“Unite the workers and bury the religious hatreds”

Submitted by Matthew on 4 February, 2016 - 11:24 Author: Michael Johnson

At Workers’ Liberty 2015 summer school, Ideas For Freedom, Michael Johnson summarised on the history of the far left in Northern Ireland. Here we publish his presentation. Marc Mulholland’s speech in the same session was published in Solidarity 386.


There are two main approaches that Trotskyists have taken to Ireland since partition in 1921. Both approaches are wrong in different ways. The main problem with both of them is that they ignore the democratic programme to overcome an unresolved national problem which is dividing the working-class movement in Ireland.

The first approach I want to discuss is associated with the groups around the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, what could be called “Official Trotskyism”. This approach comes out in a pamphlet — ‘The Coming Irish Revolution’ — written by Bob Purdie of the International Marxist Group in the early 1970s. The second approach is that of the Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party).

Even though they lead to very different conclusions, both approaches see the Irish national revolution of 1916-21 as incomplete. They argue, because of partition, Ireland is not territorially unified. Also, although Ireland won a measure of political independence, it became a neo-colony of Britain, economically dependent on a stronger capitalist power. That analysis is shared in some ways by the Stalinist movement, by official Communism. The Stalinists had a similar approach in Ireland to the one they had in many other countries which they considered “semi-colonies” of the industrial world. The Stalinist analysis is underpinned by a view that there are two stages to a national revolution. It’s also the perspective of people like Desmond Greaves and the Connolly Association.

The first stage in Ireland would be a national-democratic revolution to end partition and unify the island. In that revolution, socialists would side with “progressive” national capitalists. Only once that stage has been passed, can there be a working-class political project for socialism. In the first stage of the Stalinist schema, working-class demands are not raised since they’re not shared by the supposed progressive national capitalists. The Communist movement subordinates itself to Irish nationalism. It’s quite a literal enactment of Eamonn De Valera’s phrase that “labour must wait”. I think a lot of Trotskyists looked at this stages approach and recoiled, but did not pay attention to the specifics of Ireland. They’ve gone, “aha, we know that the answer is not a stages theory, but permanent revolution. We’ve read Trotsky’s critique of the Communist movement in China, which was a semi-colony, and we know what happens when the working-class movement subordinates itself to a nationalist movement. Therefore we’re not for stages, we’re for permanent revolution and we think that the national movement will transform itself into a movement for working-class power; the bourgeoisie will prove itself too cowardly to see the national revolution through, so the working-class must take the lead and the national revolution will, uninterruptedly, become a socialist revolution.”

You can see this sort of thing argued by Gery Lawless in the Irish Workers’ Group, an group of exile Irish Trotskyists based in Britain in the 60s. Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution was centred on what the working class would do in an upcoming bourgeois revolution, in a situation where a semi-colonial country would fight for its independence. It was meant to inform the tactics of a working-class communist party. That alternative for a stages theory was all very well, but what did it have to do with the specific situation in Ireland?

It assumes that any revolution in Ireland will be bourgeois-democratic and will complete the tasks of the incomplete revolution of the 20s. And that just doesn’t fit the reality of the Irish situation at all.

Ireland has had a bourgeois revolution; the British Land Acts of the late 19th and early 20th century liquidated the Anglo-Irish landlord class. That Michael Davitt famously called his book in 1904 The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland, is telling. It is a bit of an exaggeration, but the Land Acts created a sizeable capitalist middle-class in Ireland, a section of which went into Sinn Fein with a project to create an independent capitalist Ireland. Arthur Griffith, the founder of the original Sinn Fein wanted to build up Irish industry by protecting it behind tariff barriers, much in the same way that the 19th century German economist Friedrich List envisaged German capitalist development. The bourgeois revolutionary nationalist movement in Ireland fought the war of independence against Britain from 1919 and it won political independence for 26 counties of Ireland. Ireland has had a bourgeois revolution; capitalism has been established on the island. The 26 counties is a politically independent capitalist state. I don’t think there can be any more bourgeois revolution in Ireland nor do I think permanent revolution is a useful perspective; it mystifies the Irish situation and leads to some problematic political conclusions.

But why is partition not a sign of the incompleteness of the Irish national revolution? To put it that way is confusing and elides the reality of the situation on the island. In the north of the island there was a movement led by the Ulster Protestant bourgeoisie against Home Rule and against self-government for Ireland and independence. The Irish national revolution in fact established two bourgeois states on the island, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, both led by a capitalist class. For sure the significant minority concentrated in the north-east which didn’t want to be part of an independent Ireland colluded with the British ruling class to partition the country. And British imperialists manipulated this division in the population. The border produced the worst of both worlds; denied self-determination to Ireland as a whole; and trapped a significant Catholic minority in the new Northern Ireland state which would never be stable and developed a highly coercive and Protestant-sectarian apparatus to repress the Catholic minority. But the divisions in the population first had to exist for the British to manipulate them.

If you read the Socialist Party, partition was a clever trick by the capitalists to divert a movement that was almost by its own volition moving towards working-class unity. That’s wrong: there were deep divisions between nationalists and unionists in Ireland, both in the working-class and in the capitalist class. It mystifies things to speak about an incomplete national bourgeois revolution, either in its Stalinist two-stage version or in its Trotskyist repudiation, which in many ways shares the same logic but applies a Trotskyist schema to it.

In the Stalinist version the working-class is invited to “be vicarious Irish nationalists until the island has been unified”. It’s difficult to think what the Trotskyist permanent revolution version would look like. One scenario might be a mass national movement against the border, the Irish government and when the main political parties refuse to take the lead, the working-class takes the lead, unifies the island and leads a socialist revolution. The glaring hole in this theory is that any such mass movement would necessarily be aimed against a million working-class people concentrated in the north-east of the Ireland. Such a perspective would not lead to working-class unity.

When people like Bob Purdie were advocating this approach, during the period of “the Troubles” they were advocating sectarian civil war and possibly the repartition of the island. Part of the trouble that Trotskyists got into when thinking about Ireland is that Trotsky’s theory was mangled after the Second World War by the official Trotskyist movement. Trotskyists expected a revolution after World War Two but that revolution that didn’t happen. Capitalism stabilised itself in Europe, Stalinism established itself in the USSR and extended itself into Eastern Europe and parts of Asia. Old colonial empires were rocked by anti-imperialist movements that were seeking political independence.

Rather than addressing the new situation and reassessing politics and theory, a lot of the post-Trotsky Trotskyists tried to fit new facts into the old theory, one developed to deal with a different set of circumstances. With anti-colonial revolutions like that in India, Trotskyists said “these can’t have defeated imperialism and gained independence. These ex-colonies are still neo-colonies.” Independence was redefined from what Lenin and Trotsky meant by it (i.e. the right of nations to exercise political independence) to mean something rather different, economic independence from capitalism.

The key point was that after World War Two, formal colonial empires were transformed into informal domination of politically free capitalist states by other, stronger capitalist states. Now permanent revolution was used to rationalise and glorify third world liberation movements and Stalinist movements which nationalised industry and cut themselves off from the world market. Ernest Mandel argued that, because this was an attempt at creating economic independence, it was permanent revolution happening, in some form. The key idea was that agents other than the working-class could make revolutions including third world national liberation movements, like Cuba, Stalinist movements, bureaucratic revolutions in Eastern Europe. The post-Trotsky conception of permanent revolution blurs the distinction between working-class politics and national populism, Arab socialism or Stalinism.

This new theory of permanent revolution was used in Ireland by People’s Democracy, when it was the Fourth International’s section, and the International Marxist Group, to argue that the Provisional IRA’s campaign was a movement for national self-determination which would be transformed into a working-class struggle for socialism. This is the perspective Bob Purdie puts forward in his pamphlet. In the Republican committees he sees proto-Soviets. There’s a lot of spinning about the Provo campaign. The fantasies are made easier by the Provisionals, adopting “social” rhetoric from the hunger strikes in the early 80s, and under the influence of People’s Democracy.

Like the Official IRA before them, the Provisionals use social issues and class issues to mobilise workers around the national question. For left Republicanism, the working-class is a useful adjunct for the national revolution. For socialists, it should be the other way round! We start with the working-class and national and democratic demands form part of our programme to build a working-class movement for working-class power.

The Militant’s version of Permanent Revolution shares the idea that the Irish national revolution is incomplete and that partition was an imperialist trick to divide the working-class and distract it from the struggle against capitalism. However, they draw different political conclusions. What they take from Trotsky’s theory of national revolution is that bourgeois democratic tasks (such as ending partition) can’t be solved under capitalism — they can only be solved by socialism.

When Trotsky was looking at Russia and China in the early 20th century, he looked at the balance of social forces in those societies. He saw that the combination of a strong workers’ movement and a weak bourgeoisie, tied to the old regime, made it unlikely that the bourgeoisie would be the force to solve bourgeois democratic tasks, such as overthrowing Tsarism in Russia, or fighting colonialism in China. The bourgeoisie would compromise with the old regime, against the working class, rather than risk being overthrown in the course of a revolution. Trotsky did not however say bourgeois democratic demands are impossible under capitalism. And indeed the history of the rest of the 20th century after World War Two, with anti-colonial movements and decolonisation, proves that it’s possible to win political independence under capitalism. To the stages theory of the Stalinists, the Militant had what seemed like a very radical alternative: “no two stages, only socialism will solve the problem of the border, so we’re for socialism now, socialism is the answer.”

While this approach has the advantage of being an answer based on the workers’ movement, it’s a very conservative position. It argues that nothing can be done to improve the position of the oppressed Catholic minority in the north, because that would antagonise the Protestant working-class and make uniting the working-class as a whole more difficult. If the logic of this is drawn out, to means telling nationalists: “don’t rock the boat, we want workers’ unity so don’t raise any demands that might antagonise Protestants.” For the Militant, economic unity through strikes and the struggle for wages and public services would lead to political unity. On the political front, their answer was for the trade unions to set up a new Labour Party that they could win influence in.

The problem here is that the class struggle is not only fought on the economic front and the political front but also on the ideological front. What programme would such a trade union-based party have on the national question, the question that bothers most people who live in Northern Ireland? A programme is silent on this question, or just calls for socialism is completely inadequate. The Militant solution to the problem of the working-class being preoccupied and divided by the national question was to set up a party that has nothing meaningful to say about the national question and has nothing to say about divisions that will exist in the working-class before the advent of socialism. The Irish workers’ movement needs its own working-class socialist approach to the national question, one that deals head on with the national division in the working-class, the fact that the border has trapped a significant minority of Catholics within a state which denied them self-determination. Connolly was right that partition would lead to a carnival of reaction on both sides of the border — a clerical reactionary Catholic state in the south and a unionist Orange state in the north, poisoning the development of class politics and consolidating the working class around sectarian blocs. The idea that the workers’ movement should take up questions of national oppression is not the same as the Stalinist idea of a discrete and separate stage of the national revolution. Such a democratic programme is a precondition for building a meaningful and enduring solidarity on a political and ideological basis, as well as an economic one. It starts with the problems of society (in Northern Ireland’s case, communal and national division), suggests a programme to deal with those problems and in doing so makes it possible for the working-class to mobilise and make itself an independent factor in politics, rather than just following one or the other communal, sectarian bloc.

The answer to the Stalinist stages theory is not “socialism now” but that the working-class itself must have a programme on the national question. Workers’ Liberty suggests a democratic programme which is much like the forgotten programme of the Irish Trotskyists of the 1940s, people like Matt Merrigan and the Revolutionary Socialist Party. That is, for some sort of federal united Ireland with as much autonomy for the Protestant minority and as is compatible with the rights of the majority.

This is not a constitutional blueprint for governments to implement, it’s a democratic programme that the workers’ movement can discuss and mobilise around to overcome the national divisions that divide the class, and to fight for working-class power and socialism. When Connolly founded The Workers’ Republic newspaper in 1898 he wrote, “Our great object in this journal will be to unite the workers and bury, in one common grave, the religious hatreds, the provincial jealousies and the mutual distrusts upon which oppression has so long depended for security.” I think that’s still the task for socialists in Ireland today.

Permanent revolution was one of Leon Trotsky’s outstanding contributions to Marxism. In many respects, to be a Trotskyist is to accept the basic tenets of permanent revolution. In Russia in 1905 and again in 1917, Trotsky found the empirical grounds for uneven and combined development, which enabled him to grasp the dynamics of the Russian revolution and therefore to draw out the full political conclusions from the analysis.

Trotsky’s key arguments were that the Russian proletariat would be hegemonic due to its strategic position and class conscious Marxist leadership. The working class would overthrow absolutism using its own methods (such as political mass strikes) and create its own organisations (such as unions and Soviets). This meant the working class socialists would form a majority Social-Democratic [in the terminology of that time: Marxist] workers’ government and set about implementing a democratic programme, such as land reform, national self-determination and institute a republic. This socialist workers’ government would also have to implement working class demands, such as unemployment relief, the eight hour day, etc, because of its social base. As such the workers’ government would be compelled by the logic of the class struggle to go further and alter the social relations — effectively the working class would begin to break the capitalist relations of production and make a socialist revolution. This revolution would detonate European workers’ struggles, which would prevent the Russian workers’ state from being strangled.