Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution - Part Thirteen

Against Sectarianism! For class unity!

There is an old story that after the battle of the Boyne, the boatman who was ferrying King William across the river Boyne asked him who had won the battle, to which the king replied: "It matters not to you, because you will still be the boatman."

In his lifetime, Connolly always fought for the unity of the working class above all national and religious lines. By concentrating on class issues, he succeeded in uniting the Catholic and Protestant workers in the struggle against their common enemy - the employing class. That is the only way to get out of the present mess. The only way to solve what remains of Ireland's national problem is as a by-product of the revolutionary struggle for socialism. That was true in Connolly's day. He had the vision and understanding to see this a hundred years ago. Today it is a hundred times more evident. There can be no reunification of Ireland while the working class remains divided along sectarian lines. Connolly’s application of the ideas of Marxism to Ireland a century ago and the history of Ireland led him to the understand the leading role of the working class in the coming revolution, to understand the inability of the bourgeoisie to play any progressive role, and the socialist tasks of the revolution, completing the national democratic tasks in passing, as well as the need for the revolution to spread beyond our own borders.

The policies pursued by the middle class Republican leaders over the past three decades have utterly failed in their goals. On the other hand, the methods they used have played havoc with the unity of the working class. True, the division between Catholics and Protestants has existed for a long time, encouraged by the deliberate actions of British imperialists, who early recognized that the splitting of the population of Northern Ireland on religious lines represented the surest means of strengthening their grip on Ireland. But this gulf has now been turned into a yawning abysm of bitterness and mutual mistrust. This means that the prospect of Irish unification is further off today than at any time in history. The only way in which we can begin to repair the damage is by fighting on a class programme, one that can unite the workers of both communities in struggle against their common enemy - the employing class.

The Role of Religion

Religion has played a most negative role in Irish history. It has enabled the ruling class and imperialism to divide and fatally weaken the working class and the oppressed masses. Of course, men and women ought to be free to believe in any religion - or in none - without being molested by the state or suffering social or economic discrimination. Socialists will fight against discrimination in all its forms.

It is self-evident to anyone with the slightest knowledge of history that the Roman Catholic Church has never been a true friend of the national liberation struggle of the Irish people. It was Pope who first handed Ireland to the English. It was another Pope who backed William of Orange against the Irish Catholics. The Catholic Church did nothing to protect the Irish language and culture when it was threatened with extinction. It opposed the United Irishmen and the Fenians and it destroyed Parnell. Above all, the Church bitterly opposed every advance of the Labour Movement in the early days. It denounced and persecuted Republicans, especially socialist Republicans.

The Church in the South has played a most reactionary role right up to the present. The bishops have been involved in most of the campaigns against social reform in Ireland, however, they themselves have been plagued by scandal, most notably the Bishop Casey affair, a bishop who had a son by an American woman, which the Church kept quiet for 18 years. Divorce is not available in Ireland, even in cases where an annulment has been granted by the Vatican. Statistics show that every year, several thousand Irish women travel to England to terminate pregnancies. Legally, children born out of wedlock suffer from the "stigma" of illegitimacy. Divorce, like abortion, brought forth major campaigns for reform. The youth and women of Ireland are in open revolt against the backward and reactionary legislation backed for generations by the Church.

Things are no better with Protestantism. For generations the Orange Order has been used as a mechanism used by the wealthy and powerful to control the Protestant masses and split the working class. The Orange Order has been used to perpetuate the sectarian make up of the northern state. Every single head of the 6 counties has also been a senior member of the Orange Order. The poison of religious sectarianism and bigotry, the bad leftovers of the past, are the weapons whereby the ruling class perpetuates the divisions in the working class. In order to prevent Protestant workers identifying with their Catholic neighbours, the Order peddled the idea of an anti-Catholic society, led by the wealthy Protestants that offered all Protestants a place in its ranks, and the promise of promotion and privilege. The Orange parades were designed to allow the working class Protestant members a day in the sun to mix with their 'betters' and at the same time lord it over their Catholic neighbours.

But this was a lie. The Protestant working class has nothing in common with the Protestant bankers, landlords and capitalists. Sectarianism was, and is, only a way of keeping the workers weak and divided. Radical Protestant workers to accusations of being "traitors" for refusing to support Orange bigotry. Connolly understood this very well. He and Larkin succeeded in uniting the Protestant and Catholic workers in struggle under difficult conditions by concentrating on the class questions. By skilful tactics they succeeded in splitting the Protestant workers away from the bosses. That is the correct way - the only way.

It is quite possible to achieve unity in struggle between the workers of both communities. Although unemployment is traditionally higher in Republican areas, there are plenty of unemployed Loyalists. There is plenty of bad housing in their areas, and they are also concerned about low wages and pensions. On social questions also there is a lot of discontent. Divorce is frowned upon by the Protestant churches, as is abortion, which is available only in limited cases. In the North's Protestant community, there are progressive people who would like to see social legislation there changed.

Not only the gun but religion must be taken out of politics. People have the right to follow their religious beliefs. But that must not mean that one religion should dominate over another. True democrats demand the most radical separation of church and state. There can be no place for religion in the schools, where it fosters and perpetuates the division between Catholics and Protestants from childhood. Education must be secular, rational and scientific. If people want a religious education they must organize it outside school hours and pay for it themselves. Not a penny of taxpayers’ money must be spent on religion. The money raised in taxes is the common property of all, irrespective of religious affiliation.

Sectarian divisions

It is time to put an end to the sectarian divisions that have bedeviled the working class of Northern Ireland for so long. Chief among the aims of the proletariat is that of upholding the sacred unity of the working class. Unity between the proletarians is the most important weapon they possess in their struggle against Capital. Therefore, anything that tends to sow disunion among the workers is thoroughly reactionary and must be rejected. We stand for the unity of ALL workers, irrespective of race, nationality, language or religion. In the case of Northern Ireland we stand for the CLASS UNITY of Catholic and Protestant workers. Without this, no way forward is possible.

The constitution of Ireland must be changed as a prior condition for reunification, not only to appease the Protestants of the North, but because many in the Catholic community of both the North and South are also demanding changes on social issues. Many people on both sides of the sectarian divide feel that the present situation is intolerable and must be changed. We must base ourselves on this and fight on issues that unite working people, not those that divide us.

The so-called Accord has not abolished sectarianism but made it worse. The levels of sectarian violence tend to increase, while living standards and jobs are eroded. Sectarian madmen threaten workers’ lives and make peoples’ lives a misery. The politicians make fine speeches but have no solution to these problems. The fate of Yugoslavia constitutes a terrible warning of where a false policy on the national problem can lead. Along this road no progress is possible. It is time to call a halt! We must strike out in a new direction - one that avoids the pitfalls of the past and opens the road to a successful struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

The answer was shown by the magnificent general strike of the workers of the Six Counties against sectarianism on January 18. This shows the way forward! The working class will fight national oppression, but it will do so under its own banner, with its own policies and its own methods.

We will, of course, be accused of utopianism by those "realists" whose "practical" methods have landed us in the present mess. We are not worried about this accusation. It is not new. In his lifetime, Connolly was frequently accused of utopianism by his reactionary opponents, whose "realism" was just another way of expressing their slavish acceptance of the status quo. These cowardly servants of capitalism poured scorn on Connolly just like their descendents today. We will treat them with the same well-merited contempt with which Connolly did.

In the programme of socialism there is not a single atom of utopianism. Utopia signifies something that is impossible, something which is at variance with reality and that therefore cannot be. But in reality it is capitalism that is at variance with reality. The present economic crisis, during which every day thousands of workers are being thrown out of work, and the big companies close down factories as if they were so many matchboxes, shows that this is so.

If we look seriously at the problem of sectarianism we will see that, although it has its roots in history, it is perpetuated by the economic crisis and the limitations of the capitalist system. As long as there are not sufficient jobs and houses for everybody, there will always be the suspicion among the people of one community that they are unemployed or homeless because the others have taken their jobs and houses. A serious struggle against sectarianism therefore presupposes a serious struggle against capitalism.

Why is there a crisis? Because there are too many cars, too many computers, too much steel, too many microchips. In other words, it is a crisis of overproduction. Why is there overproduction? Only because capitalism has developed the productive forces to a point that they come into conflict with the narrow limits of the profits system. The main barriers to the further development of the productive forces are: the private ownership of the means of production and the nation state. This contradiction can only be removed by the elimination of both.

Nationalism and internationalism

Already in the pages of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels pointed out that the socialist revolution, while national in form, is internationalist in content. Internationalism is a fundamental feature of scientific socialism.

The founders of scientific socialism argued that "the working men have no country." They insisted that:

"1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they [the Communists] point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of nationality." (Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol, 1. p, 120, our emphasis.)

These profound words are even truer today than when they were first written.

Does this mean that we must ignore the national question, the oppression of women and other such questions? Of course not! The proletariat and its party are duty-bound to fight against all forms of oppression, including national oppression. Only in this way can we assemble and unite the forces necessary to overthrow capitalism. But in contrast to bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalists, we point out that national oppression is only one manifestation of the central oppression from which all other forms ultimately derive: the division of society into classes and the enslavement of the working class by the bourgeoisie.

The national democratic tasks which remain unsolved to this day can only achieved by a struggle against the national bourgeoisie. The whole history of the national liberation struggle in the 20th century shows the correctness of this. The achievement of formal independence on a capitalist basis has solved nothing. Over half a century after independence, countries like India and Pakistan are more dependent on imperialism than before. They are still plundered through the mechanism of the world market and debt.

We can never accept the subordination of the interests of the working class to the demands of the nationalist bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. Indeed, the greatest misfortune of the Irish Labour Movement was that it accepted the idea that "Labour must wait." The result is that the working class - and the entire people of Ireland - have been waiting for the best part of a hundred years for their social, economic and national rights, which the bourgeoisie has signally failed to achieve.

The border is, of course, an abomination that must be removed. It is not, however, the task of socialists to erect new frontiers. Our aim is altogether different: our aim is to abolish all frontiers, not just the one that separates the South from the North. We stand for a socialist revolution in the North and South of Ireland, and also a socialist revolution in Britain and the rest of Europe. In fact, without this, an Irish Workers' Republic would be only an ephemeral episode, like the Paris Commune.

British imperialism

British imperialism is our enemy. But the working class of England, Scotland and Wales is a potential ally, whose support and solidarity we must carefully cultivate and develop. Our aim is the establishment of a 32-county Irish Workers' Republic, linked to a democratic Socialist Federation of England, Scotland and Wales, as part of the Socialist United States of Europe and a Socialist World Federation. Does that seem utopian? But the fact remains that the supposedly "realistic" policies that the other side have been pursuing for the past seventy-odd years have turned out to be the worst - and most reactionary - utopianism. They have failed utterly in their basic aims, and it is about time that this was honestly and squarely stated.

Socialism is internationalist or it is nothing. The Irish national liberation movement has always been part of the world revolutionary movement, as Connolly always insisted:

"Just as '98 was an Irish expression of the tendencies embodied in the first French Revolution, as '48 throbbed in sympathy with the democratic and social upheavals on the Continent of Europe and England, so fenianism was a responsive throb in the Irish heart to those pulsations in the heart of the European working class which elsewhere produced the International Working Men's Association." (Labour in Irish History, p. 164)

Socialism in one country is impossible. The struggle for socialism is an international struggle because capitalism is an international system. We are not nationalists but revolutionary internationalists. During the First World War, Connolly pursued a consistent internationalist policy, although that was a very difficult thing to do. Later, the Russian Revolution acted as a powerful stimulus to the Irish national liberation movement. It led to the spread of Communist ideas inside the Republican Movement. Finally, the Civil Rights Movement of 1968 was also a part of a general ferment throughout Europe, exemplified by the general strike in France and student demonstrations all over Europe and America.

Yes, the proletariat is duty bound to fight against national oppression. But it is not at all bound to follow the dictates of alien classes with other aims and interests. It is by no means bound to subordinate itself to bourgeois and petty bourgeois movements with their own aims and agenda. On the contrary, the proletariat is duty bound to uphold its class independence, to pursue only those aims which will further the struggle for its own emancipation, and to refuse to support any others.

Forward to Connolly!

Wolf Tone once talked about "a chapter of great opportunities lost, of popular confidence betrayed". These words accurately describe the history of Ireland over the past hundred years. Ireland today is once again at a crossroads. The world is much changed since the days of the civil rights movement and Bloody Sunday. On the face of it the situation might seem hopeless. In the Nationalist areas of the North, there is a war-weariness amongst the people. British troops have been in their communities since August 1969. An entire generation has been lost, burnt out, demoralized, killed. Yet, like the phoenix that rises from the ashes, the working class will always recover from even the greatest defeats. This is the only hope for Ireland and the world.

For the last 85 years, the Irish bourgeois nationalists have demonstrated their complete incapacity for solving the tasks of the Irish national liberation struggle. In 1922, the bourgeois leaders signed the partition of Ireland. This problem cannot be solved on a capitalist basis. The Irish bourgeoisie have had plenty of time to show what they can do, and they have failed.

Matters are no better with the petit bourgeois Republicans. For the last 30 years the Provisional IRA have been trying to solve the problem by a senseless campaign of bombing and shooting. These tactics of individual terrorism have absolutely nothing in common with the methods of Connolly and the Citizens Army, which were always based on class politics and organically linked to the proletariat and the mass workers organizations.

A document of the IRSP stated correctly:

"As socialists, the IRSM believes that any settlement which does not answer the questions of national liberation and socialism cannot succeed, but will only put off the inevitable class struggle. The Irish Republican Socialist Movement is not frightened by this prospect; it will continue to organize as a revolutionary segment of the Irish working class, in the tradition of Connolly and Costello."

The socialist revolution in the North is inextricably linked to the perspective of socialist revolution in the South - and in Britain. In other words, it can only be solved with a proletarian and internationalist policy. There is still a ray of hope in the North of Ireland. Despite everything, the fundamental organizations of the working class - the trade unions - remain united. They are probably the only real non-sectarian mass organizations that still exist. This is the base upon which we can build! That would undoubtedly be the message of James Connolly, were he alive at this time.

So does this mean that we are proposing going back to the ideas and methods of the past? The title of the present document refers to dialectics, and dialectics is concerned with progress, movement and development. We are revolutionaries and we therefore look forward to the future with optimism and hope. Nostalgia and longing for the past has no place in our outlook or philosophy. Yet dialectics teaches us that the process of development moves in a contradictory way. Old forms seem to recur constantly in history, and long-forgotten ideas can suddenly experience a rebirth. Buy on closer examination, this repetition is only apparent. There is always something new, an actual development, not an endless closed circle.

Scandalously, after Connolly’s death the Labour leaders in Ireland buried most of his works, while the bourgeois Nationalists consistently play down and distort his ideas and historical role. It is our duty to ensure that these marvelous writings get the widest possible circulation, especially among the younger generation. We believe the ideas of James Connolly were correct in all the fundamentals. That does not mean that we have to subscribe to every dot and comma. We do not have a religious attitude towards Connolly or anyone else. Today, 87 years after his death, certain details would have to be changed. But what is surprising is not how much of Connolly's thought needs to be revised. What is astonishing is how much remains completely valid.

Today, it is necessary to cut through all the fog of historical fantasy and nationalist mystification that surrounds the events of Easter Week, and see the key role of the proletariat. What a great opportunity was missed with the death of James Connolly! But the new generation must take the lesson to heart. Connolly failed because he did not create - as Lenin created - the necessary instrument with which to change society: a revolutionary party and a revolutionary leadership!

Today we pledge ourselves to defend the heritage of this great Marxist, fighter, and martyr of the working class. We must rescue the ideas of Connolly, which have been stolen and distorted beyond recognition by people who have nothing to do with Connolly, socialism or the working class. We must continue the fight for Connolly's ideas - the only ideas that can guarantee the ultimate victory. We must create the necessary revolutionary organization, soundly based on the programme, policy and methods of Marxism. And we must understand that such an organization must be firmly based in the only soil in which it can grow and flourish: the trade unions and the mass organizations of Labour in Ireland, North and South, as well as on the other side of the Irish Sea.

A fighting working class movement is needed in Ireland, in Britain and internationally. Republican socialists have a vital role in the creation of such a movement. We view the working class as the only class that can provide and ensure that the movement of the future isn’t based on failed slogans and strategies but in the direction of independent working class liberation, using whatever means are appropriate.

Hegel once wrote about an idea which, having run the whole course of its development, finally returns to the starting point. But it does so, enriched by all the wealth of content of its experience. Today, after three generations of struggle, we are in a position to appreciate just how right the great man was. We can appreciate him much more now than was possible during his lifetime. James Connolly is the most modern of thinkers.

Having experienced in our own flesh the bitterness of defeat, having seen so many brave fighters killed and imprisoned, with no appreciable result, we can finally understand that, when the Republican movement abandoned the road of James Connolly - the road of the class struggle and the socialist revolution, it took a fatally wrong turning. All mistakes must be paid for, and the movement has paid a very heavy price for its mistakes.

Today every honest Irish Republican will say: We owe it to the martyred dead, we owe it to ourselves, above all, we owe it to the future generations of Irish youth, to recognize our errors and firmly retrace our steps. In so doing we must finally decide to take the route mapped out by the leader of the Easter Rising: the road that unites the working class, not the one that divides it: the road of socialist revolution.

Marx pointed out the most elementary truth: that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class, and only the working class. The Easter Rising was a glorious harbinger of what is still to come. The job was left unfinished in 1916. The task now falls upon the shoulders of the new generation of workers and youth. Armed with the ideas of Marxism, the ideas of Connolly, the ultimate victory is guaranteed. We echo the confidence in the Irish working class and the revolutionary optimism expressed by James Connolly when he wrote in 1914:

"Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration, that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shriveled on the funeral pyre of the last war-lord."