“Since my early days I have got, through Marx and Engels, the greatest sympathy and esteem for the heroic struggle of the Irish for their independence” — Leon Trotsky, letter to Nora Connolly, 6 June 1936
In 1940, after the American Trotskyists split, the Shachtman group issued a ringing declaration in support of the idea of a “Third Camp” — the camp of the politically independent revolutionary working class and of genuine national liberation movements against imperialism.
“What does the Third Camp mean?”, it asked, and it replied:
“It means Czech students fighting the Gestapo in the streets of Prague and dying before Nazi rifles in the classrooms, with revolutionary slogans on their lips.
“It means African natives going on strike in the Rhodesian copper mines and fighting bloody battles with the police.
“It means the Irish Revolutionary Army keeping green the traditions of the Easter Rebellion with a brilliant and implacable guerilla campaign against British authority in the heart of England.
“It means Indian steel and textile and jute workers forcing concessions from the British Raj in militant strikes.
“It means the Red Army soldiers who shot their officers and fraternized with their brothers in the Finnish army.
“It means the anti-conscription rioters in Australia, the millions of AFL and CIO rank-and-filers whose pressure is causing American labor chiefs to talk isolationism, the Polish peasants who seized the land when the landowners fled and the Polish workers who set up short-lived Communes in Vilna and Lvov before the coming of the Red Army.
“No, the Third Camp is not a myth. It exists, and its members are legion: the submerged, smoldering working masses of the world, those who do the working and starving in peacetime and the dying in wartime. It is our aim and our revolutionary duty to organize these, to make our press the voice of the Third Camp”.
In fact, the IRA at that time was formally allied to Germany — to Hitler’s Germany. It pursued its own independent objectives, but it did it by actively aligning itself with England’s enemies.
The “Chief of Staff” of the right-wing segment of the divided IRA, Sean Russell, died in 1940 on a Germany submarine that was taking him back to Ireland.
Unlike Lenin, Martov, and the other socialists who made use of Germany’s wish to defeat Russia in World War 1, and made a limited agreement that let them travel through Germany in a sealed train to the Finland station in St Petersburg, the IRA made a general alliance with Germany.
In principle, an oppressed nation has a right to ally with its enemy’s enemy, to try to use such an alliance for its own purposes. The Irish insurgents of 1916 had made an alliance with Germany. The Declaration of Independence which Patrick Pearse read out to a very small audience of accidental onlookers outside the General Post Office on the first day of the Rising, Easter Monday, spoke of the insurgents’ “gallant allies in Europe”.
In principle the 1940s IRA, too, had a right to ally with and use German imperialism for its own ends. But the idea that Ireland would be better off in a Europe dominated by Hitler-imperialist Germany, or that Irish anti-imperialists should want Hitler’s victory because it meant British defeat, was, in political terms, and in terms of Ireland’s interests and need, stupid beyond words.
German victory would involve the enslavement to varying degrees of the peoples of Europe, including the English and the Northern Ireland Unionists; the literal enslavement of the Slavic peoples; the annihilation of Jews, gypsies, and god knows who else.
If nonetheless Irish nationalists, Irish “anti-imperialists”, could ignore the especially depraved and demented character of England’s imperialist enemy, and wanted it to prevail on the calculation that Catholic Nationalist Ireland might gain, that was nationalism (the nationalism of a very small part of the people of Europe), erected into absolute chauvinism taken to the level of political dementia.
And, of course, the IRA leaders who entered into agreement with Hitler represented only a very small segment of Irish opinion, even of generally anti-British Irish opinion.
The presumption of the IRA, which literally saw itself as the legitimate government of Ireland, to pursue its own foreign policy, was one reason for the ruthlessness with which the Republican De Valera government suppressed it.
But it wasn’t just the right-wing IRA. On the same submarine on which Russell died was Frank Ryan, his long-time opponent in the Republican movement and leader of the “left” (i.e. Stalinist) Republicans throughout the 1930s. One of the participants in the mid-50s socialist discussion on Ireland reviewed in this pamphlet, Dominic Behan, invokes the name of Ryan as a left Republican saint.
After Russell’s death, Ryan chose to return to Germany, where he was an honoured guest of the government until his death from natural causes in 1944.
The full story is stranger still. In 1936 Ryan had taken 200 Republicans to fight in Spain against the Franco fascists. He was captured and came close to facing a fascist firing squad. He was then rescued by agents of the German state and wound up in Germany, where he worked voluntarily on assaying Irish and British politics for the Abwehr.
Ryan — the anti-fascist who had almost died in the cause of anti-fascism — was most likely plunged into terminal political confusion by the Hitler-Stalin pact.
His Stalinist strand of “left” Irish Republicanism was no part of the Third Camp either. In 1940, during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, Stalinists were decidedly in one of the imperialist camps. They would change to the other imperialist camp when the Nazis invaded Russia in June 1941 — but not to any sort of “Third Camp” position.
IRELAND AS EMBLEM
So why did the new-founded Workers’ Party include the Irish anti-imperialists in their picture of the Third Camp taking shape? Not that they were desperately short of examples of Third Camp forces, though surely they were, but of what Ireland and Irish Republicanism meant in the international communist movement of the 20th century.
Ireland, Irish revolution, Irish nationalism, and Irish Republicanism were emblematic of anti-imperialism, rather than something real to be analysed concretely.
Famously James Connolly wrote that “Ireland without her people means nothing to me”. For the left, by 1940 “Ireland” without her real people, an Ireland that was no longer the real Ireland, had come to be a token, a symbol or political token to be “coined” mechanically. The contrast between the “rebel Ireland” which those who composed that Third Camp declaration had in mind and the reality – Irish Republican allies, clients, and stooges of Nazi German and of Russian imperialism — neatly sums all that up.
Ireland had a special place in the outlook of revolutionary socialists. Karl Marx had used Ireland’s history and the history of its relationship with Britain extensively in Capital volume 1. Marx, Engels, and Marx’s daughters had been active and passionate supporters of the Fenian movement, and the literary expression of that support was in print. Everywhere Marx and Engels were known, Ireland was known.
Everywhere the history of Britain, the pioneering country of modern industrial and commercial civilisation, was known, the history of Ireland was also known. Everywhere Britain was resented or opposed, the history of Irish rebellions was known and often looked to as example and model.
Everywhere the armies of Catholic missionaries sent out from Ireland from the mid 19th century onwards reached, they brought their nationalist account of Ireland’s oppression, and Catholic Ireland’s indomitable refusal to bow down to their overlords. In 1980, when Robert Mugabe was in London to negotiate the settlement that created Zimbabwe, he made a quick trip to see the Ireland whose history he had learned about from Irish Catholic missionaries in his youth.
The picture of Ireland taken from Marx and Engels was fixed. The real Ireland evolved and changed. The “Irish question was repeatedly revised and redefined in the course of history.
THE “IRISH QUESTION”
In the 1860s the Irish question was mainly three questions: land, Home Rule, and Disestablishment of the Anglican church, which was alien to both Ireland’s Catholics and its Presbyterians, the two majority religions on the island.
Karl Marx thought that the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 would eliminate the religious sectarian conflict. The Tory party thought that the series of Land Acts that turned peasant rent into lower annual mortgage payments would “kill Home Rule with kindness” (and many European Marxists came to think that too: Lenin polemicised against some of them, Karl Radek for instance).
The Liberal party championed Home Rule for Ireland from 1886. It seemed only a matter of time before Ireland achieved a measure of self-government, though not much greater than that of, say, London.
As that prospect loomed in 1912 and after, the Protestant-Unionists rebelled, armed themselves, and declared that their stronghold in north-east Ulster would resist the home rule government which Britain was about to set up in Dublin. For the first time in the 20th century, they brought the gun back into Irish politics.
The Tory-Unionist party pledged to support them, and helped them to arm and train an army to resist Home-Rule – the Ulster Volunteer Force. Britain seemed close to civil war.
Some of the Catholic nationalist Irish followed the lead of the Unionists and armed themselves, creating the Irish Volunteers. The outbreak of the First World War cut across these developments. Some of the nationalists organised an armed rebellion in 1916. The survivors of the 1916 Rising then organised the secession from Westminster of a majority of the Irish MPs elected in the 1918 United Kingdom general election. When Britain refuse to recognise the democratically elected parliament created by that secession, they fought a war with Britain in 1919-21. They won Dominion status (real self-government such as Canada and Australia had) in 1922 for 26 counties, all of Ireland bar six north-eastern counties given self-government but within Britain.
This is how The Communist, paper of the Communist Party of Great Britain, summed up that history in July 1922:
“For hundreds of years the Irish nation has been fighting an unceasing struggle, at fantastic odds, against the British Empire. For hundreds of years the Irish people have been resisting a hard and diabolically cunning tyranny.
“Economically, this tyranny has kept Ireland poor, starving, and undeveloped. It was accompanied generation after generation by the worst forms of oppression. It produced untold miseries, famines, songs and music of revolt, a literature of protest, and so frequent was revolt and repression that the miseries are remembered fully now, the old songs are sung throughout the land, the old literature is being rewritten in more expressive terms.
“A few times, as when Davitt won for the peasantry land rights from the feudal lords, and Larkin organised strikes and threw the class war into relief, the people have been rallied on purely economic issues. But even in those struggles the national appeal had to be employed”.
THE “IRISH QUESTION” REDEFINED
Dominion status made it possible, stage by stage from then on, for the 26 Counties to attain real independence.
Eamonn De Valera’s government removed the King of England as head of the Irish state during the abdication crisis in 1936. It negotiated a broad settlement, which included the removal of the last British naval bases, in 1938. It maintained neutrality during the Second World War.
The “Irish question” was redefined by those events.
Now the “Irish question” was “the Partition Question”. Six counties in north-east Ulster had been formed into a sub-state within the United Kingdom but possessing Home Rule in a Belfast Parliament.
Within that, the old “Irish Question” transmuted into the Catholic question – the fact that there was a one third, and growing, Catholic minority in the Six Counties, a majority in a large part of the territory. Catholics in Northern Ireland were a bigger minority than all the Protestants would have been in a United Ireland. London left the Belfast government to its own devices, and the Catholics found themselves under a repressive Protestant-sectarian Northern Ireland government.
Most Republicans until the late 1930s had tended to accept the verdict of both segments in the 1922 Sinn Fein: nothing much could be done about partition as long as the majority in Northern Ireland wanted it to continue. But they were far from reconciled to that fact.
Nationalist Ireland attributed to England all or most of the blame for Partition. For some — the Fianna Fail current and the various editions of the Irish Republican Army after the late 30s — the solution was to persuade or (the physical-force Republicans) coerce Britain into ending partition despite Northern Ireland Protestant opposition.
The fundamental difficulty with this entire position was that it was based on an ideological lie. The diehard opponents of Irish unity in the 20th century were not the British but the one million Protestant-Unionists concentrated in north-east Ulster.
Certainly, in the past England had fostered and manipulated division in Ireland, but the cleavages had to exist before they could be manipulated.
It was not even fundamentally true that Britain had deliberately “planted” the Protestant population in north-east Ulster. In the 15 and 16th centuries, England had “planted” Protestant settlers in parts of all the four provinces of Ireland, Munster, Leinster, Connacht and Ulster. The only area where a Protestant majority had come to cohere was in north-east Ulster– in territory that had not been “planted” by the British government. The population was the result of spontaneous migration, mainly from lowland Scotland.
An essential element in 20th-century Irish history was the fact that Britain could not control the north-east Ulster opponents of a united Ireland. As late as May 1974 a powerful Protestant-Unionist general strike destroyed Britain’s chosen policy for Ireland, Catholic-Protestant power-sharing.
The self-bewildering ideological lie that Britain was responsible for the Protestant-Unionist refusal to want to join a united Ireland was generated by the hard reality that there was no policy with which Irish nationalists could hope to change that situation. Only peaceful persuasion could conceivably change the political outlook of the Six County Protestant-Unionists.
But experience all over the world has shown that peaceful persuasion can not eradicate the consciousness of national or religio-national identity, or persuade one of the antagonists in such a conflict to adopt the identity of the other.
All that could conceivably be done about Northern Ireland was the transfer of the Catholic majority areas, including Derry City, to the Catholic Nationalist state. 26 Counties government leader Michael Collins had vainly appealed to the Belfast government in 1922 to transfer those areas to the Republic.
In any case, the swift conforming of the 26 county state to the worst Orange fears that “Home Rule would be Rome Rule” further encouraged and hardened the Northern Ireland Unionists to resist a united Ireland.
In 1957, in the same period as one of the Trotskyist discussions reported in this pamphlet, the “Fethard boycott” dramatised that dimension.
The local Catholic priest, with support from his bishop and support or compliance from almost all the Catholics in the village of Fethard-on-Sea, Co. Wexford, organised a boycott of Protestant-owned businesses and farms there. The local Protestant (Church of Ireland) school was forced to close, and the local piano teacher, a Protestant, lost her students.
The reason was just that one local Protestant woman married to a Catholic man had refused to enrol her older daughter in the Catholic school. She quit the village rather than comply, moved to Scotland, was eventually reconciled with her husband, and educated her children at home.
There was always also an element in the impasse of some Catholics wanting the freedom to have their own Catholic state unencumbered by a need to take one million and more Protestants into account; but that was a subordinate element; at the beginning anyway.
As the constitutional republican De Valera progressively eliminated the areas of nationalist grievance against England – the Oath of Allegiance to the British king, the paying back of debt by the farmers who had bought their land with the help of the British Exchequer, British Naval bases – the physical force Republicans were politically disarmed. There remained only “the Six Counties”, Partition.
THE “TWO NATIONS” AND A LITTLE LOYAL (MAYBE) ORANGE EMPIRE
There were about half a million Catholic nationalists in the six county sub-state. For some of them, the sizeable Catholic minority in Belfast for instance, their minority status would have been unavoidable in any partition. But most of them formed a majority in large areas along the border with the 26 counties.
Their inclusion in the six counties was arbitrary, oppressive and stark denial of the principles under which the Protestant majority areas in north-east Ulster claimed the right not to be part of an all Ireland state. They had been beaten down by the British Army and Protestant-Unionist militias in the first years of the Six Counties sub-state.
There had been discussion before World War I about where exactly a line might be drawn to demarcate a separate Irish state and the part of Ireland that would remain in the United Kingdom. Should four counties, six counties or nine counties be excluded from Ireland’s separation?
Four counties would give a massive Protestant majority. Nine counties, that is the whole province of Ulster, would leave the Protestant in a very small and very insecure majority. Six Counties gave a ratio of about two Protestants to one Catholic.
Catholics tended to have larger families than Protestants. For some decades, higher Catholic emigration kept the Protestant:Catholic ratio fairly stable; but that was a chancy thing. Today (when, unlike in the 1920s, a sizeable proportion, 17%, tell the census they have no religion, or refuse to state their religion) the figures are 42% Protestant, 41% Catholic.
Why should the architects of the northern state opt for such a large Catholic population in their “Protestant state for a Protestant people” – and a population that formed the majority in territory contiguous with nationalist Ireland, of which they were naturally a part?
This problem led to much mystification of the nature of Partition. Since the Unionists had done what they did, they must have had a good reason. What was it? For a certain sort of simplistic Marxist, that meant, what was the economic motive?
Maybe industrial Belfast needed a large agricultural hinterland? Maybe the Protestant majority territories were just not large enough to make a viable state?
The theory that the Protestants of north-east Ulster were a distinct nation, widely circulated by some declared Marxists in the 1970s, added further confusion. They falsely read back later conditions onto the conditions that had created them.
And the question of why it had been a six-county, not a four-county or nine-county, partition, added further mystification.
The 26 counties had retreated behind high tariff walls at the beginning of the 1930s. To the economic-determinist “Marxists”, this proved that the fear of such tariffs had been the primary motive behind Orange opposition to inclusion in an all island state.
“Marxists” sought for the economic explanation.
To understand partition, and why six and not four counties, we must remember that this was a time of empires, of peoples held against their will in states they considered alien. Despite President Woodrow Wilson’s talk of “self-determination for nations”, the settlement of European affairs in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 created conglomerate states such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia in which a number of minority peoples were held against their will and to various degrees treated as second-class citizens.
The partition settlement was a typical settlement of the time of the Versailles Treaty which sowed the seeds of the Second World War.
Marxists in the 30s referred to conglomerate states such as Czechoslovakia at the time of the Munich crisis, for example, as imperialist.
The minds of those who designed the partition of Ireland were saturated with the imperialist ideas of their time. Their fallback position was to the compact majority of Protestant-Unionists in north-east Ulster; but they desired to get as much as they could of Ireland for their all-Ireland minority “nation”.
Also, Unionist leaders like Edward Carson, who had used the threat of partition in order to stop any home rule for any part of Ireland, did not conceive of partition as a permanent settlement.
According to one story, in Frank Gallagher’s 1957 book The Indivisible Island, during the negotiations on the eve of World War One Edward Carson had tried to persuade the nationalist leader John Redmond to agree to the exclusion from Home Rule of nine counties, arguing that this would be a guarantee that partition could not become permanent. Maybe that was a lawyer using any argument to gain his point. But taking out as many as nine counties did really have that implication.
The idea that there were two nations or two peoples in Ireland was the common coin of 19th century and early 20th century discourse on the “Irish question”. Terms like “the English in Ireland”, “the Ulster Scots”, or “the Protestant nation” were common.
The Home Rule politician John Redmond wrote a pamphlet in 1886, during discussions about the first Home Rule Bill, entitled The Two Irish Nations. (For him, there had been two nations in Ireland, but they had fused around the United Irishmen, many of whom were Protestants).
In the mid-19th century, Thomas Babington Macaulay, the historian of the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-9, argued that any sort of Home Rule for Ireland was likely to lead to civil war between the two Irish peoples. The famous economist Walter Bagehot predicted in 1867 that Home Rule in Ireland would quickly produce civil war in which the Northerners would conquered the whole island.
When an Ulster Unionist Council was set up in 1905, to organise Unionist opposition to any sort of Home Rule, that quickly led to the definition of the second nation as the Protestant-Unionists of the Six Counties. In retrospect, after the island had been partitioned, and as the Protestant population of the South declined over time, that definition came to seem only common sense.
In fact, the initial advocates of the idea that there was a second Irish nation meant a people spread all over Ireland. Edward Carson, the main leader of the agitation against Home Rule before World War I and a Southerner, was no partitionist. The threat that Ulster would secede from a Home-Rule majority government in Dublin was seen by its champions not as a defence of local rights, but as a weapon to stop Home Rule for any part of Ireland.
The result was that a little Orange Empire – in the sense that Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and Poland were called imperialist by the Marxists of that time – complete with its own oppressed minority, was created in Northern Ireland.
Even six counties, for anyone who wanted a permanent partition, was a grotesque mistake. But it was a mistake which was a typical product of its times.
So, by the 1940s, when De Valera’s programme of incremental independence for the 26 Counties was complete, Northern Ireland was still a live hearth of grievance.
THE 1956-62 BORDER CAMPAIGN
For Republicans, Stalinists, and Stalino-Republicans, the focus came to be on denouncing Northern Ireland as a police state for its treatment of the Catholic minority.
There was much to denounce. But the fundamental fact that a million Protestant-Unionists, the compact majority in north-east Ulster though not in the whole Six Counties, wanted partition, got buried in a mixture of agitation (more or less truthful, as far as it went) against the Orange police state and in the self-deceiving pretence that Britain is the main opponent of a united Ireland.
The “Irish question” became narrowed down to the partition question, and the partition question was interpreted as only a superficially different version of the old Britain-vs-Ireland “Irish question”.
The immediate background to the debate in 1957-8 surveyed in this pamphlet was the IRA’s “Border Campaign” of 1956-62.
On 12 December 1956, the “Irish Republican Army”, then a small illegal group based mainly in the 26 Counties, launched what would be known as “The Border Campaign” against the Protestant-Unionist-majority sub-state in north-east Ireland.
The Belfast Parliament at Stormont Castle had limited powers and was subordinate to Westminster. In practice the convention was that the Westminster Parliament never discussed internal Six County affairs, and left them all in the hands of Belfast. In practice, Six County majority rule meant Protestant-sectarian rule over a beaten down Catholic-nationalist minority.
The IRA’s first martyrs in that campaign, Sean South and Fergal O’Hanlon (a boy in his teens) died 20 days after the start of the IRA offensive, in a raid from the 26 into the Six Counties on 1 January 1957. Their funerals, as the coffins made their way across Ireland, produced a tremendous outpouring of nationalist grief and implicitly of support for the political objectives of the two dead men and their organisation. To some degree for their actions, too: the outpouring of sentiment included no disapproval of the raid in which they died.
Soon a ballad about “Sean South of Garryowen” was the most popular song in Ireland. Another song, “The Patriot Game,” about Fergal O’Hanlon, also became very popular. The author of both these songs, Dominic Behan, participated in the socialist debate of 1957-8 surveyed here.
The 26 counties had had self-government for only three and a half decades. There were many who remembered and had participated, actively or passively, in the War of Independence of 1919-21 against the British forces of occupation. Especially since the late 1940s, Dublin governments, both Fianna Fail, and Fine Gael-Labour coalitions, had generated a tremendous propaganda campaign against Partition and the continued “British occupation” of the Six Counties.
The 26 counties schools taught exactly the same version of ancient and modern Irish history as that propagated by Sinn Fein and the IRA. The guerrillas seemed to act, and many of them saw themselves as acting, on what the government merely talked and agitated about. Naturally there was tremendous sympathy in the country for them, and many were prepared to help them if only by doing nothing to hinder them.
When the IRA’s Border Campaign started, the coalition government in power included Clann na Phoblachta, a small political party rooted in the IRA of the late 1930s and early 1940s – a second edition of Fianna Fail, which had its roots in the IRA of the Civil War of the early 1920s. Clann na Phoblachta’s presence in the government meant that the 26 county state could not take drastic action to quell the IRA and its war on the six counties. Clann na Phoblachta would bring down the coalition government in mid-1957 rather than use effective coercion against the IRA.
Support among Northern Ireland Catholics for the Border campaign was rarely more than passive. The leaders of the Campaign had decided against any action in Belfast, lest it stir up murderous sectarian animosities.
An important segment of the IRA-Sinn Fein were overt clerical fascists, members and sympathisers of Maria Duce, whose leader, Father Dennis Fahey, had edited and published an edition of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (under the title Waters Flowing Eastward).
The Border Campaign was distinguished from the sporadic weapons-gathering raids of the previous four years by a sharp increase in the number of attacks on police and British army barracks along the border and by the fact that offensive action was itself now the objective, rather than a means to the end of weapons-gathering. But the intensified raids soon died down almost to the pre-1956 level of IRA activity; and even at the height of the Campaign the difference was one of degree, not of kind.
De Valera’s constitutional republican party, Fianna Fail, had repressed the IRA with great brutality in the early 1940s, killing some of them. When De Valera won the General Election in July 1957 he reintroduced internment – indefinite imprisonment without formal charge or trial. More than 100 young men were locked up in an internment camp at the Curragh, Co. Kildare. They could secure their release by formally promising that in future they would abide by the law, but Republicans would not make such a declaration.
After De Valera started interning Republicans in 1957, the Campaign petered out into occasional raids until it was formally called off in March 1962.
The most important effect of the Border Campaign was its political effect on politics in the 26 Counties.
Sinn Fein was able to hold large meetings throughout the South. In the General election of March 1957, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, stood 19 candidates for the Dail, saved all their deposits, won 65,000 votes. and gained four seats, which they then refused to take because of their principle of abstention from the “Partitionist Parliaments”.
All that was the background to the debate among socialists in 1957-8. It also helped shape the conditions of the socialist debate of 1968-9, triggered by the eruption of a big civil rights movement among Northern Ireland Catholics and its clash with Orange state repression.
Some of the leaders of the Border Campaign would become Stalinists in the 60s, triggering the breakaway of the Provisional IRA in December 1969. A few of the participants would in England become “Trotskyists”. One of these, a once-devout member of Maria Duce, would play an important part in the “second discussion” on Ireland by the Cliff group (Socialist Review-IS-SWP) at the end of the 60s.
MARXISM AND IRELAND
Revolutionary Marxism is a way of looking at the world, analysing it and changing it.
It embodies certain key basic ideas. While we recognise the politically very important semi-autonomy of culture, we believe in the ultimate priority of the mode of production in shaping society, including in the last analysis its ideas; the class struggle; and the centrality of the working class in modern history.
Marxism deals with an ever-changing reality. There is no rest, no finality. Reality moves, permutes, is transformed. The best texts of Marxism “age” and become progressively divorced from the evolved reality whose ancestor, so to speak, they captured.
There can be no “sacred texts”. To treat any of the texts of Marxism, the past judgements of Marxists, as embodying supra-historical truth, is to break with the basic mindset of Marxism and to transform attempted works of science into quasi-religious objects of veneration. To the degree that such texts are worshipped instead of being critically reviewed, used, worked over, they lose whatever power they had to illuminate reality and thus help us in the work of changing it. We kill or fail to develop the capacity in ourselves to use the tools of Marxism, to be Marxists and not parrots.
The Marxists whose work is now venerated worked differently. Marxism was a method of analysing concrete reality. Previous Marxist attempts to analyse the same or antecedent reality offered guides, models, ideas, comparisons for the working, thinking, living Marxists.
In truth. of course, everyone thinks about the world, even the religious text-worshippers, even if they hold that Marx or Lenin or Trotsky — or Stalin or Mao — was infallible and can tell us directly about the world of today, which came into existence after they died. What the dogmatist usually does in practice is pragmatically and impressionistically take an attitude on current events and then find the right “quotes” to dress it up.
Much of socialist discourse on Ireland shows at its worst this process of Marxism being atrophied into a set of shibboleths, dead forms of words, filled with alien content.
Marx and Engels analysed Ireland. They died; Ireland changed. Partial analyses of aspects of Ireland’s evolution were made by later Marxists influenced by Marx and Engels. Ireland evolved into two bourgeois states. And there, frozen at the point when the Communist International died as a Marxist, working-class organisation, “Marxism” on Ireland stopped.
Comments and analyses of Marx and Lenin (Lenin’s, I believe, radically wrong at the start: see my article on Lenin on Ireland in Workers’ Liberty 22-23, 1995) became timeless truths of the Stalinist church and gained wide influence by merging with left-wing petty-bourgeois Republicanism.
“Trotskyists” who thought they had done their duty as Marxists if they re-labelled what the Stalinists called “completing the bourgeois revolution” and straight Republicans called “reunifying Ireland” as “Permanent Revolution” instead, have been a part, and not the least influential part, of this process.
Nobody who knows both Irish reality and Trotsky’s theory of “Permanent Revolution” could believe “Permanent Revolution” has any bearing on Irish politics! I have never in 50 years found anyone able to argue for its seriously. But many Trotskyists “believe” it. It is the common dogma, functioning as a licence for playing the chameleon to petty bourgeois nationalism.
Marxists, if they are Marxists, must draw from life, not from the dead or half-dead reflection of ever-changing life in old analyses. And they must, above all, learn from history.