From an overall political point of view, the election provided little to smile about. Some of the bums occupying the seats in Dáil Eireann may have changed, but throughout the campaign it was obvious that no matter who won, the policies would remain the same. Nevertheless the election results did provide some indication that significant numbers of people are looking for radical change.
Anarchists have absolutely no interest in choosing who is going to rule over us - we want to change entirely the system which divides us into rulers and ruled. Furthermore we believe that it is impossible to bring about the end of the capitalist system through parliament and that participation in parliamentary elections merely serves to continue the illusion among working class people that real change can be effected in this way. Nonetheless, we obviously recognise that many of those who voted for the candidates of the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party were people who were looking for radical alternatives to the present system of choosing between Tweedledum and Tweedledumber.
And the number of votes cast for such candidates was indeed significant. In fact the combined first preference votes of these two parties in the eight constituencies which they contested was a massive 14,447. This was actually 37% of the 39,142 votes cast for the Labour Party candidates (who included eight outgoing TDs - three of whom were Ministers or Ministers of State) in these constituencies. In addition Seamus Healy of the Clonmel Workers and Unemployed Group polled 5,814 votes in Tipperary South. By way of a further contrast, the Socialist Party alone won 53% of the vote gained by Democratic Left in Dublin (who had four outgoing TDs among their candidates - 3 of whom were members of the last government).
These results are obviously significant. Given the impediments which left-wing candidates inevitably face (lack of media exposure, garda harassment - as in the arrest of SWP candidate Peadar O' Grady under the Public Order Act - etc.) and taken together with the 43% vote gained by Socialist Workers Party member Carol-Ann Duggan in the presidential election in the State' s largest and most bureaucratic union - SIPTU - they prove, as stated above, that huge numbers of people are seeking radical change in our society. The question which must be answered is how that change can be brought about.
Anarchists do not participate in or support candidates in parliamentary elections. This does not mean however that we take only a passive interest in elections. In fact we used the election period to organise a successful public meeting in Dublin on the theme 'Why do rich crooks run the country? - Hear about the anarchist alternative to parliament.' In addition we produced and distributed several thousand leaflets for the fictional candidate, Mr. Crook (See Workers Solidarity no. 51).
People often say to us that if we really want to change things we should run in elections, we should put our ideas before the people. But let's look at what happens when supposedly radical/revolutionary groups/parties do get involved in electioneering. It inevitably leads to revolutionaries forsaking their revolutionary principles - or at least keeping them hidden.
The words 'socialism' and 'revolution' tend to disappear from the election manifestos/programmes. Getting the candidate elected becomes more important than educating the electorate about the meaning of socialism. The Socialist Party posters in General Election '97, for example, consisted of nothing more than a large picture of the candidate and a small caption saying Socialist Party. Nevertheless nobody can deny that the election results did provide some indication that significant numbers of people were looking for radical change.
The real question, however, when it comes to discussing elections is what type of society are we trying to bring about. Leninist parties often talk about 'Socialism from Below', but in fact their policies and programmes run directly counter to such a concept. This is why they can participate in parliamentary elections and still insist that they will not sell out. Whether it is in the unions or in community-based campaigns, they see themselves as 'leaders' of the working class.
Thus in the unions they put forward strategies such as the building of Broad Lefts - strategies which for the greater part ignore completely the crucial task of challenging and smashing the undemocratic structures in the unions which lead to overpaid bureaucrats being able to take all power to themselves. In a nutshell, the Leninists' strategy could be summed up as depending on better, more radical or real socialists to take over and run the union in the members' interests. The concept of genuine rank-and-file groupings taking control themselves is not part of the equation.
In community campaigns a similar trend is to be seen. True, the Socialist Party were very heavily involved in - indeed were the prime movers behind - the hugely successful struggle against water charges in Dublin. But what was done with the victory? In short, a successful campaign which involved huge numbers of people was diverted down the electoral cul-de-sac. While the Socialist Party campaigned during the election under the banner 'People Power in action', the message that was ultimately being given to people was that the success of that people power could only be counted in terms of the number of first preference votes it delivered.
This may not even have been intentional, but it is an inevitable consequence. After Joe Higgins' near success in the 1996 Dublin West bye-election, sights were immediately set on the 1997 general election. The votes in that election were hardly counted until people were looking forward to the local elections due to be held in 1998 and weighing up the possibilities of winning council seats.
A more honest message to have tried to give to people is that real socialism and democracy cannot be brought about in this way, that true people power involves working class people in taking initiatives for themselves, in retaining the sort of power which brought about the end of the water charges at personal, local and community level and organising at that level to bring about change. National (and international) organisation is vital, but should be federal so that decision making making powers remain with all those involved.
It is a much more difficult message. But it is the only honest one. Unless that is you're just talking about changing one set of rulers for another. We're not.