The Irish Citizens Army was the workers' militia that was formed by the Dublin workers in 1913 when they were locked out of their jobs and starved back to work by the Irish employers for demanding to join a trade union. The Irish Citizens Army led by Connolly played a major role in the Dublin 1916 Uprising.
An excerpt from my coming book which deals with the background, especially the class forces involved in to the 1916 uprising. I participated in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the 1968 1970 period. I took part in the Bogside uprising of 1969 and was a member of the Bogside Defense Association. Out of these experiences and the readings of revolutionary socialist literature I have drawn the following conclusions. I wrote this in the last months of 2015.
Ireland and the Theory of the Permanent or Uninterrupted Revolution.
I was speaking at a meeting in London one evening when I was approached by a young man. He said: “I was interested in what you had to say. I am wondering what is your position on Ireland and Trotsky’s theory of the permanent or un-interrupted revolution.” I was struck dumb. This was the first time I had thought of Trotsky’s theory of the permanent or uninterrupted revolution in relation to Ireland. It was like the time the young man in Canada had asked me about Joyce. I was humiliated and enraged at my ignorance. Out of my readings and discussions that flowed from this humiliation I learnt about Ireland and the Permanent or uninterrupted revolution. I owe that young man a debt.
I had learnt that society developed on a materialist basis, and that in the present period capitalism was struggling to maintain its hold over society and keep the working class down, while the working class were striving unconsciously, and on occasion consciously, to rise up and take power. I had also learnt that there were different levels of development in different societies. The capitalist classes in the advanced countries had emerged first and carried out their tasks, that is ended feudalism, unified their national territories, distributed the land to the peasantry, built modern home markets and a world market, established powerful military machines and went out and dominated the rest of the world. The result was that the capitalist class and the capitalist system in the less developed countries such as Ireland were restricted in their development. Trotsky described this as the law of combined and uneven development. A world existed in which its component parts were combined but unevenly developed within this combination.
The capital and power of the advanced capitalist countries penetrated the less developed countries keeping the local capitalist classes weak. At the same time this penetration strengthened the working class in these countries through the industries it developed there. This working class along with the working class who worked in infrastructure and other sectors in these countries frightened and intimidated the local weak capitalist class, further undermining its confidence and role.
So in the countries where capitalism came late on the scene of history, such as Ireland, the capitalist class was not able to carry out its historic tasks. Weak and dominated by British imperialism and threatened by its own working class the Irish capitalist class was not able to carry out the tasks of its own capitalist or bourgeois revolution. These tasks of the Irish capitalist class were as elsewhere: to overthrow and drive out imperialism, unify the national territory, end feudalism and distribute the land to the peasantry, build a modern economy and a modern home market.
Trotsky in his theory of the permanent revolution concluded that in societies such as Ireland that came late on to the scene of history and where the capitalist class could not carry out its tasks then these tasks had to be taken on by the working class. The working class had to take power, and carry out the capitalist tasks. But Trotsky also explained that the working class could not stop there, it had to move on directly to carry out its own socialist tasks and at the same time spread the socialist revolution internationally. It was a brilliant flash of genius by Trotsky. With it Trotsky was able to avoid being imprisoned by the mechanical method of thought which saw the stages of development which had been the experiences of the advanced capitalist countries being looked to as examples to be followed mechanically by all countries. It was also an example of how Trotsky used the dialectical method, change takes place, but not always in a straight line, not one plodding foot mechanically plodding after the other.
As I grasped Trotsky’s ideas I realized that I had instinctively been working along the lines of the permanent revolution in Ireland but did not know it. As I thought more about this I realized that while I had an understanding of the dialectical method there was also the question of how conscious I was of using this method and my skill in using this method. I need to improve in both these areas.
In spite of what Trotsky said about the inability of the capitalist class in countries such as Ireland which were dominated by the powerful imperialist countries, to carry out their tasks, in some countries, one such was Ireland, some of these tasks had actually been carried out or partially carried out. How was this so? I was back to the dialectic again, back to processes developing dialectically not mechanically, back to combined and uneven development, back to processes developing in a contradictory fashion, not in a straight line. Again the point was driven home, if I was to understand further I would have to think in a more consciously dialectical fashion.
In the latter half of the 1800’s the British capitalist class were fighting on three fronts, warding off its rivals internationally who were trying to end its domination of the seas and its number one place in the world, keeping down its own working class which was trying to rise to its feet through organizations such as the Chartists and the new trade unions and at the same time fighting against the Land League, that is the peasantry in Ireland. Fighting on all three fronts was not feasible. So British imperialism retreated from one of them. It bought out the Anglo Irish landlord class in Ireland and ended feudalism there. The Irish capitalist class were not able to carry out its task of ending feudalism so another class, in this case British imperialism, stepped in and did it. Again I was confronted with the twist of the dialectic.
Ending imperialist rule, unifying the national territory under its own control, that is the national question, and building a modern home market and economy, these were the remaining tasks of the Irish capitalist class, part of the Irish capitalist or bourgeois revolution. Between 1916 and 1922 the uprising and war of independence was faced with achieving these tasks. But in these struggles the weak Irish capitalist class was either missing or even at times supporting imperialism. These battles were fought on a nationalist basis by a section of the working class, the poor peasantry and some intellectuals. This war ended with a civil war, and a partial and limited independence for the 26 Southern counties while the Northern 6 counties remained directly controlled by British imperialism. Irish capitalism had been unable to end feudalism and was now showing itself also unable to defeat imperialism, unify the national territory or develop a modern economy and home market. But this did not mean that nothing changed. Feudalism was ended by British imperialism when it bought out the Anglo Irish landlord class and it lost direct political and military control of twenty six of the thirty two counties of Ireland in the war of independence.
While it could not unify the national territory or drive British imperialism from the Northern six counties the stunted weak Irish capitalist class, tried to develop a modern economy and home market in the twenty six counties it did control. It tried to do this by keeping out British and foreign capital. The result was a disaster. The Irish economy stagnated and in the years of this experiment 1 of every 2 Irish workers had to emigrate to find work. As well as unify and make independent its territory Irish capitalism was unable to carry out this other of its tasks, that is develop a vibrant healthy economy and home market.
In the 1960’s Irish capitalism admitted defeat, took down its capital controls and groveled at the feet of foreign capital. The result was some economic development but with a mountain of debt and eventually a collapsed economy. Even with the help of foreign capital and the money from the European Union it would prove itself unable to preside over a modern home market and economy. The Celtic tiger was to give the illusion of success but this was to collapse in a catastrophe of debt, deep recession, new roads, and big houses which their owners could not afford. EU money and borrowing from abroad and the foreign capital from US pharmaceuticals and high tech took the bad look of it for a while but the fundamental failure of Irish capitalism remained.
As a result when the troubles broke out in the North in the late nineteen sixties weak Irish capitalism was faced with remnants of the capitalist or bourgeois revolution still to be resolved. These were an underdeveloped economy dominated by imperialism and a divided country with a section of it under direct control of British imperialism. The tasks of unifying the national territory and driving out imperialism and developing a modern home market and economy were and would remain beyond it. The weak economy in Southern Ireland was no attraction to the Protestant working class in the North and cut across any effort to unite the country. Irish capitalism with its weak economy and its inability to provide for its own working class was terrified to try and unite the country and instead left British imperialism with its political and military might to control things in the North. The theory of the permanent or uninterrupted revolution applied dialectically was a great help to me.
It explained how right I was in my conclusion that the only progressive class in Ireland was the working class. That this working class had to be united in struggle and take power into its own hands and overthrow capitalism and establish a socialist society and go on to spread the socialist revolution internationally, only this would solve the country’s problems. As I understood this I realized that I was I standing in the traditions of Trotsky.
However the more I understood Trotsky’s theory the more I realized that there was one area to which I, and also The Militant, with whom I had been discussing had not been giving enough emphasis. This was its international aspect. Trotsky had explained that the working class in the less developed countries had to take power and carry out the capitalist tasks and move on immediately to the socialist tasks if the problems of those societies were to be resolved. But he also explained that the revolutions in those societies had to be spread internationally. At the time of the Russian revolution he and Lenin both said that unless the revolution was spread to the advanced capitalist countries such as Germany it would not survive. In fact both of them said they would sacrifice the Russian revolution if this would mean a successful revolution in the more advanced capitalist economy and society of Germany. It took longer than these revolutionaries thought but what they feared was exactly what happened. The Russian revolution was isolated in a backward country, cut off from the revolutionary upheavals and working class in the advanced capitalist countries and as a result capitalism was restored to the former Soviet Union. Again the dialectic, steps forward and steps back.
While I had always raised the need to link with the working class in England, Scotland and Wales and internationally in my work, neither I nor The Militant, gave enough emphasis to this aspect of our ideas or raised it in the proper way. We both tended to speak of it more in terms of solidarity and workers unity not in terms of the process of revolution in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and internationally. The issue was not just seeking solidarity between the working classes in all these other countries it was the struggle to bring about the socialist revolution in all these other countries.
I was later to change my position in relation to the socialist revolution and Britain and Ireland and borders. I maintained my position of the need to have the socialist revolution in all these countries. I also maintained my position on the objective of a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland. However I reviewed the issue of the borders within such a federation. I came to believe that if the socialist revolution developed first and was successful in England, the economically and politically and militarily most powerful country, and swept over the borders into Scotland, Wales and Ireland it could be possible to go directly to a Socialist United Ireland.
However if this was not the case and if the socialist revolution did not take place in England and spread internationally other possibilities would have to be considered. Capitalism would try and put down the revolution through divide and rule. Specifically it would as shown historically try and turn the Protestant worker against the Catholic worker. In this situation to call in advance for a Socialist United Ireland could be to assist capitalism to deepen this division and put down the revolution in sectarian conflict and civil war. So I changed my position to say that we would have to see how things would develop and on this basis decide what we would demand.
It could be possible that in order to undermine capitalism’s sectarian divide and rule strategy it would be best to raise the demand for a socialist Federation of Britain and Ireland within which the borders would be determined by events and democratic discussion and debate. One of the possibilities would be a socialist federation of Ireland and within the Northern part of the federation guarantees of the rights for the Catholic minority and within the Southern part of the federation guarantees of the rights of the non Catholic population, Protestant, Muslim, atheists, etc. Atheists were now a significant section of the Southern population and their rights had to be guaranteed also. And of course within the Northern part of the federation the rights of Protestants would have to also be guaranteed.
In such a federation, especially within a Northern Ireland socialist state the possibility of the establishment of cantons based on the different religious groupings in the North would have to be a considered. A form of cantons already existed in the North as was shown with the different villages and neighborhoods with their different flags and painted side walks. Cantons existed in Switzerland with different linguistic and ethnic and national groups having their own areas within the overall country. This might be the best way of standing against capitalism’s efforts to derail the socialist revolution by using the Orange card, by whipping up religious sectarianism, by divide and rule, by cultivating the siege mentality of the Protestant population.
One result of my inadequate emphasis and slant, by the Militant’s inadequate emphasis and slant on the international aspect of the struggle was I and the Militant tended to be always on the defensive, always explaining that we were neither unionist or nationalist when we should have been making the case much more strongly that we were internationalist and for the revolution in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales and internationally and the order in which it would develop was immaterial to us. In fact we should have been saying that if it was a choice between the socialist revolution in Ireland and the socialist revolution in England then we would chose the socialist revolution in England, the much more economically developed and powerful country with the much stronger working class.
As I read and discussed more I realized that two leaders of the movement in the nineteen sixteen nineteen twenty one struggle for independence were groping towards aspects of Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution. One of these was James Connolly. He explained as he put it that the “cause of Ireland is the cause of Labor and the cause of Labor is the cause of Ireland.” And most importantly he pointed out the weak cowardliness of Irish capitalism when he wrote: ”Irish manufacture was weak, and consequently had not an energetic capitalist class with sufficient public spirit and influence to prevent union”. The “Union” he referred to was Ireland being ruled directly by the London parliament and British imperialism. He was saying here that Irish capitalism could not throw out British imperialism. This was in line with Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution.
Unfortunately Connolly would yield somewhat on this position when he took part in the premature uprising of 1916. But in spite of this his ideas were so threatening to Irish capitalism and British imperialism that in spite of being wounded he was tied to a chair and shot. The leaders of the Irish capitalist class such as William Martin Murphy supported his murder. Rather than leading the Irish national revolution Murphy and his class, the Irish nationalist capitalist class, who had starved the Dublin workers back to work in the 1913 lockout, bayed along with British imperialism for his blood. That they did so was a further confirmation of Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution.
Another leader of the forces fighting for independence in that period was Liam Mellowes. In a debate from his prison cell with the extreme right wing Catholic nationalist and supporter of capitalism De Valera he wrote the following: “ Under the Republic all industry will be controlled by the state for the workers and farmers benefit. All transport, railways, canals, etc., will be operated by the state - the republican State-for the benefit of workers and farmers. All banks will be operated by the State for the benefit of Industry and Agriculture, not for the purpose of profit making by loans, mortgages, etc. That the lands of the aristocracy, (who support the Free State and the British connection) will be seized and divided amongst those who can and will operate it for the Nation’s benefit.”
In this statement Mellowes leaves no doubt he was looking to move beyond capitalism. Like Connolly he wanted the struggle to go on to where it ended capitalism. Like Connolly, he too was groping in the direction of the permanent revolution. It is no surprise that he, like Connolly, was also taken out and shot. In his case by the other wing of the so-called independence forces, the Free Staters, who
represented the weak Irish capitalist class.
There was another important aspect of the developments at this time which was related to the weakness of the Irish capitalist class and which would go on to shape the Southern Irish state and also the Northern state that would develop in the decades ahead. Irish capitalism was very weak in the new Southern state. It had played practically no role in bringing it about. It had little authority. It needed and sought allies. It looked to the hierarchy of the Catholic church for these allies. In return for this organization preaching and organizing for capitalism at every turn, helping put down any left movement wherever such appeared, a deal was done with the Catholic hierarchy giving it enormous power and influence in the new state.
It was given control over the schools, hospitals, social legislation, given women and children as slaves to work in their laundries and earn them money, given the right to imprison young people in industrial “schools” and so on. The Southern state in its constitution declared itself to be a Catholic state. It was the weakness of Irish capitalism that allowed, in fact promoted, the Catholic church to become so powerful in the South. In fact it is no exaggeration to say the Catholic hierarchy became a central component of the ruling class in the South of Ireland. The weakness of Irish capitalism and its deal with the Catholic hierarchy were part of what led to the monstrous crimes of that organization that have recently been uncovered.
This deal between Irish capitalism and the Catholic hierarchy fueled the arguments of the Protestant organizations in the North that the South was a Catholic sectarian state and assisted the Northern elite and British imperialism to convince the Protestant working class that the North should be a Protestant state for a Protestant people. This stoked the fires of the sectarian conflicts that were to come and strengthened British imperialism in the North. The weakness of the Irish capitalist class and its inability to carry out its tasks, and the deal it made with the Catholic hierarchy as a result, remain major factors in the troubles, economic, military and political of Ireland to this day.
My experiences over the 1968 period, my readings and discussions in London in 1970 made things more clear to me than ever. The problems and crises in Ireland and internationally could not be solved on a capitalist basis. Only the working class by carrying out a revolution and taking power and establishing a democratic socialist society and spreading this internationally could solve the problems. And this could only be done if a mass international revolutionary organization was built. This was the task. And towards achieving this task I dedicated my life.