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

Submitted by cathy n on 22 February, 2007 - 1:42

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 four: Two Nations?

Tony:
All this talk about me having a fetish of armed struggle! But you haven't dealt with my real point: autonomy is a reformist solution, it's a programme for a settlement imposed from above by imperialism.

Mick: The person who would opt for reform or a reformist solution where a thoroughgoing revolution could be triggered by or developed out of a national struggle - he or she would be a reformist. There are not the slightest grounds, in the 12th year of the Northern Ireland war, to think this is a possibility in Northern Ireland.

On the contrary! In any case federalism would not contradict a revolutionary development; it might help it. Even Rayner Lysaght in SO admits that.

A federal Ireland is part of our "transitional" programme. In the first place it can help reassure the Protestants and thus, whether marginally or seriously, help create a basis for class unity for a new Ireland, which would not coerce the Protestants. In the second place, the programme and all its demands are the "property" of the revolutionary party, which uses and swivels the programme, putting forward now this and now that slogan or demand, depending on its analysis of the situation. As Trotsky said, the significance of the programme is the significance of the party. Nothing in our reform programme excludes development and escalation all the way to socialist revolution - unless we should be so stupid as to make a fetish of federalism or autonomy.

You make a fetish of it, Tony - negatively.

Jackie:
You, Tony, plainly have the notion that we should shun reforms because reforms are an alternative to revolution. You say: it is not wrong to argue for reforms, but it is wrong to argue for a reformist solution to the Irish struggle.

Here you say the right words - nothing wrong with reforms - but then you contradict them flatly. Any proposal less than full revolution, any specific demand focused on a specific problem, can be a 'reformist solution'. The question is, how is it used, and by whom?
What do you think of Trotsky's Transitional Programme? Do we fear to use single - realisable, and, taken on their own, reformist - slogans like the sliding scale of wages? Why fear to use autonomy or federalism?
If you are logical, you will object to using any specific demand from the Transitional Programme. You will insist on using the whole programme at all times. I.e. you'll be a passive propagandist. That's what the logic of your position is for Ireland - passive propagandism.

Advancing democratic solutions to the Protestant/Catholic conflict in no sense means setting a predetermined point at which a struggle will stop. Concretely, the limits of the Northern Ireland struggle are set by the protestant-catholic split in the working class. You fear that a proposal for a democratic settlement will limit revolutionary possibilities because you see the war of the IRA - the "national struggle" - as a great locomotive, a deus ex machina, outside of the class struggle and the development of the working class. As has already been pointed out, your notion of socialism coming out of the present war implies socialism imposed against a big section of the working class by a military elite!

We have a different assessment of the potential of the present Six County Catholic struggle, based on the relationship of forces, the attitudes of the Protestant workers, etc. Nothing that we propose will or could freeze the situation at its present limited possibilities.

A democratic settlement, on the contrary, might create a framework for reconciliation and thus could speed up developments beyond the limits now imposed on them by the Catholic/Protestant communal antagonism and the working-class split which is part of it.

I thought that was an ABC question - how reforms relate to the revolutionary programme and the Transitional Programme.

Tony:
You have it back to front. The national question is central to permanent revolution. Read Trotsky! Revolutionary struggle against imperialism, like the I RA's, is a higher level of struggle than the struggle for reforms. It is a direct challenge to the imperialist state.

Mick:
The classic country of permanent revolution, and strictly speaking the only one, was Russia. The national question played a peripheral part in it - the oppressed nations were liberated by the Russian workers' revolution.

Tony:
You may well talk about nations. As I've told you before, O'Mahony is a "two-nations" man, and his 'autonomy' really amounts to the Protestants keeping a sectarian sub-state of their own. I don't really see how it's different from Protestant self-determination.

Mick:
O'Mahony told me in great confidence, but in the circumstances I suppose I can tell you, Tony. He swears he agrees with the polemic he wrote recently in SO against the "two nations theory". He doesn't call for Protestant self-determination.

Tony:
He is a liar. I can't see any distinction between a community and a nation, or between autonomy and self-determination. You need to simplify reality - not overcomplicate it. There are only two classes.

Patrick:
And there are only two colours, black and white...

Tony:
It's quite plain: O'Mahony thinks the Protestants are a distinct grouping. Therefore he can only be saying they are a nation. I knew it as soon as I heard of the notorious "two nations theory".

Jackie:
Did you ever read that great, classic, work of Marxist theory published in the Bolshevik Party journal in 1913, 'Marxism and the National Question'?

Tony:
No, who wrote it?

Jackie:
J V Stalin.

Tony:
Now I'm beginning to understand!

Jackie:
According to Trotsky the work was written under the schoolmastership of Bukharin and 'creatively edited' by Lenin. The fact that Stalin the counterrevolutionary dictator rebuilt the walls of the old Tsarist "prison-house of nations", so that the USSR is today the worst oppressor of nations in the world - that doesn't and can't undo the work of Stalin the revolutionary, including this, any more than the Stalinist counter revolution can cancel out the historical significance of the October Revolution.

'Marxism and the National Question' is one of the simplest basic expositions on this issue. I've got a copy of it here on the shelf. I'll get it.

Tony:
Go on…

Jackie:
Ready! Speaking for the Bolshevik Party in 1913, Stalin defines a nation Like this:

"A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture".

The Northern Ireland Protestants have all the characteristics outlined here - bar one. They do not have a distinct territory.

There is a big Catholic minority even in Belfast, in the centre of the Protestant heartland of Antrim and Down, and a Catholic majority in two of the Six Counties and about half the whole Six County land area.
The Protestants and Catholic communities interlace and interpenetrate. The Protestant colony put down in Ireland four centuries ago could have developed into a nation, as the historically younger but similar English colonies in America did, by pushing aside the natives more or less completely or massacring them. It didn't.
Not enough settlers came in; landlords let land (usually the worst land) in disputed English/Scots areas to Catholics; the Catholics made their way from the areas surrounding the Protestant territory into the industrial areas as industry developed in the 19th century.

There is no Protestant nation, fully developed or sorted out. There is a Protestant community with a distinct history, culture, tradition, and psychological identity.

In the last decade or more, the Protestant community has begun to see itself as increasingly distinct from Britain too - or sections of it have.
If you like, it's a nation that might have been - a nation manqué. It's even, if you like, a nation that might yet be. A Protestant nation could be crystallised out by a process of mass population movements in the course of a sectarian civil war, and as a result of a separating - out of its identification with Britain in conflict with Britain.

Jimmy:
I think you are just logic-chopping, Jackie. Many countries have big minorities. Why should the Six Counties be different? The process of the separating-off of a Protestant nation has probably gone a wee bit further than you think.

Jackie:
Well, that's possible. It may be that the 'nation' that the Provos will secure self-determination for is the Protestants!

Tony:
But what defines the identity is their pro-imperialism!

Mick:
Tony, you maintain your picture of the Northern Ireland Protestants only by a wilful act of ignoring the facts and the history.
You define them out of their full historic and social context by a one-dimensional political caricature - "pro-imperialist". Suppose some comrades haven't your gift for wearing ideological blinkers to structure what they see, and face the fact that the Protestants are a distinct community? Suppose they agree with you on the basis of your notion of imperialism and the pro-imperialism of the Protestants? Then they would go over to the "British and Irish Communist Organisation" position of defending the Northern Ireland state as an expression of democratic self-determination by the Protestants.
You are BICO's mirror-image.

Patrick:
Come to think of it, the BICO were once their own mirror image - populist Catholic-nationalist Irish Republicans, albeit Stalin-Mao flavoured!

Tony:
You are just covering for O'Mahony. Self-determination is only for the oppressed, not for oppressors or the allies of oppressors.

Mick:
Self-determination is possible only to people with a distinct territory, where they are the overwhelming majority population. We do not talk of self-determination for the Protestants because they are a community laced in with the Catholic community; and because self-determination for the Protestants lies at the other side of a bloody civil war and repartition.

If you like, autonomy, or federalism, is a compromise, an attempt to find a basis for conciliation and building working-class unity across the communal divide.
The Catholics are the big majority in Ireland. So we talk of self-determination for Ireland as a whole, and as much autonomy for the Protestants as is compatible with that. Federalism is a concretisation of that idea.

Jackie:
These nuances and shades are pretty important, Tony! By definition it is the oppressed who have to fight for self-determination. But oppressors, and especially the local allies of imperialist oppressors - and there are many communities like that dotted around the world - can quickly find themselves the oppressed.

Our attitude derives from a basic programme - we are for what Lenin called consistent democracy. John O'Mahony's article in SO about the communal violence in Sri Lanka talks about that. Incidentally, why are you for federalism in Sri Lanka and not in Ireland?

Tony:
That's all abstract. Lenin only meant personal democratic rights. I'm for democratic rights for the Protestants, yes; and for the Jews in Palestine, after Israel has been smashed and conquered. That's the traditional Trotskyist programme! It used to be all over the pages of the Socialist Labour League press in the '60s, in our campaign against the Pabloite revisionists and Sinhalese chauvinists of Ceylon.

It just shows how ignorant you are if you don't know that! You must be mad if you think there is any comparison with Northern Ireland. I never learned anything about that in the SLL. And I'11 be damned if, after 20 years as a Trotskyist, I'll learn about it from a reformist like O'Mahony.

Jimmy:
But don't you think, Tony, that there are at least elements of Catholic chauvinism in, for example, the Provos' present attitude to the Protestant community? Why are the Sinhalese chauvinists, if the Provos are not? Even the founders of the Provos, O'Brady and David O'Connell, say as much in their own way.

Mick:
No, Tony, I'm sure you didn't hear any of this in Gerry Healy's SLL. But Sri Lanka has everything to do with Ireland. The parallels are astonishingly comprehensive and precise, though of course I'm not saying that the two are identical, and all parallels of this sort break down at some point.

We've just seen the bloody consequences of the lack of democracy for a minority there. Some of the Tamils were favoured by the British, according to their policy of resting on local minorities. Some of the Sinhalese reaction against the Tamils was rooted in this history.

Tony:
That's irrelevant. The Tamils are now an oppressed minority.

Mick:
The Irish minority problem presents itself to us now in an artificial form, created by British imperialism and the Orange Order: it is the problem of a Catholic minority in the artificial Six County state. That must be the thing that immediately concerns us - support for the Catholic minority and their revolt.

But our basic programme must include a solution to the basic structural Irish minority problem. This is the problem of a Protestant, or Anglo-Scots -Irish, minority. We must offer them a democratic framework.

The Northern Ireland Protestants would be an oppressed minority now in a united Ireland that bore any relation to the 26 Counties.

Jackie:
And to say that socialism is the answer is true but irrelevant. Socialism will not immediately dissolve national identities. We will need a democratic programme for situations like Northern Ireland, or Sri Lanka, or Palestine, even after the socialist revolution.

Read Lenin on the question. Some of his most bitter scorn and anger is directed against those who denied the need for such a programme after the socialist revolution. Read his polemics against Bukharin and Pyatakov in 1916.

Anne-Marie:
You've just got the wrong priorities. The Catholics suffer terrible sectarianism from the Protestants, and here you are, worrying about possible sectarianism against the Protestants in the future by the heroic leaders of the oppressed Catholics, the Provisionals!
And you can't identify the Provos with the 26 County state. The Provos make it quite clear that they are a socialist, secular movement
They are genuine radicals, not "fake lefts."!

Jackie:
You say the Provisionals are more genuinely radical than their predecessors? No they are not, actually. Even those who talk socialism in the North have not broken with Church teaching. In the South they are middle class, often openly right wing.


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?