"Ireland's Permanent Revolution" and Chris Bambery (1987)

Submitted by dalcassian on 13 July, 2009 - 2:07 Author: Sean Matgamnna

Chris Bambery's SWP-sponsored booklet "Ireland's Permanent Revolution" is a grim business.

He rehashes the traditional middle-class nationalist view of Irish history. Though he tries to lard this with a 'socialist' and working class slant on events, the 'socialism' is just tagged on.

Bambery - who races through Irish history, dealing in centuries! - shares what has long been the dominant approach on the left.

In common with Republicans, populist socialists, and Third-World romantics of the Socialist Action stripe, Bambery argues that the Irish national revolution has not been completed yet, and that only the working class can complete it, as part of the socialist revolution.

This is the cuckoo's egg approach to straightening out the relationship between Catholic nationalism and socialism in Irish politics. The socialist cuckoo's egg is discreetly placed in the nationalist nest, hopefully to be hatched out. It is by now a traditional approach; and all the socialist eggs hatched out in the nationalist nest have produced nationalists, not socialists.

Almost all the 'Trotskyist' groups which have tried that approach have become indistinguishable from the Catholic nationalists in current politics. The problem in Ireland is not, at root, a national revolution uncompleted because British imperialism thwarted it. The root problem is the refusal of a compact section of the people on the island, one million strong and the big majority in north-east Ulster, to accept the same national identity as that of the majority.

Britain's brutal intervention, and the creation of an artificial Six County state with a big Catholic minority-all that is superimposed on the basic problem, making it more intractable.

It is a dangerous illusion that it displaces or supersedes the basic Catholic-Protestant problem. The uproar among the Protestants at the Anglo-Irish agreement leaves no room for doubt about that.

This being so, you cannot understand Ireland in traditional nationalist terms, nor can you advance socialism in Ireland by claiming that the traditional nationalist goals can only be achieved by the socialist working class.

The Irish working class is chronically, murderously divided by the claims of competing communal and national identities. At the very least you need to have some proposals about how the two Irish communities can live together. Even after a socialist revolution you would probably still need that.

But who is going to make that socialist revolution if the division in the working class is not healed?

The SWP is now utterly incoherent on Ireland, sailing under two thin slogans: 'critically for the IRA' and 'socialism is the only answer'.

As an example of SWP confusion and mindless slogan-mongering take the front page of Socialist Worker last April, after the alarming Orange day of action against the Anglo-Irish Agreement: The headline said, very boldly: 'Troops Out'. But way down at the bottom of the article a small condition, or at any rate a pious wish, was attached to the demand in the headline: Britain should disarm the Protestants before it goes, said Socialist Worker.

Now of course this idea - essentially that Britain should do the job of subduing and conquering the Protestants for the Republicans - is utterly fantastic. For Britain to try it would involve the British army in the sort of systematic house-to-house searches that half a million Catholics have known for 16 years-against one million Protestants. It would provoke a full-scale Orange rebellion.

The demand 'Disarm the Protestants' is necessarily an implied demand for many more British soldiers in Northern Ireland, for the indefinite future - not for Troops Out. That's just one example of the SWP's incoherence. They live on uncoordinated slogans and irresponsible phrase- mongering, not on Marxist politics.

Chris Bambery's book codifies the confusion. In substance it panders to the populist ideas of the Republicans and much of our Third-Worldist left, while in form it goes through the motions of maintaining working class politics for Ireland. The profound Marxist theory of permanent revolution is reduced to an empty phrase.

Ireland's Permanent Revolution understands neither Permanent Revolution nor Ireland. Nor, for that matter, does it understand what working class politics in Ireland are and must be.

(Socialist Organiser 299, January 1987)