Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution - Part One

"He who does not learn from history will forever be doomed to repeat it." (George Santayana)

Josef Dietzgen once observed that when an old man considers his past life, he inevitably sees it as a long series of errors, and if he could live his life over again, he would doubtless prefer to eliminate these errors. But then he is left with the dialectical contradiction that it is only through these errors that he has arrived at wisdom. Everyone makes mistakes. There is no disgrace in that. But what is really unforgivable is to fail to learn from one's mistakes and profit by them. What is true for an individual is also true for the revolutionary party.

It is time to take stock of the past of the Republican movement and to draw a balance sheet. It is necessary to examine past mistakes and honestly admit them. It is necessary to call things by their right name. Only by such means can we avoid such mistakes in the future, extricate ourselves from the present impasse, and build the revolutionary movement urgently needed to prevent a further descent into sectarian chaos and achieve instead the historic task of overthrowing capitalism and constructing the 32 county Socialist Republic.

The national question and the class question

The national question can play a progressive or a reactionary role in history, depending on its class content. Marxists always ask the question: what class interests are served by a given movement, in order to determine our attitude to it. Which class leads? This is the decisive question. It has been the misfortune of the Irish national struggle ever since the death of James Connolly, that its leadership has fallen into the hands of the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie. This has determined both its character and the outcome.

It is necessary to cut through the fog of patriotic verbiage and rhetoric and lay bare the class interests that lay behind. That was always the method of Connolly, who consistently approached the national question from a class standpoint. Only when we have done this will it be possible to separate what is progressive from what is reactionary in any given movement.

This is above all necessary when dealing with the national movement, because here the bourgeoisie has a vested interest in concealing its real interests behind a smokescreen of mysticism and demagogy. Connolly always poured scorn over such mystification of the national question. He taught the working class to steer clear of the nationalist bourgeoisie - the enemies of Labour. As for the petty bourgeois nationalists of Sinn Fein and the Irish Volunteers, he regarded them at best as unstable and unreliable allies in whom little trust could be placed. At most, it was sometimes necessary to reach temporary agreements for unity in action with the latter, but there could be no question of fusing with them. The first condition was: no programmatic blocs, no mixing up of banners: "March separately, and strike together!" Unfortunately, all this was forgotten after Connolly was killed following the Easter Rising.

Contradictions in the Republican movement

As in all things, there are contradictions within the Republican movement. This has always been true from the moment of its inception. The contradictions we are talking about ultimately have a class character. Whoever is not capable of seeing this will never be able to understand the history of the movement or what has happened to it. Neither will they be able to show a way forward out of the impasse in which the movement now finds itself.

There were always various elements within Irish Republicanism. We can divide these into two main strands since 1916. They can be seen in the differences between the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers. The revolutionary-proletarian tendency of the ICA attempted to hold on to its identity, but was thwarted by the reformist leadership of the Labour movement that abandoned Connolly's class line after his death and capitulated to the bourgeois and middle class nationalists.

The latter, of course, have done everything in their power to bury the traditions of Connolly – the traditions of republican socialism. They have attempted – with some success – to force the Irish working class to subordinate its class interests to the alleged interests of the "national cause". They seek to blur the class lines and promote an imaginary unity of interest of all Irish people. This is a lie and a deception that has been disastrous alike for the cause of Labour and the cause of Ireland, as Connolly correctly predicted.

Ever since 1916 there has been a struggle – either open or subterranean – between these two antagonistic trends. One wing of Republicanism is under the influence of bourgeois ideology. It constantly circumscribes the movement to the narrow confines of the capitalist system. It attempts to play down the existence of the class struggle and thus in practice subordinates the interests of the Irish workers to those of the Irish bourgeoisie. The fact that the people concerned sometimes pay lip service to socialism ("as the final goal") and the working class has no importance. In life and in politics, what counts is deeds, not words. The Programme of the first Dail, heavily influenced by the ICA, was considered "Communistic" by the then IRA leadership. In the 1970s the hostility of the right-wingers in the Provisional IRA to socialism was such that they organized the burning of left wing books.

From a theoretical standpoint, the right wing of Republicanism (up to the present, the dominant wing) stands on the 'theory of stages': that is to say, the working class must forget about the struggle for socialism and concentrate everything on the fight to remove the Border. In the context of Ireland this idea - that once Ireland is re-united all our problems will somehow be solved, and then the question of socialism can be safely put back on the agenda as "the final goal", in maybe the next hundred years or so - was already discredited and exposed by Connolly over a century ago. Yet this theory is considered by its adherents as "realism", which indicates that at least they do not lack a sense of humour.

The cause of Ireland is the cause of labour and the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland and the two cannot be dissevered, as Connolly explained. Those who seek to artificially divide this intimately linked struggle for the liberation of Ireland and the creation of a 32 county socialist republic, do so in order to promote the importance of one over the other. The Official IRA, for example, argued that the social questions were more important than the national question. In reality, this was the cover behind which they hid their abandonment of the national liberation struggle in favour of reformism and respectability.

For the bourgeois and petit bourgeois nationalists meanwhile, it seems you can be in favour of socialism or not as you like as long as you postpone that struggle, subordinate it to the national question, which they seek to separate from the revolutionary struggle to transform Ireland.

Connolly wrote in the most uncompromising terms against such nationalism that expected the working class to struggle to gain new masters rather than their own liberty.

"The nationalism of men who desire to retain the present social system is not the fruit of a natural growth but is an ugly abortion, the abortive product of an attempt to create a rebellious movement in favour of political freedom among men contented to remain industrial slaves. It is an attempt to create a revolutionary movement towards freedom and to entrust the conduct of the movement to a class desirous of enforcing the social subjection of the men they are professing to lead… It professes to believe that the class grinding it down to industrial slavery can at the same moment be leading us forward to national liberty." (Workers Republic, October, 1899.)

The argument that the working class must subordinate itself to the cause of Ireland, that we must set our class demands to one side and wait for a united Ireland to solve all our problems, was answered by Connolly long ago. He wrote:

"If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.

"England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.

"England would rule you to your ruin, even while your lips offered hypocritical homage at the shrine of that Freedom whose cause you betrayed. (Socialism and Nationalism, January, 1897.)

How prophetic were these words! And how accurately they describe everything that happened in Ireland after 1916!

Another Tendency

But there has always been another tendency within Republicanism, the wing that stands close to the proletariat and strives to unite with the working class and the Labour Movement. Although it has traditionally lacked a clear grounding in theory, and has therefore lacked the necessary ideological weapons to fight against the bourgeois wing, this tendency has always existed and at times has gained ground at the expense of the right wing. Unfortunately, its lack of theory has led to inconsistencies and vacillations in the face of the right wing, which, though politically ignorant, has derived strength (and finance) from its proximity to the Southern capitalist class.

However, this other strand in the Republican movement continues to exist, though this fact has been ignored by the Left internationally. It is a condemnation of these "Lefts" that for 30 years, under the pretext of "supporting the Irish national liberation struggle", they uncritically backed the right wing Republicans of the Provisional IRA. Now that the latter has effectively thrown in the towel, their "left-wing" admirers in Britain and other countries have suddenly fallen silent. This is quite natural since they really have nothing interesting to say about Ireland – or anything else. We pass over these people with contempt, and address ourselves only to those honest Republicans who are now seriously examining the past and thinking about the future.

The great majority of the "Left" groups in Britain were reduced to the pathetic role of cheerleaders of Adams and McGuiness, therefore they had no interest in the left wing Republicans who attempted to take an independent line. The latter were systematically ignored and sidelined. The opening of fraternal dialogue between the Irish Republican socialists and the British Marxists would be beneficial to the working class movement of both countries. We must learn from each other, drawing on the rich experience of the class struggle in order to work out the correct perspectives, strategy and tactics for the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

The Socialist Republicans, although a minority within the movement, have consistently striven to adopt a class line and a socialist perspective. For this reason they were deliberately targeted by the enemies of socialism: not only British imperialism and the secret services of the state, but also the right wing of the Republican movement. Many of the most advanced and conscious elements were assassinated. It is sufficient to mention the names of Seamus Costello and Ta Power in this regard.

The forces of British imperialism were well aware that ultimately their most dangerous enemies were not the gunmen and bombers but the political elements on the left wing of Republicanism. From the moment the British army set foot in the North, they set about trying to eliminate the "Communists", a concern that they shared with the Southern ruling class and its allies in the leadership of the Provisional IRA at that time.

However, all the repression in the world cannot destroy the revolutionary element in Republicanism, which manifests itself with redoubled force at every key turning point, including the present moment. The proletarian socialist tendency represented by James Connolly will always re-assert itself and challenge the hegemony of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois trend that has led the movement historically from one disaster to another.

At the present time Ireland stands once more at the crossroads, and with it the Republican movement. The strategy of so-called "armed struggle" that was pursued for three decades and for which a terrible price was paid, lies in ruins. The leadership of Provisional Sinn Fein has reached a deal with British imperialism – a deal in which the goal of a 32 county Republic does not feature. In reality the Good Friday Agreement and the institutions which have flowed from it are a sham and a deception. They represent a cruel trap with which to ensnare the desire of the majority of the population for peace. As such, despite its understandably gaining a majority in the referendum, the Marxists and the Republican socialists alike opposed it, and told the truth, no matter how unpalatable, to the working class of Ireland and Britain.

The legacy of bitterness and distrust left behind by "the Troubles" has deepened the divisions between the two communities in the North to unprecedented levels. The power of British imperialism has not even been dented. In fact, after all this effort and sacrifice, Irish unity is now further away than at any time in history.

It is time to draw a balance-sheet of the history of the national liberation struggle in Ireland and draw the necessary conclusions – for he who does not learn from history will always be doomed to repeat it.

The whole history of the last 100 years proves that the bourgeoisie is completely incapable of carrying through any of its historical tasks. They have completely confirmed the analysis of James Connolly in this regard. Even in the epoch of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Europe, Marx and Engels mercilessly unmasked the cowardly, counterrevolutionary role of the bourgeoisie, and emphasised the need for the workers to maintain a policy of complete class independence, not only from the bourgeois liberals, but also from the vacillating petty bourgeois democrats:

"The proletarian, or really revolutionary party," wrote Engels, "succeeded only very gradually in withdrawing the mass of the working people from the influence of the democrats whose tail they formed in the beginning of the revolution. But in due time the indecision weakness and cowardice of the democratic leaders did the rest, and it may now be said to be one of the principal results of the last years' convulsions, that wherever the working class is concentrated in anything like considerable masses, they are entirely freed from that democratic influence which led them into an endless series of blunders and misfortunes during 1848 and 1849." (F. Engels, Revolution and Counter-revolution in Germany, MESW, vol. 1, p. 332.)

Rottenness of Liberals

The rottenness of the bourgeois liberals, and their counterrevolutionary role in the bourgeois-democratic revolution, was explained quite clearly by Marx and Engels. In his article The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-revolution (1848), Marx writes:

"The German bourgeoisie has developed so slothfully, cravenly and slowly that at the moment when it menacingly faced feudalism and absolutism it saw itself menacingly faced by the proletariat and all factions of the burgers whose interests and ideas were akin to those of the proletariat. And it saw inimically arrayed not only a class behind it but all Europe before it. The Prussian bourgeoisie was not, as the French of 1789 had been, the class which represented the whole of modern society vis-à-vis the representatives of the old society, the monarchy and the nobility. It had sunk to the level of a kind of social estate, as distinctly opposed to the crown as to the people, eager to be in the opposition to both, irresolute against each of its opponents, taken severally, because it always saw both of them before or behind it; inclined to betray the people and compromise with the crowned representative of the old society because it itself already belonged to the old society; ". (K. Marx, The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-revolution, in MESW, vol. 1, pp. 140-1.)

The bourgeoisie, Marx explains, did not come to power as a result of its own revolutionary exertions, but as a result of the movement of the masses in which it played no role: "The Prussian bourgeoisie was hurled to the height of state power, however not in the manner it had desired, by a peaceful bargain with the crown but by a revolution". (K. Marx, The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-revolution, MESW, vol. 1, p. 138.)

As a matter of fact Wolfe Tone had come to a similar conclusion 200 years ago when he wrote, "Our freedom must be had at all hazards. If the men of property will not help us they must fall; we will free ourselves by the aid of that large and respectable class of the community – the men of no property."

The situation is clearer still today. The national bourgeoisie in the colonial countries, and Ireland was England's first colony, entered into the scene of history too late, when the world had already been divided up between a few imperialist powers. It was not able to play any progressive role and was born completely subordinated to its former colonial masters. The weak and degenerate bourgeoisie in Asia, Latin America and Africa is too dependent on foreign capital and imperialism, to carry society forward. It is tied with a thousand threads, not only to foreign capital, but with the class of landowners, with which it forms a reactionary bloc that represents a bulwark against progress. Whatever differences may exist between these elements are insignificant in comparison with the fear that unites them against the masses. Only the proletariat, allied with the poor peasants and urban poor, can solve the problems of society in these countries by taking power into its own hands, expropriating the imperialists and the bourgeoisie, and beginning the task of transforming society on socialist lines.

By setting itself at the head of the nation, leading the oppressed layers of society (the urban and rural petty-bourgeoisie), the proletariat could take power and then carry through the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution (mainly land reform unification and the liberation of the country from foreign domination). However, once having come to power, the proletariat would not stop there but would start to implement socialist measures of expropriation of the capitalists. And as these tasks cannot be solved in one country alone, especially not in a backward country, this would be the beginning of the world revolution. Thus the revolution is "permanent" in two senses: because it starts with the bourgeois tasks and continues with the socialist ones, and because it starts in one country and continues at an international level.

How does this apply to contemporary Ireland? Here there can be no illusions of 'stages' which must be achieved before the workers can struggle to take power and begin the socialist transformation of society. The idea of solving the border question first, and postponing the struggle for socialism until later has proven over many years to be a trap masquerading as a realistic policy. The border question, and the other social, economic and political questions facing Irish society, cannot be solved within the framework of the capitalist system. The Irish bourgeoisie can play no progressive part in trying to solve these problems. Throughout their history they have infamously betrayed the cause of Ireland. They are intimately bound up with British and US imperialism. Their system which cannot provide for the basic needs of the majority - in terms of health, education, housing and the other minimums of civilization - is a breeding ground for sectarianism. Indeed the weed of sectarianism, planted by British imperialism has been watered and fed by the inability of the capitalist system to provide for the majority. Neither the capitalist class nor the capitalist system can resolve any of the problems facing Ireland. Only one class remains capable of playing a revolutionary role and that is the working class. A revolutionary movement on the part of the Irish working class would not be confined by any borders. The united struggle of the Irish workers would be an inspiration to the working class in Britain and across Europe.

Permanent Revolution

One hundred years ago the theory of the permanent revolution was the most complete answer to the reformist and class collaborationist position of the right wing of the Russian workers' movement, the Mensheviks. Far from being out of date however these ideas are perhaps even more relevant to the current world situation than they were when they were first written. Therefore it is necessary to restate these ideas, at least in outline.

The two stage theory was developed by the Mensheviks as their perspective for the Russian revolution. In essence it states that, since the tasks of the revolution are those of the national democratic bourgeois revolution, the leadership of the revolution must be taken by the national democratic bourgeoisie. For his part, Lenin agreed with Trotsky that the Russian Liberals could not carry out the bourgeois-democratic revolution, and that this task could only be carried out by the proletariat in alliance with the poor peasantry. Following in the footsteps of Marx, who had described the bourgeois "democratic party" as "far more dangerous to the workers than the previous liberals", Lenin explained that the Russian bourgeoisie, far from being an ally of the workers, would inevitably side with the counter-revolution.

"The bourgeoisie in the mass" he wrote in 1905, "will inevitably turn towards the counter-revolution, and against the people as soon as its narrow, selfish interests are met, as soon as it 'recoils' from consistent democracy (and it is already recoiling from it!). (Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 9, p. 98.)

What class, in Lenin's view, could lead the bourgeois-democratic revolution? "There remains 'the people', that is, the proletariat and the peasantry. The proletariat alone can be relied on to march on to the end, for it goes far beyond the democratic revolution. That is why the proletariat fights in the forefront for a republic and contemptuously rejects stupid and unworthy advice to take into account the possibility of the bourgeoisie recoiling" (Ibid.)

In all of Lenin's speeches and writings, the counter-revolutionary role of the bourgeois-democratic Liberals is stressed time and time again. However, up until 1917, he did not believe that the Russian workers would come to power before the socialist revolution in the West—a perspective that only Trotsky defended before 1917, when it was fully adopted by Lenin in his April theses. The correctness of the permanent revolution was triumphantly demonstrated by the October Revolution itself.

Connolly famously described the class forces in the Irish revolution and the struggle for national liberation as follows, "Only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland."

In the permanent revolution Trotsky applies this idea generally, that in the modern epoch only the working class could solve the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, including the national question, and that it would do this by taking power into its own hands. This prognosis was shown to be correct in 1917 when the Russian proletariat took power in a backward, predominantly peasant country. The Russian working class joined forces with the workers of the formerly oppressed nationalities and began the task of the socialist transformation of society. True, they did not ultimately succeed, because of the isolation of the revolution in conditions of frightful backwardness. But that is another question.

The point is that, once they had taken power, the Russian proletariat solved the national question easily, as a by-product of the socialist revolution.

What was true for Russia was a hundred times truer for Ireland even a century ago. As Connolly explained the bourgeoisie and the petit bourgeoisie could not solve the national question in Ireland, because they were tied by a thousand ties to the bourgeoisie of Britain. The working class was the only force capable of solving these national democratic tasks, but only en route to the socialist transformation of society, as part of the socialist revolution.

September 2003.