Socialism and Irish republicanism – an exchange of views: D.R. O’Connor Lysaght and Philip Ferguson

indexI don’t want to run these as separate pieces as it makes it hard for readers to follow the discussion.  But I don’t want to respond straight away to Rayner’s piece, because I think it’s a bit unfair to do so.  So I’ll leave it up for a few days, before I add my rejoinder.  That way people can read and digest Rayner’s points on their merits first.

D.R.O’Connor Lysaght, “Socialism and republicanism: a reply to Philip Ferguson”

The tone of Philip Ferguson’s reply to this writer is welcome and  the answer to it will be made as far as possible in the same spirit, though with rather more stringency as regards the facts.

Firstly, to dispose of what Philip describes correctly as being of lesser political importance, the writer is prepared to accept that the attendance at the commemoration was 200 rather than 100, though the smaller figure was supported by others who were there and were, indeed, more favourable to Eirigi than he. What is significant is that the attendance was higher than that last year.

More to the political point is Philip’s defence of the choice of text for the reading. He says that the event was at once a commemoration of the Easter Rising and an analysis of the present situation in the light of that. This is true, but it does not mean necessarily  separating the two functions between the reading and the oration. Each has a role to play in inspiring its listeners to carry out their tasks in the coming period. Philips remark about gas and water socialists preferring to avoid commemorations of past revolutions is perfectly correct, but, equally, such a commemoration should provide a guide for future action. The immediate task facing the Irish revolutionary left is not the military (and traditional republican) task of building of a new Citizen Army (though this will come). It is the political task of it to take its part in leading the fight against austerity in and out of the unions and against the appeasement policies of the official leaders of the organised workers. That this can be done has been shown today by those workers’ rejection of Croke Park II. The writer considers that in the year of the centenary of the Dublin Lockout it would have been more relevant to read from one of Connolly’s articles attacking the Labour fakirs of his time.

And so to that mysterious force Socialist Republicanism. The writer admits to scepticism about it, not because he sees it as a fantasy creature, but, rather because its reality appears as, in itself, too nebulous to sustain any guide to revolutionary action. Yes, history has made republicanism the expression of resistance to imperialism in its traditional and modern form, and, yes, socialist-republicanism is the most class- conscious form of that political expression of the spirit of resistance. At this point the fog descends. Socialist republicanism does not mean all things to all people, but it means too many things to too many to be an effective force for revolutionary change. The author has known self-proclaimed socialist republicans in all parties, though not, recently, in Fine Gael. There was even one in the late, mercifully defunct Progressive Democrats (admittedly, he did not last too long). Philip twits Trotskyists for having never been able to sink any real, lasting roots in the Irish masses. Actually, its problem has been, here as elsewhere, too many roots for too many groupings. Certainly, when they are attacked by non-Trotskyist socialist republicans for their failure to lead the workers and oppressed to state power, they can answer: Our excuse is our smallness. Whats yours?

Marxism can do something to reduce the ideological weakness, but it cannot cure it without breaking it out of its Irish republican assumptions. These can be summarised as:

a/ Elitism; republicans, socialist and non-socialist represent the republic virtually established and tend to see no reason to mobilise mass support that they can’t easily control. Instead they rely on the army of the virtually established republic before they have done the nine-tenths of non-military revolutionary work  necessary to give effective backing and, when the futility of this approach is obvious they abandon armed struggle for electoral reformism. This does not mean that there isnt a period of transition in which they can consider mass interventions, but the pressure of their tradition handicaps this. What is more, there are those who would claim to be Marxist who would encourage socialist republicans to take an electoralist line. It is not necessary to agree with the view that the Communist Party(s) had moles in the republican movement after Operation Harvest to acknowledge that that movement was influenced by individuals themselves influenced by reformist-stalinite ideas, with results that are now history. Moreover, Stalinised socialism fits very well into the broad republican tradition in its emphasis on class-collaboration even after the establishment of a socialist republican Government and, in the longer term weakness of the republican tradition.

b/ Its Nationalism, handicapping it from working to secure Ireland as a free nation in a federation of workers’ republics.

Philip mentions Lenin and says that he used Marxism as a set of tools to analyse Russian reality. He didn’t start with a ready-made programme, pulled from outside that reality. He polemicised against much of the prior revolutionary tradition in Russia, its conspiratorial and militaristic nature, etc, but he did not dismiss all of it and he didn’t try to replace it with a set of ready-made formulas from somewhere else.

This implies a closer relationship between Bolshevism and the prior revolutionary tradition in Russia (Narodism) than existed.  Lenin’s Marxist tools (method is a more accurate term) led him to reject nearly all Narodism, save its commitment to overthrowing the Tsarist state and its recognition of the role of the peasantry. What is more, on this last, he opposed strenuously the idea that socialism could come to Russia through the traditional system of village communal agricultural working, asserting, yes, the formulae from the international socialist movement outside that Russia would have to under ‘go a form of capitalist agricultural production. He maintained this against the Narodnik Socialist Revolutionary Party, which remained larger than his Bolsheviks, at least formally, even after the October revolution. It should be added that the Narodnik belief in Russian exceptionalism, like the traditional Irish republican belief in Irish exceptionalism, resembles the cause of the error of the Sinhalese Trotskyists that conditions on their island made it possible for them to flout the need to maintain their political independence and go, accordingly, into coalition with their class enemies.

And so to the narrow confines of Trotskyism. Philip urges Socialist Democracy to abandon Trotskyism and enter Eirigi as genuine comrades in the building of a genuinely revolutionary movement, one that has some chance of success. The writer has heard such arguments before, most notably on the lips and documents of the liquidationist minority of comrades who left him and the majority to join Sinn Fein, when, admittedly, it looked more revolutionary than it does now. We can agree that Eirigi is a more appealing pole of attraction even than Sinn  Fein then. Nonetheless, does he expect Socialist Democracy to abandon its programme and perspectives at his behest ?  What programme and perspectives should its members adopt instead ? And how would they differ from that which it follows ? Philip distinguishes Trotskyism from the actual theories of Leon Trotsky and implies that it is an accretion that has grown over the original ones. Well,  certainly, there have been many such accretions over the years, a number of them quite disastrous, But the healthiest parts of the movement have been able to discard the mistakes.

By Trotskyism, this writer (and, he presumes, his Socialist Democracy comrades) means no more than the concept, justified by historical observation, of the process and strategy of the Permanent Revolution, the maintenance of the revolutionary process to the achievement of state power by the forces led by the working class, and the extension of that power under the inspiration of the said achievement throughout the world as the base for the truly actually achieved socialist society. The writer himself did not come to this perspective simply by pulling it from outside reality, but by comparing it with the results of his own investigation into the course of Irish history. He does not claim to be like Lenin even to the small extent that the population of Ireland compares to that of Russia. Nonetheless, he thinks his analysis remains valid. If Philip Ferguson has a better one, it would be interesting to read it.

My rejoinder:

Rayner’s piece has now been up a week, so I’ll respond.  I almost didn’t because I have laid out elsewhere the key ideas I would respond with.  But I’ll start by responding with how I see things in a more general sense, then move onto a couple of other issues in Rayner’s piece.  Anyway, here’s part of what I wrote last year (the full article is here):

“1. The national question, although it currently moves only a small section of the Irish people, remains absolutely central to any serious struggle for human liberation in Ireland.  Socialism can’t exist in one country, let alone a fraction of a country!

2. Only the working class can lead the national struggle because only the working class has nothing to lose but its exploited and oppressed state; conversely, the working class can’t free itself without freeing Ireland.

3. The British state won’t withdraw from Ireland unless it is forced to do so, and neither are the ruling classes on both sides of the border likely to relinquish economic and political power; they will have to be expropriated

4. The British and Irish revolutions are bound up together.  It’s inconceivable that the struggle for national liberation and socialism in Ireland could be victorious without a massive political-social crisis in Britain that crippled the British ruling class.  While most of the British left haven’t got a clue about ‘the Irish question’ and simply can’t be relied on when the going gets tough, it’s unlikely such currents would survive even the beginnings of a massive class shake-up in Britain; new, harder left formations would begin to emerge.  In the meantime, it’s vital for Irish revolutionaries to ‘feel out’ the ground in Britain in terms of building political support networks based around class fighters.

5. Militarism is an absolute dead-end; not only can it not drive out the Brits but, when the guns are in charge, the politics are inevitably under-developed.  This means that when the military movement eventually needs a political wing, as it always must even at just the level of organising support for prisoners and publicising the armed cause, the politics that emerge cannot develop to the level required to meet the complex challenges of the Irish revolution.  Also, when the militarism becomes exhausted, as it always does, the lack of revolutionary politics mean that lowest common denominator politics replace the guns and bombs.  The result of militarism is disaster after disaster.  Militarism is not the opposite of reformism; it’s simply the other side of the same coin.

6. A conscious revolutionary-political movement, a political vanguard organisation, is needed.  Politics have to be in control and when the time comes to establish a military element to the struggle, the politics have to call the shots.  The political movement has to be militant, both in order to challenge the three states that block the cause of human liberation in Ireland and also to ensure it provides radical working class youth with a real alternative to militarism.

7. The exact form of the military aspect of the struggle cannot be known in advance, although what it can’t be is (ie militarism).  Rather, the development of the overall political conditions reach a point at which the particular form of military element necessary becomes clear – workers’ militias, armed communities, armed wing of the socialist-republican party, an armed party, or any other formation or combination of formations.

“There’s no place in this for reformism, militarism or mere Irish nationalism.  The vanguard can only be built on the basis of revolutionary socialism (as opposed to the gas-and-water type only too prevalent on the Irish ‘Marxist’ left) and revolutionary republicanism (as opposed to mere nationalism, which is too sectional).  Such a vanguard needs to settle accounts with the past, being absolutely clinical in examining what is dumped – including commemorations of people who had appalling politics, like Liam Lynch – and what is developed further in the context of the twenty-first century.

“And, it must be said, the merger of the militarist currents into New IRA surely must press upon socialist-republicans the need for a process of coming together of all those whose aim is the workers and socialist republic.  The answer to the New IRA is not condemnation but the building of a united, revolutionary, socialist-republican party.”

Now to turn to several very specific points in Rayner’s piece.  For instance, Rayner says,  “Philip twits Trotskyists for having never been able to sink any real, lasting roots in the Irish masses. Actually, its problem has been, here as elsewhere, too many roots for too many groupings. Certainly, when they are attacked by non-Trotskyist socialist republicans for their failure to lead the workers and oppressed to state power, they can answer: Our excuse is our smallness. Whats yours?”

But that simply begs the question.  Why are you so small?  If the politics of Trotskyism, and there’s quite a it of dispute as to what they are beyond the theory of permanent revolution (which I agree with, although I don’t think it provides a magic formula for each individual country and process of struggle) and the transitional method and transitional programme (which I don’t agree with, to the extent that it was historically specific; it made sense in the conditions of 1938 but the things it was predicated on, like a significant vanguard of workers, simply doesn’t exist in most of the western world; and, as Lenin noted, lots of people can repeat formulas, but it’s quite another thing to understand the preconditions for those formulas).  A couple of other objections I have to modern-day Trotskyists, as opposed to the ideas of the great revolutionary himself are: auto-Labourism; organisational forms which are more akin to Stalinism than the Bolsheviks of Lenin’s time; and lecturing people o0n the way forward without ever risking much themselves (of course, there are exceptions like Hugo Blanco and others. . . including the comrades of PD days).

I would’ve thought the fact that Trotskyism as an *ism* has failed in every revolutionary set of circumstances – every single one – might have caused these folks to engage in some critical reflection, as it certainly did me.  In the case of Ireland, for instance, it’s all very well to chatter about the dangers of militarism, as both Rayner and I do, but what about the conditions of 1969?  To me, it is unfathomable that any revolutionary could believe that it was possible in those circumstances to build a revolutionary movement that didn’t have an armed wing.  The Irish Trotskyists certainly discussed getting arms and training in arms, but it seems never to have gotten beyond the discussing stage.

One of the turning points in my political development was a discussion in the Fourth International about Lebanon in the mid or late 1970s.  I was a teenage supporter of the LTF faction in the FI, as against the ‘Mandelite’ IMT faction.  (Looking back, I thihnk I might have been on the wrong side!)  Anyway, the Lebanese Trotskyists were getting some guns; this was at a time when the whole of Lebanon was divided into armed camps and Beirut was afire.  The US SWP, which saw itself as the leading section of the FI, was aghast and one of their “leaders” (some office type who had internalised their hopeless legalistic approach to everything) wrote a document against the Lebanese section’s plans.  I was only very young at the time, but I was gobsmacked that they thought the way forward for the Lebanese section was just to do stuff like open a Pathfinder bookshop in Beirut in peacefully and legally make abstract propaganda for socialism.

It seems to me that the reason the Provos became *the* mass force in the nationalist ghettos was that, despite all their considerable political weaknesses, they understood the centrality of the national question and of fighting; they got guns.  The Trotskyists, no matter how great some of their theory may have been, had little understanding of how to put it up to the Brits.  PD was at its best in those days, and did actually experiment eventually with some armed stuff I gather, but probably too little, too late.  But the group in the south, the RMG or MSR I think it became a bit later, lacked that understanding.  (And, of course, the SWM and the Grantites never had a glimmer of it; the latter essentially scabbing on the struggle.)

Rayner mentions what he calls the liquidationist element in his organisation that, in the mid-80s, counseled dissolving the organisation and joining SF.  But there are two important differences.  One is that, in my experience as a Sinner from 1986-1994, those people were never very radical.  Anne Speed was never on the left in SF; she was in the centre, if not the right.  The average working class Dublin SF activist was much more militant than the people I came across from Rayner’s group who joined SF.  The ones I met – and I’m not pretending I met them all – would have fitted into a vaguely left labour-type party, pursuing posts as ink monitors in a constituency branch, like their IMG counterparts.  (If they had’ve been in England they would have been in the imperialist Labour Party over there.)

Secondly, Sinn Fein at that time was nowhere near as left as eirigi is.  SF before I joined, and in the first few years I was in it, did identify from time to time as a “revolutionary socialist”.  At the same time, Adams was publicly denying there were any Marxists in the Movement, which was patently ridiculous as prisoners spent a substantial amount of time studying Marxism and the Education Dept organised stuff every weekend in the countryside on socialism.  However, the Movement was clearly being shifted rightwards by the Adams cabal.  By contrast, eirigi specifically identifies as revolutionary and socialist, identifies with Connolly and Connolly’s Marxism.  Moreover, the experience of 40 years from the late 60s to when eirigi was founded, indicates that, as Connolly put it, Irish nationalism without socialism is simply national recreancy.  That understanding seems to have well-permeated the comrades who started eirigi and those from a Provo background who have joined since.

Lastly, Rayner and I agree to some extent, as per: “Yes, history has made republicanism the expression of resistance to imperialism in its traditional and modern form, and, yes, socialist-republicanism is the most class- conscious form of that political expression of the spirit of resistance. At this point the fog descends. Socialist republicanism does not mean all things to all people, but it means too many things to too many to be an effective force for revolutionary change.”

Yes, but the same thing could be said of Trotskyism.  How many varieties of it are there now?

I would think that socialist-republicanism is somewhat more specific than Trotskyism.  There is sufficient agreement, for instance, among socialist-republicans in Ireland for a merger of them to take place, should they be prepared to take such an initiative.  Certainly more agreement than there appears to be among Trotskyists such as SP and SWP who couldn’t stay even in a coalition for more than a couple of years, and even that rather half-heartedly, let alone build a common party.

In Russia, the Bolsheviks supplanted narodnism in a couple of decades.  There’s no sign at all of Trotskyism replacing republicanism in Ireland.

To me, Trotskyism in Ireland always seemed like some odd plant that could just never take root in the soil.  On the other hand, republicanism, no matter what was done to it from within (selling out) or from without (repression by the various state forces on the island) continually regenerated itself, continually produced outstanding revolutionary fighters and political activists.  It is the revolutionary tradition in Ireland, has been for a bit over 200 years, and nothing else, no other “ism” of any kind has come anywhere close to that.  Republicanism itself, however, has also been clearly revealed to be insufficient. Socialist-republicanism, on the other hand, is the truly revolutionary form, and the one that can win.


Posted on April 24, 2013, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, éirígí, General revolutionary history, Irish politics today, Partition, Political education and theory, Republicanism post-1900, Republicanism pre-1900, Revolutionary figures. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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