Monday, May 16, 2016

Ireland: The Left's victories. What now?

James Connolly. Irish workers' leader and socialist
By John Throne

The following is a letter I intended for my comrades in Ireland.  But the more I think about what I wrote, the more I came to realize that it applies not only to Ireland but it is also relevant in the US and internationally. Many different movements of struggle are taking place and how these can work together most effectively is top of the agenda. United front work as it has been known, is central to effective struggle to the offensive of capitalism at this time, is as I say top of the agenda.  

“When questions of ‘class’ interests are eliminated from public controversy a victory is thereby gained for the possessing, conservative class, whose only hope of security lies in such elimination.”James Connolly

A Letter to Irish Comrades

We have recently had the important gains of left candidates in Ireland North and South. The most recent, and probably most notable, are the elections of People Before Profit (PBP) candidates in Derry and Belfast. They come after the elections of left candidates in the earlier Southern elections. After the Southern elections I wrote a piece where I said the left should not be focusing on their victories but on why the majority of the population still voted for right wing parties and candidates and what was the strategy of the left to end this. I still stand by this position. That is, that we must have a sense of proportion. That while celebrating any gain we also have to see what is what.

Yes, victories for the left are important, but how do we win the majority of the population to the struggle to end capitalism? How do we take our gains, orient these gains and our increased resources to the broader layers of the working class and youth and win these broader layers to revolutionary socialism and build a mass movement to end capitalism.  I would like to raise a few thoughts on this. Before doing so, I would ask the obvious question. Who am I to raise any questions in relation to this?  I have been out of Ireland now for decades. I accept this, but I would also say that I have tried to keep up with events there. More importantly, I feel justified in commenting on these issues as they apply internationally. They are not issues that affect Ireland alone.

I am talking about left sectarianism and ultra leftism and how, in my opinion, these damage the revolutionary left and its ability to win the mass of the population to its positions. I was left sectarian and ultra left to one degree or another most of my political life and this contributed to the damaging of the workers movement. I believe we all were. I also believe that unless we face up to this and draw conclusions we will be like the person who wants to give up drinking but deny they are an alcoholic. It will be hopeless. 

I was left sectarian in that I dismissed every other left or socialist group as sects, basically ignored them and treated them with contempt. A strong union certainly couldn’t be built with this approach. Unity in the workplace certainly could not be built with this approach. I was ultra left in trying to force the full revolutionary program down the throats of the working class, not sufficiently listening to or taking into account the consciousness of the working class. I was in the Militant Tendency (CWI) at the time of the movement against Thatcher’s Poll Tax which it led. At its height up to 18 million people were not paying the Poll Tax. Where did this movement go? How come it did not give rise to a semi mass or mass revolutionary or even anti capitalist organization in Britain? I can hear the cry now, well there was the objective situation, the collapse of Stalinism etc. But in my opinion this was not all. There was also the left sectarianism of the Militant, the ultra leftism of the Militant, yes they can and often do go hand in hand, and there was also the incorrect internal life of the Militant. The majority of the leadership was more worried about losing control of its little apparatus than with building a mass working class force against capitalism.

So where to in Ireland now? 

We have the victories of the left candidates North and South. These are important steps forward. But the question for me is how to build on this small base a semi mass or mass movement against capitalism, a united working class force against capitalism. I believe there are political problems with this. The national question is one.  I have a rough draft on this question where I adjust my position and it can be read here.

I think that the position I now hold is rooted in the real situation that exists. That the Protestant working class will never be forced into a united Ireland, either a socialist or a capitalist united Ireland. I still stand for an end to British imperialism and an end to British and Irish capitalism.  I still stand for a socialist federation of Ireland and Britain. However I believe----- and I believe this has to be faced up to by all of us------ we have to understand and we have to accept that there will be no forcing of the Protestant working class into a united Ireland. This is the reality after 30 years of war to try and force the Protestant working class into a united Ireland. This will never happen. So what then?  

I believe in a Socialist Federation of Ireland and Britain within which the internal borders would be decided democratically and would be left open to see how things develop. Emphasis on forcing the Protestant working class into a united Ireland, either socialist or capitalist would throw the Protestant working class into the arms of reaction. Into the arms of the counterrevolution; the result would be civil war and repartition. I believe that the emphasis has to be on a socialist Britain and a socialist Ireland, no coercion of any sections of any of the populations in these islands into formations they are opposed to. I believe this raises the need to recognize that the socialist revolution may not be able to go directly to a socialist united Ireland, that some sort of interim formation could be necessary in order to avoid sectarian war and division----perhaps some sort of Canton formations in the North such as exist in countries like Switzerland. In reality, these exist in the North already just not formally. All you have to do is drive throughout the North and you will see on the sidewalks and walls and light poles the different colors denoting the different "Cantons." And of course there are the so-called peace walls on top of that.

If the revolution develops first in England and sweeps across borders into Scotland, Wales and Ireland then I think that it would be possible to go directly from the present situation to a socialist united Ireland. But if this was not the case then I think it would be possible that the capitalist classes could turn the demand for an immediate united Ireland into a reactionary mobilizing tool to get the Protestant working class on its side. Rather than the emphasis being the issue of uniting Ireland, more thought has to be given to emphasizing the need for the socialist revolution in England with its much bigger economy and working class and the need for the revolution there to then be spread internationally including to Ireland. This also of course raises the great impact that such a revolution would have on world affairs given the importance of British capitalism internationally.

I believe an adjustment on the national question along these lines is necessary for a number of reasons. One is to provide a road to the socialist revolution and the defeat of imperialism in Ireland.  Two is to provide a way for the present left forces to come together in a mass direct action and electoral united front. The adoption of such a position would make this much more possible in my view.
Henry Joy McCracken Leader of the 1798 Rebellion

On the issue of building a mass direct action and electoral united front there is another issue that has received insufficient attention in the past and the present. This is the special oppression of women. Divide and rule in Ireland has tended to be seen as Protestant versus Catholic. But divide and rule in Ireland as elsewhere has also been gender based------male against female and all against transgender. Sexual orientation has been used to divide the working class. This is being challenged by the working class in Ireland now, especially by the women of the working class. The victory on same sex marriage is of international significance and is a huge step forward. The revolutionary left must make this a much more central part of our work. The sexism within capitalism, within the labor movement and also within the internal lives of the revolutionary left must all be openly challenged. All the left organizations are guilty of trying to hide the special oppression of women within their own ranks. This has to be stopped. While in and of itself it is correct to do this, it can also be a great help in building a united front, and in building wider unity within the working class. The divisive male ego can be less influential.

It also should not be forgotten that in Ireland, before it was co-opted by the state, it was the Peace Movement, led by women that was the only force that crossed the sectarian lines between the Shankhill and the Falls, and which with their whistle patrols for a very brief few days drove both the sectarian paramilitary groups and the repressive imperialist British Army off the streets.   

With the recent electoral success in Ireland, would it not be productive for all the candidates that have won positions to take action and call a conference of all of you to discuss this issue?  To start there but also to invite all individuals and forces that are fighting austerity and the state. I would suggest that the left Comrades most recently elected and best known have a particular duty to lead on this front.  

Perhaps I am overly optimistic and my views may have no influence whatsoever on Irish comrades’ thinking. But I would say this. I am prepared to step around the anger I feel about the way I was treated by the CWI and former CWI members if this could help get the CWI, PBP, North and Southern Irish Comrades into the one room to discuss left sectarianism and the idea of a mass direct action and an electoral united front. I feel that this is in the interest of the working class and whatever is in the interest of the working class, revolutionaries have a duty to do it. We have to be able to get over our own personal wounds and our own left sectarianism in the interests of the working class. 

What I am suggesting here, whether in Ireland or here in the US, would result in all sorts of pressure being brought to bear on comrades by leaders in their own organizations to not take such a step. But fighting left sectarianism, fighting to build a mass direct action electoral front will demand that Comrades stand up and take these issues head on in their own organizations, especially by leading members of their own organizations who have developed bad habits of being in charge and telling the organization what to do. As was the case with Lenin, his successes only came because he was prepared to stand up to and fight the wrong policies of his own organization. In the last analysis this is the test of a revolutionary. Can we stand up to and fight and oppose wrong policies when these develop in our own organizations. 

I especially address these comments to all the leading members of the various left organizations and the elected members of parliament. You comrades have a greater influence and authority and therefore the greater responsibility. And if this means a stand against sections of your own organization then so be it. If the organization does not put the interests of the working class first, our first loyalty must be to the working class not an organization.

Am I wrong with regards to Ireland? Is there anyone reading these comments that doesn’t agree with me when I say that acting in this way would increase the confidence of the working class, would strengthen and help unite the working class, would organize the recently strengthened and elected left forces and orient these forces to the broader layers of the working class and youth and so help towards building a mass movement that could overthrow capitalism and imperialism.  Such a step, such a break from left sectarianism and ultra leftism and opportunism, this would allow the revolutionary left forces to put down serious roots in the broader layers of the working class and build a movement that could end capitalism in Ireland and spread the socialist revolution internationally.

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