From International Socialism (1st series), No.59, June 1973, pp.9-13.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
‘No-go’ areas barricaded against State troops; mass demonstrations in support of an urban guerrilla struggle – these might well deceive an outside observer into believing that revolutionary ideas are widely accepted in Ireland. There are other deceptive appearances too – the mass audience for revolutionaries in the resistance movement, the large numbers of young people wearing ‘Connolly badges’, and the tens of thousands of republican newspapers sold. But, as one Derry republican complained, that is all many of the young workers want to buy – badges and papers.
The British government’s changing tactics in the North have confused people in the anti-imperialist movement. The leading organisations have been unable to respond to the new situations, unable to take advantage, for instance, of the divisions among the loyalist population. When the game is called ‘politics’, most people who have fought daily and hand-to-hand battles with troops, or who support in their thousands armed resistance to the military repression, still only know the game according to middle class, parliamentary rules.
The republicans, radicals, and revolutionaries who could count on a hearing while the streets were the arena of struggle cannot count on a parallel response at the ballot box. But nor have they offered a long-term, credible alternative to voting for change.
In the South, too, there is confusion – a growing paralysis in relation to the North, and dwindling support for the republicans in the face of repression. The past couple of years have seen economic defeats for the working class North and South. Unemployment and inflation have reached record levels; wage rises are held down by a National Wage Agreement in the South, and by the Heath government’s pay policies in the North. The capitalists cheer over record increases in productivity and increased industrial exports. New investment plans are announced daily.
There has not been a revolutionary situation in Ireland in the past couple of years. Nor could there be without further big changes in the consciousness and organisation of the working class. There have been changes; some of the lessons of past struggles have been learned. Young workers, in particular, are more open to political ideas; they identify in some way with the goal of the ‘Workers’ Republic’. But the determination and energy lack direction.
Neither the bitter labour battles in the 1960s in the South, nor the more bitter struggle against state repression in the North, have given use to a political movement of the working class which could maintain the struggle and guard against any back-sliding when the ruling class found its balance again. In the 1960s many southern workers joined the Labour Party, and the party adopted a ‘socialist’ programme.
The workers drifted out just as quickly, and nobody could stop the slide into coalition with the right-wing Fine Gael. In the last few years some of the more advanced workers (some of the same workers, indeed) have gone into the republican movement. The Officials can claim to be recruiting on the basis of their ‘socialist’ orientation. Already, however, there are signs of disaffection and disillusionment there too.
Whatever the specific features of the Irish situation, the struggle for socialism involves a fight for working-class leadership of the national struggle now – not at some distant point in the future – and a fight for an explicitly socialist presence in the working-class movement. Furthermore, the fight for Irish freedom and socialism is part of an international struggle. The Irish Left cannot take as its starting point the separatist tradition, as do some of those who talk at the same time of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’.
Opportunities in the past few years have been missed because there was no organisation fighting for that kind of perspective. There have been occasions when the correct initiative could have transformed the situation.
The political instability of the country – whatever Whitelaw’s successes – can still create crisis situations and opportunities which have to be seized, but that cannot be done haphazardly or by guess-work. The building of a revolutionary workers’ organisation is a systematic and disciplined work; its essential focus and context must be the day-to-day class struggle of the workers.
There is little tradition of independent working-class political organisation in Ireland. James Connolly was a great and original socialist thinker and activist; his principal weakness was that he underestimated the role of the political party. The parties of which he was a member (with the exception of the Labour Party, founded just before his death) numbered their ranks in dozens, while his audience as a trade union leader was in tens of thousands.
Jim Larkin, too – founder of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union – had little or no idea of the role of a political party. The angry, working class propaganda which he put out to an estimated 90,000 readers of the Irish Worker around 1911 had no political organisation to back it.
The situation of the Irish Left is distinct from that of the Left in most European countries in that there is no single strand of working-class political organisation and thinking to which it must relate. The Irish Left is not trying to overcome the legacy of 30 years of Stalinism, such as has influenced the most advanced French workers, or a tradition of social-democracy like that of the British working class. Republicanism has not been a tradition of working-class politics.
The Irish Left has to confront a sort of ‘political schizophrenia’, where nationalist – or loyalist – ideology co-exists with economic militancy. When the one is in the ascendant, the other subsides. Trade-union militancy, however, has never been a sufficient counter-weight to the ideologies which tend to bind the working class to other classes.
The industrial and trade union organisation of Irish workers shows great unevenness. Trade unionism has always been strong, but not the organisation of workers at the point of production. The Financial Times once described the southern trade union movement as ‘one of the strongest in Europe’. Fifty four per cent of employees in the South are in trade unions, and only slightly less in the North – a much higher level of unionisation than in most European countries. Loyalties to the ‘the union’ often run deep, but the level of democratic participation is low. The loyalties are usually to a particular union, rather than the movement as a whole.
The rapid pace of Irish trade union development – in four concentrated years the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) grew from 5,000 members to 120,000 members – was bound to mean that leaders and officials played a dominant role. Two thirds of Irish firms employ less than 100 people; the arena for developing rank-and-file activities is restricted. A corrupt trade union bureaucracy, full-time appointed branch secretaries, and a whole apparatus of procedures attached to the Labour Court, have helped to stifle any emerging rank-and-file initiative.
In the north, with its longer industrial and craft traditions, and generally larger factories, the shop stewards have been stronger and more independent of officialdom. However, the political and ideological ties of loyalism have neutralised that strength. Today there are over 100 unions catering for a total work-force, North and South, of less than two million people. In Dublin, there are four general unions. In some work-places, there may be four or five unions catering for a single grade. This fragmentation naturally tends to harden sectional and parochial loyalties.
None of this has prevented Irish workers from demonstrating on occasion – and over long periods – great combativity. Twice during the 1960s , the 26 Counties topped the international ‘strike league’. In the same period, workers made real gains in living standards. Wage levels were set, however, not by plant bargaining but by national negotiations though trade union leaders were often forced to take up and defend substantial claims put forward by their members. By 1967, however, they had secret meetings with government leaders to discuss ways of curbing unofficial action and picketing.
In late 1970, the leaders of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions reacted to the threat of a Prices and Incomes policy by hastily putting together a National Wage Agreement with the employers’ leaders. They rammed this, and a new policy on picketing, down the throats of the union rank-and-file. Bosses admit that the two National Wage Agreements (the second signed in 1973) have not significantly affected the rate of inflation, but they can – and do – attribute the new ‘stability in industrial relations’ to them. The union leaders virtually signed away the right to strike, and gave themselves further authority to clobber rank-and-file activists.
Prices are now rising faster in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe. Food prices went up 17 per cent in the year to March 1973. Resentment is growing against the National Wage Agreement, and the first salvoes are already being fired in a new battle which starts at the end of 1973. Last year, the Socialist Workers Movement alone campaigned for the rejection of all such agreements. As recently as the general election campaign of February 1973, Sinn Fein (Officials) were saying that an agreement was of little value unless accompanied by more effective powers for the National Prices Commission, implying that some prices and incomes control would be acceptable under the present system.
Ireland also has the highest rate of unemployment in Europe – over seven per cent in the north (reaching 25 per cent in limited areas), and eight per cent in the South. Redundancies have increased 200 per cent in the past three years. Employment in manufacturing industry, North and South, has actually fallen slightly since 1970.
In both areas the State authorities chase foreign investors with lavish incentives and tax allowances. Foreign investment was responsible for 71 per cent of the new jobs in southern manufacturing industry from 1965 to 1970. However the ‘creation’ of new jobs has consistently fallen behind official targets. The difficulties of British capitalism have reduced its proportion of outside investment in Ireland by over 80 per cent in one year.
Nixon’s recent proposals to tax external earnings of US companies will hit American investment too. The backwardness and ‘openness’ of the Irish economy means that it feels the slightest shudders of international capitalism as earthquakes. The prospects for ‘native’ companies are worse. They face increasing competition from imports, which rose by over 100 per cent in the five years after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement of 1966.
The immediate tasks of the Irish Left are to promote a fight against the National Wage Agreement and the Tory ‘freeze’, for real increases, a national minimum wage, and equal pay. On unemployment, the tasks are to defend every job, oppose rationalisation measures leading to redundancy, and fight for a shorter working week.
These must be coupled with a struggle against the powers and policies of the union bureaucracy.
The republican movement and the Communist Party have some strength among trade unionists, but no coherent programme for them. To many republicans the notion of a political intervention in the unions is incomprehensible, or it means simply mobilising trade unionists as one further sector in support of the national struggle.
The United Irishman, organ of the Officials, can go for several issues without reporting industrial struggles or the state of the unions. The Communist Party quietly captures leading positions in the unions, and trims its sails to the whims of the full-time officials. In the North, they are careful to avoid offending ‘loyalists’ in the trade unions too much. Such ‘apolitical’ intervention in the unions can only delay the creation of a revolutionary party.
The national question has divided the Irish left for many years, and been at the root of ‘sectarian’ division of the working class. The dual effects of national oppression and the resistance to it are a progressive, anti-imperialist struggle in which many are radicalised, and the binding of nationalist workers to the nationalist middle class, so dividing the working class. Some of those who claim to be socialist see it as their task to combat nationalism, and end up supporting Ireland. Others submerge themselves and their ‘socialist’ identity in a non-working class movement.
A combination of nationalist politics and ‘left’ rhetoric cannot provide firm leadership. Revolutionaries have to prove that a Marxist approach is better not only on strictly working-class issues but also in the national struggle. Socialists support national struggles from a working class and internationalist standpoint, and only in so far as they help promote the fight for international socialism. Sharing some goals with the nationalist movement – the demands for national unity and independence, and for the withdrawal of occupying troops – does not mean sharing nationalist politics.
However, a struggle against national oppression based on the leadership of any class other than the working class (or an undefined class alliance), or centred only on one part of the country, is bound to fail. The Catholic workers of the North, however heroic or courageous, cannot overthrow the state that oppresses them. They cannot win the support of loyalist workers on the demand for a 32-County-capitalist-’republic’. To detach themselves from the Catholic middle class, they must raise class demands in an all-Ireland context and fight the southern regime. It is impossible to imagine the resolution of the national question in ‘stages’ – i.e., first a democratic North, then a united country, then an independent republic, then socialism. It is theoretically and practically impossible.
The tasks of the Left are, therefore, to direct the confidence which northern Catholic workers have won in their struggle against repression into the class struggle; to inject a 32-County socialist perspective into the anti-imperialist fight; to bring the methods of the class struggle into the national struggle and to fight for the legitimate demands of the national struggle in the working-class movement. In doing this, revolutionaries can claim the heritage of the centuries-long national struggle on the basis that only the methods they propose can lead to victory.
The promotion of a working-class solution to the national question must mean developing an independent critique of both wings of the republican movement, and not acting as a ‘left cover’ for either.
The People’s Democracy, which once dismissed the partition and independence questions as irrelevant, now acts as just such a cover for the Provisionals, although claiming to be an independent socialist party. Under the heading ‘Brits Go Home’, its paper advocates an Irish solution for Irish people in Irish interests as a ‘socialist perspective’, with no mention of the working class or working-class demands.
There are others, individual socialists, who are members of the republican movement – mainly the Officials – who consider that the movement is going in a socialist direction, or can be made to do so. Like a past generation of entrists into the British Labour Party, they clutch at the flimsiest straws as evidence of change, putting radical addenda to basically republican positions.
The republican movement has changed significantly in the past few years; its social base has shifted. The Officials claim to be recruiting on a ‘socialist’ basis, but it is still an alliance of interests – non-working class, and non-socialist. The achievements of the republicans over the past few years have to be seen in relation to their limitations. The Provisionals have been largely responsible for forcing the British government to move at a pace not of its own choosing; the Provisionals have defended Catholic workers against attack and helped promote an anti-imperialist awareness. But they have been unable to build on any of this; their mass support has depended on the level of physical confrontation; they have not built any political organisation, and their political ‘programme’ puts that task beyond their reach.
The Officials have recognised many of the failings of previous IRA campaigns; they have built a political organisation and provoked political discussion; they have maintained a presence in the South as well as providing physical defence in the North. But their political positions have been inconsistent, sometimes pacifist and near-liberal, sometimes more radical, nationalist, or militaristic; members’ conceptions vary widely, and conspiratorial traditions and military discipline prevent differences being pursued openly and to their conclusion.
The election platform of the Officials in the 1973 General Election in the South was hardly in advance of the Irish Labour Party’s platform of 1969.
The achievements and limitations of the republican movement were summed up nearly 18 months ago by The Worker (February 1972) in this way:
‘The republican movement might be said to have helped create a mass movement with which it does not know what to do. The reason for this is that neither section understands the leading role of the working class. Because of this there is a gap between the willingness to fight and the effectiveness of the politics.’
Such criticisms do not preclude the possibility of further ‘left’ turns by the republican movement. Nor are such criticisms a denial of the fact that many of the activists of a future revolutionary party are likely now to be in the republican movement. The Left has to relate to the rank-and-file workers of the republican movement, pointing out where the policies and leadership of their movement are wrong, involving them in joint activity at work and in the unions, and encouraging socialist ideas in the republican movement.
This has to be done in all modesty, recognising the vital role of physical defence which the republican movement still plays, and recognising that subjective ties to the republican movement are strong indeed. Because the republican movement faces an impasse in the northern struggle, the presentation of a viable alternative for republicans is an immediate task for the Left.
As long as the majority of workers on both sides of the sectarian divide remain committed to sectarian positions – defence of Protestant supremacy on the one hand, or pursuance of a nationalist struggle regardless of the consequences on the other – (by which it is not intended to equate the two positions) – there is no chance of solving the national question, or of bringing the working class to power. The slogan of working-class unity is a cornerstone of socialist strategy in Ireland. The problems arise, however, not on the level of principle, or general strategy, but on the questions of tactics.
It is a simple thing to say, as the Communist Party of Ireland does, that socialists oppose every sectarian act, or everything done which would widen the gap. It is much less simple to make the necessary judgement in particular cases. The anti-imperialist struggle is being pursued from one side of the sectarian divide only; it is inevitable, therefore, that many acts committed legitimately in the anti-imperialist struggle may appear sectarian or have sectarian effect.
The problem is to weigh relative gains and losses, something which can only be done in a clearly defined class context. The Provisionals’ military campaign has not in itself been sectarian. A recent Socialist Workers’ Movement document on the national question points out:
‘Although not responsible for sectarian divisions in the working class, the Provisionals have done nothing to minimise or overcome these divisions. Many of their actions have had the effect of increasing sectarianism.’
What the Communist Party really proposes is a pacifist position which maintains that all violence committed from the republican side is bound to widen the gap. The Officials – paradoxically often echo this in their attacks on the Provisionals and in their support for all-class, even anti-republican bodies. What they both propose for building working-class unity is middle class, ‘democratic’ politics.
But a strategy to free loyalist workers from the stranglehold of loyalist institutions has to be a strategy for smashing the state, not for its gradual reform, and it has to give a key role to the economic struggles of Catholic and Protestant workers. As The Worker (November/December 1972) stated: ‘the war on Stormont was never enough to win the loyalist workers’ – but it was a necessary part of that struggle.
Another traditional position on the Left has maintained that through economic struggles alone, through trade unions and tenants’ associations, working-class unity could be achieved. What this position has often amounted to is a denial of the importance of political questions – specifically the national question – and has led to acquiescence in reactionary loyalist sectarianism. Experience has shown that economic struggles in this context do not spontaneously produce political awareness. Working-class unity can only be achieved on the basis of an explicitly political consciousness.
Until such time as ‘the axe of economic necessity’ has further chopped away the material base for loyalist ideology in the North, and until such time as a distinct, revolutionary perspective has taken root among Catholic workers, it will be difficult for socialists to give a lead in the economic struggles of loyalist workers. The immediate possibilities for this kind of work are very limited indeed: The recent dispute at the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast revealed that even the industrially best-organised Northern Ireland workers have fallen behind their British counterparts – in part because they wanted to avoid upsetting the security of the state. Only the loyalists themselves can isolate the ultra-right wing sectarians. The demand of some republicans that the state forces move against them could only help cement the Protestant class alliance.
An essential part in breaking the alliance is fighting openly for a revolutionary perspective among northern Catholic workers, opposing any sectarian tendencies and actions, and for class struggle against the regime in the South. Political work in the South has strategic priority. At the same time, the Left must be prepared to seize any turn in the political situation which would present opportunities for direct involvement in the lives and struggles of loyalist workers.
’Protestant workers will not be won away from Vanguard extremism unless socialists begin to take seriously the growing importance of their confrontations with the ruling class, on such issues as redundancies (e.g. Sirocco) and wages struggles (e.g. Michelin), as well as growing repression.’ That was The Worker in early 1972, today the argument is even more relevant.
The ties of Northern Ireland workers, through their unions and the economy, to British workers are often closer than they are to southern workers. The struggles of workers in Britain against the Tory government can have an impact on northern workers. Links with militants and socialists in the British trade union movement would enhance the Left’s credibility among loyalist workers. This requires an internationalist approach by Irish socialists, and the development of links between rank-and-file workers in Ireland, Britain, and Europe.
Internationalist traditions and awareness are weak or almost non-existent in the Irish working class. That is not altogether surprising in view of the national oppression, but it is a major weakness. Republican opposition to Irish entry into the EEC, for instance, was on an isolationist basis – or alternatively it advocated a utopian solidarity of ‘small countries’.
Republicans, reformists, and union leaders echo the old Fianna Fail call to ‘Buy Irish and defend your job’. Union leaders can appeal to nationalist sentiment in asking workers to make sacrifices for the sake of Ireland’s competitive position; only internationalist, working-class arguments can defeat them.
A large proportion of Irish workers are employed by multinational companies. Understandably, they often feel helpless when involved in dispute with such powerful enterprises. The task of the Left must be to point out that this can be a source of strength, if effective links with plants in other countries are made. The trade union leaders have done nothing to promote this. In the short period of its existence, the Socialist Workers’ Movement has been able to provide information and contacts for workers in such situations.
The struggle of Irish revolutionaries for socialist ideas and for a programme based on Marxist analysis implies some specific tasks in the field of ideology. The weakness of the ‘native’ middle class, for instance, has produced an especially reactionary variety of Catholicism. It permeates the whole of society; the church controls education up to university level. The repressive morality, anti-communism, and reactionary attitudes to women, all are obstacles to the wider penetration of revolutionary ideas. The Left has a duty to raise these questions, and to incorporate democratic demands for an end to such oppression into a revolutionary programme.
A Marxist analysis of contemporary Irish society, of its economic and social structures, of power and ideology in it, has yet to be done. Marxism in Ireland is quotes from Connolly and some populist phrases. The core of Marxism – that only the working class can free itself – has to be ‘discovered’ anew. From it flows the recognition that the context in which the Irish Left must operate is the working-class milieu. Sadly, this is an almost new idea for the Irish Left.
The unevenness and complexity of the Irish situation require that Irish revolutionaries set themselves the task of building an organisation of politically conscious activists in the working class movement capable of giving a lead in many different situations and relating simultaneously to different dimensions. Such an organisation cannot limit itself to ‘economic’ issues although these must be the main focus for gaining the roots.
The Socialist Workers’ Movement was founded in October 1971 by a group of socialists mainly active in the Labour Party and in their unions. They judged that there was a ‘vacuum on the Left’; they reacted against the submerging of socialists in the national struggle; they saw the need for a political intervention among the working class. They have consistently attempted to bring the national struggle and workers’ economic struggles into the perspective of a fight for socialism.
British and European revolutionaries have every interest in assisting the development of a revolutionary worker’s organisation in Ireland. Ireland is a weak link in the Western capitalist chain, a country where the contradictions frequently burst to the surface, and where an upheaval of the working class could have widespread repercussions. As James Connolly said, Ireland could spark off a ‘European conflagration’ which would burn through to the ‘last capitalist bond and debenture.’
Last updated on 25.12.2007