immediacy and situatedness of a particular experience. It is this exercise of going beyond immediate surfaces and appearances that arguably defines theory.”

“Particularly important for social movements is the experience of a situation as problematic, or of a way of doing things as not working.

“most autonomist commentary on movements consists of an elaborate theoretical celebration of movements which operate according to their preferred mode – without real discussion of how the movements they work with could go beyond their current mode of existence. ”

“each new wave of movements brings not only movement-based researchers to the field but also researchers with no such relationship and little real interest other than in making a temporary splash in what they perceive as an undemanding field, used to secure funding and publications. All too often, such individuals are better at playing the academic game than movement-linked researchers, and exercise an unhealthy effect intellectually as well as politically”

“Rather than borrowing from academic theory (which is often second-hand activist theory minus the good parts), or making up something completely new in order to compete in a marketplace of intellectual style and celebrity, we feel that activist theorising has real value because of its orientation to ‘this-worldly’ practice. ”


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