Some readers of this blog might know that I was active in Irish revolutionary politics and a member of the Bogside Defense Committee. This elected committee ran the Bogside area of Derry after the uprising there in 1969. I was a participant in this uprising. I later joined the Militant group, and was its first full time organizer in Ireland. The Militant would become the Irish section of the Committee for a Workers International which was set up in 1974. I was later expelled from the CWI in 1996. Over the past years I have been thinking what mistakes if any we, (that is myself as an individual, as well as the Militant and the CWI) made with regard to our work in Ireland.
I feel that our general position was correct. This was that none of the fundamental problems of Ireland could be solved on the basis of capitalism. Only a united working class by overthrowing capitalism and establishing a democratic socialist society could solve the problems. While I think this general position was correct there are a few points that I would like to make. In retrospect I think we insufficiently stressed how the theory of the permanent revolution applied to Ireland. In fact I was a member of the Militant from 1970 and had recruited six members to that organization before I even heard of the theory of the permanent revolution. And even then it was not from Militant.
There have been some important developments in Ireland recently. Former leading Provo’s and INLA activists have publicly criticized their own past methods. They have stated honestly and openly that some of these and specifically their military campaign was a mistake. This is a significant development and socialists and all anti-capitalist activists should welcome it. Socialists should make it a priority to discuss with these activists. When the leader’s of the Provo’s like Adams and McGuiness concluded their military campaign could not work, they moved to the right in their politics and economic policies. It will be a big step forward if these leading figures who are now speaking out are looking to move left.
These former Provos and INLA member that I have mentioned state that the military campaign was not worth one life. This is an example to us all. It is honorable and admirable that they can openly and honestly state so clearly what they see as their mistakes in relation to a 30-year war where many of their Comrades died and in which so much emotion and sacrifice was involved. Contrast this approach to so many revolutionary left groups who cannot admit to a single mistake, even mistakes such as an undemocratic internal life.
I believe that the emphasis in discussing with the former Provos and INLA member who have stated that they no longer believe their military campaign was correct has to be to explain that there is no solution to any of the fundamental problems of Irish society on the basis of capitalism. It is not hard in the present climate to make the case that the only way the economic problems of Ireland North or South can be resolved is if capitalism is overthrown and a democratic socialist society established.
This approach also applies to the issue of the border, or as we used to call it, the remnant of the national question. The country cannot be united on a capitalist basis. Any attempt to do this would result in civil war. The only way the country can be united is on a socialist basis. That is a socialist revolution North and South and a democratic socialist Ireland. And this can only come about on the basis of a united working class Protestant and Catholic, North and South.
However, and here my position has evolved in relation to Ireland. There has been a 30 year war. In spite of the Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist Party cuddling up to each other the North is more divided than ever before. Sectarianism is even more institutionalized and consolidated. The Protestant population is even more dug in. The memory of the last 30 years is fresh. So the question I am grappling with is if the country is to be united how would this happen. .
This is where an aspect of the theory of the permanent revolution comes in, an aspect to which in my opinion, the Militant, and in fact all left groups gave insufficient attention. That is the international aspect. Republican groups gave no attention to this theory at all never mind to its international aspect. The Official Republican movement was dominated by a Stalinist bureaucracy which continually slandered and attacked Trotskyism and the theory of the Permanent Revolution. .
The Theory of the Permanent Revolution is relatively simple. It explains that in countries such as Ireland which came on the scene of history late, when giant imperialist powers already ruled the world, the only way such countries could progress was by the working class taking power and carrying through any of the tasks of the capitalist revolution that had not already been carried out and then moving on directly to carry out the socialist tasks and the socialist revolution. The tasks of the capitalist or bourgeois revolutions were land reform, the unification of the national territory and the development of a modern economy.
In Ireland the Irish capitalist class was too weak to carry out these tasks. But this did not mean nothing changed. Faced with the rise of the Land League in the 1880’s, faced with the rise of the working class in England, Scotland and Wales and Ireland, faced with increased challenges from its rivals abroad, British imperialism retreated on one front. It bought out the landlord class in Ireland in the last decades of the 1880’s. Thus British Imperialism, not Irish capitalism “solved” the land question in the sense of ending feudalism and establishing capitalist agriculture.
However Irish capitalism remained too weak to carry out its other tasks, one of which is developing a modern economy with a developed home market. There were steps in this direction by the money from the EU and the investment from foreign corporations. But the Southern Irish economy now lies in tatters and is dominated by foreign capital arguably to a greater extent than ever before. Irish capitalism was not able to carry out its economic task.
The Great Irish socialist James Connolly looked in the direction that capitalism could not solve the problems, that socialism was necessary, that only the working class could solve the problems. As he said in his famous quotation: “ the cause of labor was the cause of Ireland the cause of Ireland was the cause of labor.” Unfortunately the labor leaders who came after him abandoned this position and replaced it with “Labor must wait.” Unfortunately Connolly was to put this position lower on his agenda when he participated in the premature 1916 uprising.
But it was not only Connolly who looked in this direction. Liam Mellows the left wing Republican
from the west of Ireland wrote to De
Valera from prison saying that capitalism should be ended and the dominant
sectors of the economy should be nationalized. No wonder the Free Stater’s shot
him. Without ever having heard of Trotsky or the Theory of Permanent Revolution,
both Connolly and Liam Mellows were groping towards this view as it pertained
to the colonial world and to countries like Ireland at that time. There are
hints of this in the movie The Wind That Shakes The Barley. Connolly and Mellows
were more correct than any wing of the Republican leadership over the past
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Now to the national question which is also one of the tasks of the capitalist revolution. That is the establishment of an independent unified territory. Irish capitalism played no role of any significance in the war of independence from 1918 to 1921. In fact in the 1916 uprising that proceeded this war Irish capitalism through its main mouthpiece Murphy who had crushed the 1913 Dublin workers struggle called for British Imperialism to keep executing the fighters until Connolly was murdered.
The end of the war of independence was marked by the treaty which left Ireland divided. Irish capitalism was shown to be unable to unify the national territory. The country ended up divided with 26 counties so-called independent and 6 counties still ruled by London.
So what does the theory of the permanent revolution have to say about the situation in Ireland in the present period? It says that only the working class by taking power and establishing a democratic socialist society can solve the problems of society. We in Militant always stood on this position; correctly I believe. But there is another aspect to the theory of the Permanent Revolution. That is that even if the working class could come to power in a country such as Ireland, that is a country that had come on the scene of history later, it could not solve the problems unless it spread the revolution internationally.
The mistake Militant made was that while we formally had the position of the need for international revolution we did not put anything like sufficient emphasis on this. We did not put sufficient emphasis on the fact that the defeat of British Imperialism in Ireland and also the resolving of the remnant of the national question could only be brought about on an international basis. That is by the socialist revolution in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales and beyond. I believe this is even more so the case today.
Today after a 30 year war, after sectarianism is more institutionalized than ever, when the Protestant population, the majority in the North are more opposed to a united Ireland than ever, in my opinion we cannot just come out for a united Ireland, even a socialist united Ireland and leave it at that. This would be likely to inflame sectarianism and division and divide the working class even more.
I believe we have to put emphasis on the international aspect as explained by the theory of the Permanent Revolution. Yes only if the working class takes power in Ireland, yes only if capitalism is overthrown, can the problems be solved. But, and this is central to the theory, the revolution has to be an international revolution. If the revolution is isolated to Ireland it will be defeated. Any attempt to solve the problems in Ireland has to be on the basis of the revolution being spread throughout Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales.
Look at how this was not seen by the military campaigns of the past decades. There were bombing campaigns going full blast in the North and in England when the anti poll tax campaign had mobilized 18 million people to refuse to pay the poll tax and this campaign defeated this tax and brought down Thatcher. Instead of trying to unite with these people who were fighting Thatcher, the military campaigns were alienating them. This was a very serious mistake. It was made because of the lack of an international outlook.
So what do we say today and on what should we have been putting more emphasis in the past? I believe we have to put much more emphasis on the need for the international socialist revolution. That is for the socialist revolution throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. And out of this the establishment of a socialist federation with the right of self-determination for all nations.
But here comes the tricky part. Self Determination as far as Marxism is concerned has been seen as applying to nations. But the Protestant population is not a nation. It does not have a separate and distinct language. It only arguably has a distinct culture though this has been strengthened in the past decades. It does not have a distinct territory. So how do we deal with this? We have to deal with it by avoiding sticking to rigid formulations and positions which have been passed over by events. Flexibility is necessary and we have to face up to the real world.
What is of the greatest of importance is how do we avoid a civil war and sectarian conflict in the North and Ireland which would spread to England Scotland and Wales? What do we say about the North and how do we avoid a sectarian conflict? Any policy we would adopt would have to be one which would prevent the minority Catholic population again being discriminated against. But also we have to have a policy that would avoid the majority Protestant population feeling that they were going to be forced into a Catholic dominated united Ireland against their will. If they felt this they would be left open to being mobilized in a sectarian campaign against a socialist revolution and open to the repartition of the North and the driving of the Catholic population out of the North East.
While giving emphasis to the need for the revolution to be international we have to give concrete consideration to how the issue of borders and territory in Ireland will be handled. We also have to say that in relation to the North and Ireland as a whole we will have to see how the situation will evolve. I believe we have to leave the answer to this question open. We cannot be definitive until we see how things develop. If a movement would develop for a united Ireland under nationalist leadership this would most likely be used by the bourgeois in Britain and Ireland to mobilize sections of the Protestant population as a reactionary force against any danger of a socialist revolution and against the working class in general. So what do we say?
So we say that we have to leave open what form the borders or border in Ireland will take. If the socialist revolution were to start and be carried through first in England, Wales and Scotland and then spread to Ireland on this basis Ireland could possibly move directly to a united socialist Ireland. However if this were not the case then a real, as Connolly said, carnival of reaction could open up. Given the history of divide and rule by British Imperialism, the sectarian Catholic capitalist state in the South, the war of the past decades, it is hard now to see the socialist revolution beginning in the North. It is more likely that it will develop first in the South or in England, Scotland or Wales or elsewhere internationally. What would be important in this situation would be to try and avoid having a position on any issue, especially on the issue of borders, which would give the ruling classes the opportunity to develop mass reactionary forces such as a sectarian Protestant force which would see itself as preventing being forced into a united Ireland but in the course of this would be used against the socialist revolution.
With this in mind other options than calling for a united Ireland have to be considered. As this is done it should be kept in mind that there is an upcoming referendum on Scottish independence and the form the so-called united kingdom could take in the decades ahead could be very different from it is now. A nationalist movement in Scotland which threatened to break up the bourgeois’ preferred option of the present status quo could be used by the British bourgeois to stir up sectarian conflict in Ireland to help British Imperialism achieve its aim of holding on to the status quo and power.
Leaving the issues of the border(s) open is not to say we rule out a united Ireland on a socialist basis arising directly out of the socialist revolution; it is to say that we recognize that an incorrect policy on this issue could derail the socialist revolution. Any formation would have to have guarantees for the Catholic minority against discrimination and for the Protestant population against being forced against their will into a united Ireland while leaving the actual shapes of the borders and territories open. .
Even with the socialist revolution and unity of the working class against capitalism it would still be necessary to take into account the sectarian divide and history in the North. Even with the socialist revolution it might not be possible to go directly to a socialist united Ireland. It might be necessary to put forward some sort of Canton system in the north such as exists in Switzerland. This country has 26 Cantons, areas with their own governments and with varying degrees of independence and autonomy. There might have to be consideration given to some form of Cantons along the Swiss model at least until the socialist alternative developed in Ireland and internationally and trust and a change in consciousness developed out of this.
The main issue is that things have changed and that we must not close our eyes to this. And most importantly that the situation in Ireland can only be resolved in the interests of the working class by a united working class overthrowing capitalism and establishing democratic socialism and this socialist revolution to take place on an international basis that is spread internationally.
I am reminded of the position of Lenin and Trotsky who said that they would be prepared to sacrifice the Russian Revolution if this would mean the success of the revolution in Germany because Germany was a much more advanced and developed capitalist economy and society. I think that this is an important point to remember. We are internationalists, not nationalists nor unionists. If it was a choice between a successful revolution in England and a successful revolution in Ireland what would be most in the interests of the international working class and therefore in the interests of the Irish working class? No doubt it would be the successful revolution in England which of course we would then seek to spread to Ireland. In fact it would be just about impossible to see a successful socialist revolution in England without this tending to spread to Scotland and Wales and into Ireland. It would be important therefore to have a position on the remnant of the national question in Ireland, that is on the on the border or borders, that would not allow the bourgeois to mobilize reactionary forces against the socialist revolution and the international socialist revolution.
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