Provos, Protestants, and working-class politics - a dialogue: session two

Submitted by cathy n on 22 February, 2007 - 1:34

Contents

Introduction (2007)

Session one: The issues stated

Session two: a foothold for imperialism?

Session three: Ireland, "permanent revolution", and imperialism

Session four: Two Nations?

Session five:a Provo socialist revolution?

Appendix: a way to workers' unity?


Session two: Does autonomy mean "a foothold for imperialism"?

Tony:
Let me try to state my position. The Protestants do have a right to be here. They have a right to be equal citizens. But they do not have a right to retain their sectarian privileges over the Catholics, to retain their sectarian state, or to give Imperialism a foothold against the anti-imperialist struggle of the majority of the Irish people.
I'm for democratic rights for Protestants in a united Ireland, the right to practise their religion, and so on. I'm for divorce and abortion rights. But that's different from autonomy.
You talk about autonomy giving the Protestants the right to defend their separate identity. But what is that separate identity apart from religion? It's nothing but sectarian privilege!

I don't know how this autonomy would work. But however the Protestant area was defined, there would be a lot of Catholics within it. So O'Mahony's scheme means abandoning the Belfast Catholics to the sectarian rule of a Paisleyite regional administration!

Autonomy means allowing the Protestants to keep their privileges, allowing them to keep their sectarian state in some form, and giving Imperialism a continued hold over Ireland through this Protestant sub-state. It's a reformist solution, a readjustment which allows Imperialism to defend its essential interests, rather than a programme for a revolutionary victory against Imperialism.

That's why I'm against "autonomy". I do recognise the fears of the Protestant workers about Catholic sectarianism, but the answer to those fears is to build a revolutionary leadership North and South which fights for a socialist, not a capitalist, united Ireland.
Let the Protestants have their democratic rights! Let them have their religion. I'm no Catholic bigot! But the right to any sort of local autonomy - no. That would leave them their privileges. The essence of their entire position is privilege. That's why they might want autonomy or self-determination. And if it does not guarantee them that privilege, they won't want it.

Jackie:
They would want it - minimally as a guarantee that they would not be steam-rollered.
Protestant privilege over the Catholics is a serious, indeed an immense, problem. But the problem is fundamentally separable from Protestant state power - the Protestants haven't had state power since 1972, remember!

The core of the problem is the solidarity of one community with its own, and against those felt to be aliens - threatening aliens - in their midst.
Patrick: Clearly there could be no form of federalism or autonomy within a united Ireland which allowed any sort of formal discrimination. But unless you physically break up the Protestant social structures there will have to be a long haul to eradicate discrimination based on communal solidarity and communal hostilities.

To identify the process of breaking down discrimination with the IRA war is to say: conquer, subjugate and disperse the Protestants. That is an ultra chauvinist programme!

Tony: There then: you admit federalism or autonomy would mean accepting continued privileges for the Protestants! I knew it.

Patrick:
I admit that there is a real problem. But Protestant and Catholic communalism is not inextricably tied to Protestant state power or even local government power. It predates Partition, and it is logically separate from Partition.

Today it is partly linked to local government power. But the only way a single unitary Irish state would eradicate it would be to abolish all forms of local government for the Protestant areas.

Discrimination doesn't just rest on provincial or local government patronage: the problem is as profound as the communal antagonism. As Marxists we should see the solution as linked to an easing of communal tension and to the improvement of the material conditions of life.

Jackie:
One of the major reasons why the miserable and petty privileges of the Protestants were so important in Northern Ireland - the Protestant workers came very cheap! - was the mass poverty and unemployment. Trotsky once truly said that the greatest of all possible privileges is a dry crust of bread when everyone around you is starving.
Conditions in Northern Ireland today are worse than at any time since the '30s. The Protestant workers feel it most. Many of their old privileges have jack-knifed and turned into their opposite, as they have been hit harder by the collapse of industry. If it were not for the war and the communal antagonisms, the economic conditions in Northern Ireland would lead to mass protests from the Protestants.

Mick:
I think you're probably right about that, though you can't be sure. There were some big mainly Protestant anti-unemployment marches in the early '60s, weren't there?

Tony:
I told you - you downgrade the National Question. You wish it would go away!

Mick:
I'm calculating and reasoning about the world around me as I think it actually is. You refuse to. You deal in symbolic shadow plays, not real class struggle, or national liberation struggle.
Jackie: The Trotskyist answer to the basic problem of poverty, discrimination and privilege is clear and obvious: "transitional demands", that is, we demand that the governments build houses, create jobs, develop public works, etc.

Mick:
O'Mahony and others put out such ideas in the days of the civil rights movement, when inevitably divisive, though just, slogans were raised by the civil rights and student activists, like 'one man, one vote', 'one man, one house', and 'one man, one job'.

Inevitably the Protestant workers thought they were faced with losing what they had, and were very hostile.

Whether you like it or not, the war now makes any unity on the basis of economic "transitional demands" near impossible. Before, it was a question of the Protestants' vested interests; now that the grim reaper Thatcher is levelling down hundreds of thousands of 'Protestant' jobs, it is the nationalist form of the Catholic revolt.

I don't condemn the Catholic revolt, Tony. You mistake defining its negative features for condemning it.

Anne-Marie:
That's another distinction we don't recognise. Of course you condemn it! You betray your basic wishes and sympathies with such ideas. You are a workerist! You don't see the National Question as central.

Tony:
As I say in my document - let me quote it exactly:
"Of course we don't want a bloodbath. We want the best conditions for the struggle for independence - that means the least lives lost. But the struggle for independence is a precondition for the development of the Irish working class for social revolution."

That's the permanent revolution for Ireland. Protestant privileges must be smashed.

Patrick:
I think you misevaluate the question of privilege.
This is very important in understanding the division in the Northern Ireland working class between Catholic and Protestant. It has no bearing on the social relations of the Orange workers to the capitalists.
If I didn't know you to be a longtime Trotskyist, Tony, I'd think you had Maoist tendencies the way you talk about the Northern Ireland working class, which is mainly Protestant.

All sorts of Maoists condemn the working class in the advanced countries as privileged exploiters of the peoples of the Third World. Some of the stuff I've read by British romantics who support the Provos reproduces that pattern for Northern Ireland. The Protestants, including the Protestant workers, are cast in the role of the metropolitan workers, and the Catholics in the role of a Third World people. It is utter and absolute nonsense!

More than that: privileges are important for the Protestant working class. But you cannot characterise the Northern Ireland Protestant population entirely in those terms. If you do that you are abusing an idea that is very important in understanding the split in the working class by elevating it to a general explanation. To use the idea of Protestant privilege as a general explanation takes us back to the political time before Wolfe Tone. That's what it implies, anyway. We are back to the position Jackie raised at the beginning of the discussion: do you accept that the Protestants have the right to be here, or don't you?
For of course the primal Protestant 'privileges' came from the act of displacing the Catholics. It was this that gave the Protestant rural community a fundamental privilege, out of which everything else grew.
So which is it? Do they have the right to be here, or don't they? Does their ill-treatment of the Catholics invalidate those rights all Republicans since Wolfe Tone have accepted for the Protestants - the basic right to be here? Does it lead us, in the fight against Protestant privilege, to advocate 'undoing the conquest' by subjugating the Protestants and thus destroying the historic 'privilege' on which so much has been built? How far back must the wiping out of Protestant privilege go?

Implicitly the Provisionals' answer here is: subjugate the Protestants! In any case they now explicitly leave themselves no other option. This approach is the direct opposite of any sort of socialist perspective - the perspective of working-class unity to create a new society.
For it is the politics of redivision of the inadequate social resources that now exist and the politics of narrow nationalism and communalism.
I'm for the Catholic community - but I'm a socialist first. And I think Wolfe Tone was right and Gerry Adams wrong.

Adams can spout socialism and vague leftism for the British left as long as he likes. But in Ireland Adams stands for a narrow Catholic sectarian approach to politics. That's another reality you have to face up to, Tony.

Jackie:
To get back to the point, even the 'Trotskyist' left does not differentiate from the immediate objectives in relation to the Protestants of the Provo movement. But the entire Catholic political struggle is, for the Protestant - even the socialist Protestant worker, like Jimmy or Robert here - aimed at coercing them towards the status of a permanent minority. We can convince Protestant workers to support equality, civil rights, class unity - but we cannot conceivably convince them to adopt the Catholic viewpoint.
In reality, equality is not on offer now to the Protestants - what is on offer is descent into second-class citizenship in a Catholic Ireland.
Individual Protestants, perhaps attracted by socialist rhetoric or revulsion at Protestant sectarianism, can go over to the Catholic viewpoint. Such a one was Ronnie Bunting, son of a one-time prominent Paisleyite: he joined People's Democracy, and was reputedly Chief of Staff of the INLA at the time of his assassination a couple of years ago. The Protestant community will never make such a choice. They will fight to the last breath against it.

Tony:
You are still missing the point. We should fight for a socialist Ireland, and see the Catholic movement and the I R A as part of the permanent revolution.

Mick:
The option of going into a socialist united Ireland does not exist, nor is it conceivably going to come into being by any development of the current IRA war. You, Tony, as usual, I'm afraid, together with lots of others, live on fantasies that the present IRA/ Catholic movement is in its logic socialist. Try explaining that to the average Protestant worker!

Tony:
Your trouble is that you don't believe in the Permanent Revolution for Ireland! All these calculations and considerations you outline are mistaken because you see the picture statically. You make calculations with the existing quantities and the relationships now existing between them. That's not dialectical, comrade! Everything will be changed in the struggle. New options will arise as the struggle develops. We advocate a clear socialist solution. We offer Protestant workers the option of equality in a socialist Ireland in which the power of the Catholic Church will be broken.
Jimmy: Of course, Tony, I know that what you want instead of capitalism, including foreign capital investment, is a working-class takeover from the capitalists. That's what completely mystifies me, though. I thought you Trotskyists believe that the working class is central to all this - that 'the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself', as Marx and Engels put it over a hundred years ago.
If only the working class can win socialism, then inescapably the central concern of your politics must be the working class: working-class unity, and not "Republican" physical-force-on-principle and war on England now, even though a big part of the Irish working class stands between the petty bourgeois nationalists and England, and is prepared to fight to stop England making any concessions.
Patrick: Perhaps I'm naïve, or even 'Kautskyite', but you seem to believe that the socialist revolution will be made - or initiated - in Ireland by a small military elite, supported by a smallish fraction of the people of Ireland and opposed by most of the Northern Ireland working class. You seem to think that the Catholic movement can expropriate economic imperialism in one and the same act as driving Britain out of the country, and if necessary driving the Protestants into Belfast Lough!

Mick:
Of course Jimmy's right on this. I want socialism. I want to expropriate Irish, British and international capitalism. I want the workers to take over. But that's not what you're talking about, Tony.

Patrick:
Because you make a fetish of the "armed struggle" and don't look at it concretely, you don't suspect that the "armed struggle" has become one of the problems. The existing "armed struggle" works totally against the possibility that the working class in Northern Ireland, or Ireland, can carry through a socialist revolution, because it sharpens the divisions in the working class.
You construct fantasies in your head from elements in reality that you abstract from their context, and those fantasies then harden like scales on your eyes, and prevent you looking at the reality.
Bloody sectarian civil war which would repartition Ireland and set the working class back decades (and leave England in the North!} appears in your fantastical political vision as a liberating anti-imperialist socialist revolution!

Jackie:
And let me add a small matter of fact. If the imperialism you are fighting in Ireland is represented there by foreign investment, then Britain is not now the main enemy.
Consider the following facts. Between 1960 and 1978 656 manufacturing enterprises from overseas set up with help from the Industrial Development Authority. Of the 656, 215 were from the US, 176 from the UK, 99 from West Germany, 37 from Holland, 21 from Switzerland, 18 from Sweden, 17 from France, and the rest from Japan, Canada, etc. (In the late '70s foreign-owned firms provided only one quarter of all jobs: so don't go telling me that there is no Irish bourgeoisie!)
What has driving out Britain from the North got to do with changing that situation? What has a willingness to try to conquer the Protestants because they are 'pro-imperialist' got to do with it?

Robert:
And who says the Protestants are 'pro-imperialist'? The US is the biggest imperialist power in the world - and, as Jackie just told us, the biggest power in terms of investment in Ireland - and US policy is to push Britain into pushing us Protestants into a united Ireland.
The EEC has a similar attitude. And I reckon the British boss class would love to dispose of us to Dublin if they could. They've been stopped only by the pressure of the Protestant workers here. We're the people who have defeated the plans of imperialism!

Jackie:
You're overdoing the argument a bit, Robert! You know that most Protestant workers vote OUP or DUP. That's not very anti-imperialist. But then voting SDLP isn't either.
Anne-Marie:
And voting Sinn Fein?
Robert:
Vote for SDLPers with guns rather than SDLPers without? That too, is not very anti-imperialist.
Jackie:
The point is that 'pro-imperialism' and 'anti-imperialism' are concepts which don't have much grip on the situation.
If expropriating foreign capital under a working-class government is the task, then the attitude 'smash the Protestants, who are the imperialist garrison in Ireland' is not irrelevant - it is positively harmful! Only the working class can expropriate Irish and foreign capital. We need workers' unity.

Tony:
You're still not being Marxist. You can't be a Marxist unless you are first and foremost an anti-imperialist.
Plainly you don't want to fight imperialism. You are just rationalising your pro-imperialism. You are bending under pressure of the British state. You don't want a united Ireland.
All you Protestants are pro-imperialist. You must be either pro-imperialist or with the Republicans.

Robert:
Of course I don't want to go into a united Ireland. Didn't we explain at the beginning? It would mean exchanging a one million Protestant minority in a united Ireland for a half-million Catholic one in a divided Ireland.

Tony:
I knew it!

Robert:
But I am a socialist, and an anti-imperialist too. The point is that the Northern Ireland situation cannot be explained in terms of imperialism and colonialism - whatever about Ireland’s terrible past under English rule.

Tony:
No, you're not an anti-imperialist, and therefore you're not a socialist either. You don't want to fight the Tories. You don't believe in Permanent Revolution for Ireland.
If you understood the Permanent Revolution , then you'd understand that the national question can grow over into the socialist revolution. You'd understand that you should subordinate your petty sectional interests to the majority nationalism. The only road to working class unity and socialism in Ireland is for the Protestants to accept the nationalism of the Catholic majority, now represented by the Provisionals. That's the only road to socialism in Ireland - finish the bourgeois revolution by solving the national question, just like in China and Vietnam!

Jackie:
As you like. In your notion of a socialist revolution in Ireland - something made by a military elite! - then of course I'm not a socialist. And the same with imperialism. You seem to think anti-imperialism is the same thing as anti-colonialism. Even if your view on the Irish situation as a colonial one were true - and it's simply ridiculous - that would not be an adequate view of imperialism.
Lenin, who lived 60 years ago, when it was a world of colonial empires and neo-mercantilist trade blocs policed by imperial military force, had a far more complex and comprehensive conception. He distinguished clearly between the struggle against colonialism and the struggle against economic imperialism. He was a 'nationalist', for national liberation, against colonialism, and an 'anti-nationalist', a working-class internationalist, against economic imperialism. Only the international working class could eradicate the economic mechanisms of imperialist exploitation. He denounced petty bourgeois anti-imperialist economic nationalism as reactionary, retrogressive and not working-class policy. You are very close to endorsing it.

Tony:
No I'm not.

Jackie:
And what about the facts I cited ?

Tony:
Facts! Whose facts? You can do anything with facts. I'll find my own facts! And what about James Connolly?

Robert:
Connolly would have been better off if he hadn't been a Republican.

Anne-Marie:
You're bound to say that. Jo Quigley said the same thing at the SO summer school.

Mick:
Yes, I was there. John O'Mahony argued that this view was a-historical, and that Connolly was right to base himself on the revolutionary tradition of the Irish people, the Fenians, the land struggle, etc. That's a possible view. But this argument has no relevance now. Connolly was defeated. The Southern state is a straight bourgeois state.

Tony:
O'Mahony didn't mean it. He's just trying to cover his tracks. He's a two-nations man, you know.

Jackie:
I read a piece by John O'Mahony recently attacking the two-nations view as put by Jo Quigley.

Tony:
Ah, that's just track-covering as well. He's two-nations. As soon as I heard about the two-nations theory a couple of months ago, I knew it fitted O'Mahony's position like a glove. Take my word for it - watching O'Mahony I've learned all about "the two nations theory."

Jackie:
There are lots of "two-nations" people around, that's true. But not just the sort you're thinking of, Tony, the people who say that the Protestants and the Catholics are two nations in Ireland, and that the Northern Ireland state embodies the Protestants' right to self-determination.
What about your own view on the Protestants - your willingness to advocate coercing us, conquering us, or even driving us out? What's that but a variant of 'two nations', but with the Protestants classified as a 'bad' nation?
You define us not as we are, a distinct segment of the Irish people, but as "pro-imperialists" who can be treated as imperialist agents, all the way to whatever degree of violence is necessary. That's a form of 'two-nations'-ism to my mind. It's not clearly and honestly defined, but that's the implication.
The Republicans, especially the 'lefts', hold that view. Tone or Connolly, or even Pearse, would not recognise them as Republicans.

Tony:
There you go again, denigrating my views. More pro-imperialism, more reformist rubbish!The best thing you could do is read Trotsky's 'The Permanent Revolution'. It's all about Ireland - if you know how to read it.

Patrick:
I suggest we take an hour's break for dinner and have another session afterwards


Contents

Introduction (2007)

Session one: The issues stated

Session two: a foothold for imperialism?

Session three: Ireland, "permanent revolution", and imperialism

Session four: Two Nations?

Session five:a Provo socialist revolution?

Appendix: a way to workers' unity?