Pragmatism, electoralism & locking women up - how far does too far go when you are hoping for the vote?

Strategy is more than a word as the Southpark gnomes demonstrated with their underwear planIt’s election time in Ireland and as usual the excitement of the electoral game has resulted in some on the left losing the plot. I’m referring in particular to the continued endorsement erstwhile leftists are giving to a virulently anti-choice MEP candidate, one Diarmuid O'Flynn. Diarmuid you see is considered sound on the issue of the bank bailout debt. That alone is enough to not only overlook his anti-choice politics but to attack those who raise this contradiction as ’posturing’ ‘minoritarian’ ‘arrogant’ ‘postmodern’ ‘moralists’ who lack an ‘alternative strategy’.

The insults quoted are all from a single afternoon Facebook row and were leveled at anyone who dared to question people on the left endorsing an MEP candidate who stated "The only occasion on which I can foresee abortion arising in the EU is as an equal rights/civil right issue. I would vigorously oppose any such imposition on Ireland.”

A note for readers outside Ireland - abortion is only legal under extremely limited circumstances, when a women’s life is directly threatened. And this only since last year, only in fact after the death of a migrant women, Savita Halappanavar, who was denied an abortion while in a critical condition in hospital. This resulted in public uproar and large protest marches which forced the current government to introduce the ‘x-case’ legislation that every party in power had stalled on for 20 years.  Every minor step forward in the pro-choice struggle in Ireland has occurred as a result of popular mass mobilisations in the aftermath of the tragic deaths of women.

Those who obtain abortions outside those very limited circumstances can be sentenced to 14 years in prison. Despite this thousands travel for abortions to the UK every year (which is legal) or induce abortion at home via medicines ordered online (which is not). Its probably illegal for me to tell you that you can obtain advice and pills for a medical abortion from Women on Web  - possibly if you live in Ireland and you do that as a result of reading this I could also be sentenced to 14 years for aiding you. That’s how non-trivial O’Flynn’s opposition to abortion is.

O’Flynn is running for the European parliament. Unfortunately at the time of the Maastricht treaty the Irish government obtained a blackmail clause that said the treaty would not effect the anti-choice position built into the Irish constitution. This was also put into the later Lisbon treaty, text as follows

Right to Life, Family and Education
Nothing in the Treaty of Lisbon (a) attributing legal status to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, or (b) in the provisions of that Treaty in the area of Freedom, Security and Justice affects in any way the scope and applicability of the protection of the right to life in Article 40.3.1. 40.3.2 and 40.3.3, the protection of the family in Article 41 and the protection of the rights in respect of education in Articles 42 and 44.2.4 and 44.2.5 provided by the Constitution of Ireland.

There is a very reasonable opinion that human rights provisions should over rule this clause and the anti-choice right are worried about this. At this point in time while it almost impossible to imagine any possible government in Ireland introducing a pro-choice referendum but it’s just about possible to imagine the EU deciding that yes human rights include the rights of people to their own bodily autonomy. The context this is perhaps most likely to happen in would be if the state actually tried to jail someone who had induced an abortion via internet medication or someone who aided them in doing so.

So while I’d prefer to win a pro-choice referenda I'd be quite happy if instead of waiting 50 years for one of the political parties to introduce such a referenda the EU 'imposed' such legislation on us tomorrow. The anti-choice clause of the EU treaties was among the reasons I campaigned for a No vote on various EU treaties. But I'd be delighted if the EU decided that human rights superseded those clauses. And it’s a bad thing, an awful thing that parts of the left are endorsing someone who has said he'd block that happening if elected into a position to do so.

The Civil Rights comparison

That possibility is roughly similar to the struggle in the US in the 1950’s and 60’s against the racist ‘Jim Crow’ laws that segregated the black and white populations in the south. The southern states had the historical legacy of post civil war segregation laws and many of these states had white majorities that elected racist pro-segregation politicians to maintain this. This ‘right’ to discriminate against a section of their own population was held up as ‘states rights’ in a similar fashion to the ‘national sovereignty’ defence of Ireland’s anti-choice legislation. As O’Flynn puts it “Abortion is an area in which we should remain sovereign; this is an issue for Ireland to decide, on its own.”

As you already know there was a prolonged and bitter struggle waged by the black population of the southern US with white and northern allies in the 1950’s and 1960’s in particular. Segregation was only ended in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination when the so called ‘states rights’ to be racist were over turned by central government - something that in some places required the deployment of the national guard to enforce. It split the Democratic Party as racist southern Democrats left the party. Like O’Flynn some of them would have been considered ‘sound’ on economic issues.

I don’t know if there were any significant sections of the US left that argued for a vote to the racist politicians who were ‘sound on economics’. If there were I suspect they are very, very quiet about that today. Yet in Ireland there are some on the left (mostly men) who not only continue to endorse O’Flynn but who aggressively go for anyone who asks how can he be described as 'progressive' if he intends to defend locking up anyone accessing abortion in Ireland for 14 years? Daring to question such endorsment of O'Flynn by the left was even been called ‘choice-shaming’ - doubly insulting for its deliberate adaptation of feminist language.

The question of alliances

Criticism of the EU in Ireland has tended to be dominated by a reactionary nationalist approach but has also contained a smaller progressive leftist anti-neoliberal faction. Those most into such alliances tended to be centered around Community Party style politics, which in Ireland where that party has always been very weak meant the politics of supposedly clever maneuvering and alliance building with sections of the progressive center and right, in CP terms the progressive bourgeoisie. Rotten alliances between these two sections are not unheard of but became rarer over the last 15 years because the question of abortion rights became an elephant in the room that could not be ignored. Earlier in the election campaigns the Socialist Party AAA electoral front rapidly removed one of their candidates when it emerged he was anti-choice and in general the existing revolutionary left parties would not allow such people to stand, even for their soft electoral fronts.

This is a fairly sensible recognition of where the hard limits for broad electoral fronts exist in the Irish context. However as the old left has disintegrated, in particular in the aftermath of the attempt at far left electoral co-operation through the United Left Alliance things have changed. With Labour in power and disenchantment with the existing far left new formations have begun to emerge, in particular that around the Left Forum. These are not yet organisations but they certainly included people who are pushing them as proto organisations, in particular through attacking the existing left organisations as being ‘insurrectionist’ and thus unable to appeal to the working class.  Again an echo of old school official communism.

In the context of that tradition the endorsement of O’Flynn is a logical step for the Nostalgic Left. He’s the initial organiser of the Ballyhea Say No group, Ballyhea is a small rural town of about 1000 people where every Sunday for the last 165 weeks some of the population have met up in the church car park every week to march through the town with a "Ballyhea says NO! to bond-holder bailout" banner. The left has tended to simply welcome this protest although interestingly has been quite hostile to the attempt to emulate it in Dublin.  This difference possibly because the left doesn’t have a presence in Ballyhea and can thus avoid the contradictions that arise within such neither left or right broad formation. Well up to the point where O’Flynn decided to run MEP made and clearly state his anti-choice position.

Ultra reactionary

O’Flynn went beyond saying he would oppose EU intervention on human rights grounds. Although recognising that being in Europe would give him no say on the matter he outlined his position on including the threat of suicide in the legislation, the issue that the anti-choice fringe right rallied around in advance of last years legislation with their ‘let women die’ rallies. It turns out O’Flynn stands with that element. who represent no more than 4-12% of the population. He wrote, “I can see why many people believe that such a threat to a mother’s life should include suicide. I don’t agree. I believe this then makes the life of the unborn foetus subservient to the life of the mother. Even for the most stable, mentally strong woman, abortion is surely a highly emotive decision. A suicidal prospective mother is already suffering serious emotional stress. An abortion will add to that stress.”

How on earth can anyone on the left endorse someone with these views who had indicated that he intends to act on them if elected? How on earth can they then go on to vigorously attack people who question that endorsement, in this case almost all of those people played central roles in the pro-choice struggles of the last couple of years and in some cases very much greater period of time?

Rather remarkably we are to believe endorsing O’Flynn is in fact a clever strategy to repeal the anti-abortion laws. And therefore those of us guilty of suggesting O’Flynn is clearly part of the problem rather than part of the solution are guilty of moralism. Our opposition to endorsing O’Flynn we were told is “shutting off strategic debates with moralism. To overturn the 8th amendment I think we will likely need a Left government in power. To get that we will need to build a very broad alliance that, in Ireland, is almost certain to include some people opposed to reproductive rights. The problem is advocating such an alliance as the only viable path I see to securing free, safe and legal abortion for women and trans men in Ireland is clearly beyond the pale.”

When you start to write off having a problem with a candidate opposing suicidal people having access to abortion as ‘moralism’ you are simply showing how empty strategic reformism is. After all if you can decide O'Flynn's position is excusable you could decide anything is.  This can only make sense when you view political activism as primarly trying to cajole people into backing your party rather than being part of a process of shifting the way people think about issues.  This is a very fundamental divide into political methodology as frequently the methods you would use to acheive one are quite counter productive for the other.

In this context I'm 100% fine with being called a moralist because I think endorsing O'Flynn* is way way beyond any notion of acceptable compromise.

Belief that change is all about clever strategy rather than winning people to principled positions is why the Labour Party is in power 'fighting at the gates of hell' as one trade union leader put it. Labout Party members defending their party in power implementing austerity do so precisly in these terms of a pragmatic defence of what is possible rather than empty moralistic gestures.   Opposition to 'moralism' often simply translates into not having any principles at all - indeed principles are presented as a bad thing, something holding the movement back.  And the closer to power a party comes the more transparent this is.

In general I don't see the history of the left as being a history of 'moralism' getting in the way of what need to be done. Quite the reverse in fact, Stalin, Mao et al could have done with a little more moralism and a little less pragmatism. But while no one today proclaims Stalin or Mao as the way forward it’s not a coincidence that the political practice of the Nostalgic Left strongly resembles that of the ‘official communist movement’.

Now I’m not naming names here for a couple of reasons. Most importantly because what’s important with this example is not some individual coming out with a bad parody of 1950s economistic leftism. What’s important is the influence reformist pragmatism has managed to carve out for itself as the left was routed on every field except the electoral one during the crisis.  This apparent success has pushed left politics in a very unhealthy direction, this O'Flynn endorsement simply forms an extreme example of what lies at the end of the pragmatic realism road.

My second reason for not naming names is that Facebook encourages saying stupid stuff in anger on the assumption it will vanish and be hard to find within a few days. This expectation is harmful both because it encourages people to lash out rather than think and because its rather trusting of Facebook not to implement some more effective search engine in the future that will turn up such old discussions. But I do think people need space to make hasty mistakes in without necessarily having to answer for them forever into the future. I’m probably glad some of the opinions my 20-year-old self stated don’t pop up in a Google search (although many do, particulary if you trawl usenet).

We've been here before

What’s more this 'we need to be pragmatic and clever' argument isn't a new departure that one person has come up with and which by extension they are to blame for following the logic of it down the rabbit hole. It's just from 1986 or so to 2009 those arguing it were in the Labour Party/Workers Party /Democratic Left trajectory or a scattering of them in the Green Party.  With the Labour Party in power implementing austerity that’s not a very tenable argument so the new generation making it outside those parties are forced to make much more desperate alliances because those are the only ones available.

I say desperate because I really can't see any of the Labour Youth members I had similar arguments with 10, 15 or 20 years back making an argument for an equivalent endorsement. Not remotely. They had the hope that they could push Labour to the left; they hoped to influence Gilmore rather than O’Flynn. They were wrong but its way more logical to imagine Gilmore voting to Repeal the 8th than to imagine O'Flynn doing so.  The Green Party members mostly imagined that electoralism was opening a space for Green activism, they didn’t realise that once in power they would close down any space for official Green Party activism for a generation or more as their minister sent environmental protesters to jail for the crime of defying Shell in Mayo.

None of those people would have been endorsing O’Flynn, less still presenting doing so as a clever strategy to expand access to abortion. Incidentally that argument is foolish from every possible angle, including the fact that O’Flynn has no chance of actually being elected. Polls are showing him with 2% of the vote.  The Southpark cartoon at the top of this piece expresses how I feel about the inspired working of the 'O'Flynn road' to the abolition of the 8th amendment.

A divided new left emerging

So what in earth is happening here? A reasonable conclusion is that the determined defence of endorsing O’Flynn was another skirmish in the battle about the shape the left should take. Many of the cast of characters on both sides were familiar. I’ve seen the same battle lines drawn up around Trigger Warnings, Calling Out, Checking your Privilege and a range of related issues over the last months all of which have stood in as flash points of a very much larger debate. To be fair a lot of those who were very loud in those arguments were not on board for this one, although when you checked who liked comments the pool expanded a bit. But yes this strange endorsement appeared to be another skirmish in what has become a long war.

On the one side you have what I’ve termed the Nostalgic Left. A tendency that sees reviving the left as being a return to a simpler idealised times when the left concentrated on ‘bread & butter’ economic issues, charismatic leaders, acting mainstream and playing the electoral game. That left is very top down, even if right now it consists almost entirely of generals who are so stunned by their own intellectual brilliance that they seem unaware that they lack an army to command. They tend towards blaming their inability to create that army on the confusion and division spread by their terrible opponents.

Who are the opponents? Well the term that has fallen into use is a once obscure term coined from the legal end of feminist studies, they are the dreaded ‘Intersectionalists’ although you also sometimes see ‘Neo-Anarchists’ and even rather infamously Vampires. They tend to be characterised by an insistence that fighting on ‘bread & butter’ issues needs to include a strong consideration of how different marginalised groups are impacted, a hostility to the worship of charismatic leaders expressed in particular through ‘calling out’, a celebration of diversity as a thing in itself and a low level of engagement in electoralism if not an outright hostility to it. If the first group appear as generals without an army this second group often appear as a mob without leadership or often-even co-ordination.  In both cases the appearance is down in part to this being the start of processes of formation.

To the first group endorsing O’Flynn not only made sense but also as we saw when the endorsement was challenged merely served to confirm the destructive role-played by their ‘Intersectional’ enemies in raising difficult distractions from the real issue of the debt. That is those who were described as ‘posturing’ ‘minoritarian’ ‘arrogant’ ‘postmodern’ ‘moralists’ who lack an ‘alternative strategy’. Remember it’s the political analysis that these terms express that matters, not whoever happened to express it. They define a way of looking at the left and an approach to debate on the left.  And the two approaches are often incompatable, when people lose their shit with the other other side it is not simply down to anger management but that they genuinely believe the other sides activity is massively counter productive.

For the Intersectionalists this endorsement of O’Flynn encapsulates the problem with the Nostalgic Left. At a level that felt like self-parody designed to demonstrate the usefulness of ‘Check your privilege’ catch phrase. For the most part it was men who were insisting abortion access was a secondary issue of lesser importance than the bank debt. Of course the obvious questions are 'to who' and 'who gets to decide'? In both cases being aware that if you have the privilege of not ever going to become pregnant against your wishes that is far from trival in determing how you might make that call.

Indeed the gap between the two positions was so enormous that many reacted by posting a polite WTF comment and then unfriending the person who had started the discussion when they announced they were endorsing O’Flynn. It obviously seemed  that there was no common ground with those willing to make a compromise of this magnitude and hence no purpose in further discussion.

This is everywhere

The electoral storm in a teacup is representative of something very much bigger. Bigger than the election, bigger than the left in Ireland. It is literally one small story of the destruction and reconfiguration of the left, as it has been understood for over 100 years. Sure one of the emerging sides is nostalgic for an older left but its composition is not for the most part old Stalinists who have suddenly awoken Rip Van Winkle style to confuse us with what performances from generations past. Rather they include people who five or so years ago were class struggle anarchists, Trotskyists, feminists, horizontalists and environmentalists. People who reached what appear to me to be retrograde conclusions from studying the same failures of the left that pushed me in the opposite direction. That observation is a cause for observing a little humility in this polemic. despite the damn awful position of the 'other side'.

To an extent this is a repeat of the old story of what happens when an upsurge in revolutionary hope (in this case running from the Summit protests to Occupy) recedes in the face of defeat. It’s often the case that those who came into activity at the point where ‘We are winning’ was genuinely meant fall into a demoralised uber pragmatism when it becomes clear that No we are Not. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Eldridge Cleaver or to be cheeky the Workers Party revolutionaries who became the austerity imposing leadership of the Irish Labour Party followed that curve up and down in the 1960/70s generation of revolutionaries.

Sometimes this is excused on the grounds of age; hence the cliche of dinner party bore who uses their own radical youth as proof that radical change is impossible. But I think this is simply superimposing ageing on the cycle of advance and defeat that, because of its dynamics, will feel like being about ageing for most of those caught up in each turn. Either explanation would suggest that this is simply a repetition of a cycle we saw many times before, the 1910s to the 1950s, the 60s to the 90s, the late 90s to today. The nature of the revolutionary left did change with each turn of that cycle, from syndicalism to Stalinism, to Maoism/Trotskyism to horizontalism.

And yes at the very least we are seeing a new turn of that cycle. As with all the previous turns the remnants of all the older movements have some presence and at some level argue for a return to their way I’m not sure how much they matter but we can expect the New Revolutionaries to be both defined by and define themselves against the New Reformists. This runs both ways, the two sphere are not after all completely separated but rather often exist in the same space, have fuzzy edges and see individuals crossing from one to the other and also existing at the intersections, dipping a toe into each.

As it’s a new developing relationship we should expect heated, ill-tempered fights that will define the boundaries of the future relationship. These are a little shocking to an old left that had grown so used to its own very strong internal disagreements that these were seldom expressed with much passion anymore.  Endorsing O'Flynn or calliing our your favourite left celebratory may make people very angry indeed but they are small potatoes in comparison with the old left history of murdering your left opponents by the hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands in the Russian or Spanish revolutions.  If people and organisation later proved capable of working together when needed despite that slaughter we shouldn't read too much into the justifibly bitter exchanges of today.

The reformists of the Nostalgic Left don’t hold anything like the interest to me as that the emerging Intersectionalists of the new revolutionary left do. But that is because I don’t think capitalism can be reformed away. To be honest the current generations of reformists have considerably less attractive politics and more desperation - endorsing O’Flynn- than the previous manifestations of reformism. They are very influenced by the politics of manipulation, producing at times a toxic blend of the worst of Stalinism and pop-psychology which results in political debates they are empty of true meaning. This because they put all their effort into trying to ‘frame’ the terms of debate to create hostile terrain for the other. For those who are aware of it the fallout over the tiny scuffle outside the EPP conference in Dublin a couple of months back provides one example of how toxic & devisive that method is in practice.

The Intersectionalist’s however hold my attention because I think its becoming clear that they will define what the revolutionary left looks like through the next cycle of struggle. This prospect has filled some old comrades with horror. My Facebook timeline is often filled with snide comments or open conflict where the boundaries between those generations is close to also being the boundaries of that conflict. This is necessary; on the one hand the revolutionary left of our generation failed and therefore has to be torn apart before another revolutionary left can be constructed. But on the other hand the activity of that generation did contain enormously important, hard won experiential learning, methodology and theory.

The bottom line is that the left was not fit for purpose and is now in the process of being swept away. It’s unlikely any or the left organisations on the 1980’s will survive this process in a recognisable form. The angry online debates of today are shaping the left of tomorrow but so too are the sort of alliances and connections people are choosing to make.  In many ways who you prioritise to reach out and who you are willing to sacrifice in order to aid this tells a lot more than any thousand fine words.

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )

* publishing this on polling day when O'Flynns site still includes endorsements from Clare Daly, Joan Collins, Gene Kerragan and Fintan O'Toole.  To be fair his 'clarification' of his anti-choice views was only published on his blog 18th May and it's quite possible any or all of those left and liberal figureheads may either be unaware of his views on the matter or have requested the removal of their endorsements in the period since.  On a more hopeful note 'Another Note On Diarmuid O’Flynn’s MEP election campaign' is also worth reading as the perspective of someone who initally was sympatheic until the May 18th revelation.


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