The Political Passivity of the Trinity left

Marooned in Trinity’s middle class campus culture, the Trinity left has lost its connection to real political movements, argues William Foley


Leon Trotsky once said of the writer Dobrolyubov that his satire would remain relevant “as long as it was considered a social merit to preach the rudiments of a cheap liberalism”. In College the dynamics of social popularity are often driven by exactly this type of posturing. Those who can calibrate most precisely the scales of political offence, and who can condemn with the most strident outrage the slightest imbalance in the weighing, will receive the most plaudits in their social sphere, the most retweets and likes, the most applause in the debating chamber. But this replacement of action with sanctified abstraction is politically useless. Theorising about what we should do is futile if we never actually do anything. And yet this is not perceived as a problem by most self-identifying leftists in College.

Trinity is a classic example of a community whose self-image is skewed by a minority which controls the discourse and therefore controls collective self-representation. Our student body is perceived as being strikingly liberal, but in fact there is a silent majority which is moderate or even conservative in its politics and outlook. The average reader of this newspaper might be surprised to discover that this claim is true. But that’s because they have self-sorted into the vocal minority whose liberal politics constitute the dominant ideology on campus.

Understanding why this is so entails understanding the class character of Trinity students. This university sits atop an education system in which the most important determinant of achievement is social class (see issue 5 of this year, p6). So the vast majority of students that come here will be drawn from the middle or upper classes. And so it is logical that the political interests of most Trinity students will represent their class interests. In this light, it is unsurprising then to discover that, according to polling conducted by Trinity News during the SU elections, Fine Gael is overwhelmingly the most popular party in college (see issue 6 of this year, p7). Every bourgeoisie has its liberal wing though – the Social Democrats and the Green Party are all far more popular among Trinity students than among the general population. And it is the kind of students who support them who constitute the ideologically dominant minority which we may well call “Trinity society”. It is these left-leaning types who are active in societies, who write for college media, who speak in the GMB, and who make up the SU’s class reps and bureaucracy.

Why Trinity society is made up of the more liberal elements of the middle and upper class, and not their more conservative counterparts is a more difficult question. Perhaps rightwing students are simply content to get their degrees and get their jobs without feeling the need to engage in political critique, confident of their majority status and the security of their interests in Irish society as a whole.

Self-described socialists and anarchists

Still, you don’t choose who you are born to: it’s not where you are coming from but where you’re going that matters. And there are many self-described socialists, anarchists, and Marxists in Trinity. I commend all of them for swimming against the current and their class conditioning. But because of their circumstances, this minority within a minority, while avowedly left of centre, are still essentially liberal in their practice. These student are cut off from daily interaction with the working class, adrift in a sea of middle class economic interests, embedded in a campus culture wholly infiltrated by the corporate world, and served by a politically apathetic SU (the current and outgoing president being the brilliant exception in this regard). Thus, even if they are socialist or anarchist by allegiance, they are not engaged in the kind of concrete action which practically rather than abstractly seeks to disrupt the conventions, and even the laws, of Irish capitalism, nor do they see the importance of being involved in this way. In fact, they are often likely to recoil at the prospect of extraparliamentary activity. In other words. these leftists are in practice liberals, even if they are in theory more radical than the majority within Trinity society.

For most leftists stuck in this position, their passivity is understandable, especially in the context of the historically weak Irish left. But in an important minority of cases, such liberalism in practice is actually a product of pernicious snobbery and political insecurity. Some self-described socialists and anarchists confine themselves almost entirely to the policing of language, and the promulgation within all the institutions of Trinity society of a brand of political correctness imported wholesale via the internet from America. Now political correctness is, in fact, a good thing and it has limited but important benefits for traditionally oppressed groups. The celebration of difference and the forthright condemnation of bigoted language and behaviour has made Trinity a much safer space for discriminated-against minorities than Irish society at large. But political correctness is also an essentially liberal project: it fails to address the actual structural causes of inequality and discrimination in capitalist society. At best it ameliorates them by covering them up

It is revealing that this brand of leftist never talks about class. This is because when we have anything more than a superficial discussion about class it becomes clear that the problems that we face in our society require much more than simply cleaning up our language. It is objectively true that most people in our society will earn drastically less than a small wealthy elite because of the family they were born into. It is a fact that most will have to submit to the undemocratic, and often authoritarian, employer-employee relationship. That Trinity students generally won’t experience poverty, and will be spared the worst of the market’s autocracy, explains the Trinity left’s solipsistic tendency towards the substitution of the subjective for the objective. This tendency is understandable when the more oppressive aspects of class society impress themselves only lightly on your lived experience. But the implicit prescription to eschew practical politics and tend to our own garden, pruning problematic terms and practices from our vocabulary and behaviour, amounts to nothing less than an abandonment of politics.

Need for connection to the working class

Without action, political talk is just pretension. Socialist politics needs to be connected to real movements of oppressed people in general and to the social majority in society: the working class. Many Trinity liberals are dismissive of the water charges campaign, but this aloof attitude is a product of isolation from the struggles of this social majority. Any socialist who has gone door-to-door in a housing estate will know the strong opposition most ordinary households feel towards the charges. They would realise too the importance of building a campaign against the water charges, not only because it is a regressive austerity tax, but also because it offers the opportunity to develop the basis for a mass working class movement, which should be the goal of all socialists. A boycott of the charge, and the protests, street meetings, and disruption of meter installations that go along with it, is crucial for developing solidarity, boosting confidence and self-belief, and instilling the experience of organisation and a tradition of resistance. As such, any leftist who is properly orientated towards genuine struggle would realise the significance of the water charges campaign. Only someone who was entirely abstracted from real political movements could think that the mere trading of liberal platitudes serves a purpose.

Such political quiescence is, however, a relatively new phenomenon in Trinity. There is a long history of genuine socialist activity on this campus. And the past few years have have seen the rise of the radical left in Ireland in the form of the AAA/PBPA and other anti-austerity groups. Some students will react to this in a genuine way and be inspired into action. Others will need to figure out if they hold their own views merely for the sake of display, or whether the type of political purity which they fetishise is a more worthy target of the squawky condemnation that they specialise in than the real movements which they criticise.

Ultimately, talking about political change is pointless without actually doing anything about it. At best the genre of politics pursued by most on the Trinity left has limited and diminishing benefits. At worst, in a minority of cases, it is hypocritical and off-putting, and a testament to the type of social benefits to be derived in this college from political pretension. There can be no politics without practical action. As Karl Marx said, the point is not just to interpret the world, but to change it.

William Foley

William Foley studies Philosophy and Economics. He is deputy editor of Trinity News.