Trotskyists debate Ireland: Workers' Liberty 3/45

Introduction: freeing Marxism from pseudo-Marxist legacy


Sean Matgamna

“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:

1948: Irish Trotskyists call for a united Ireland with autonomy for the Protestant northeast

The leaflet below was produced by the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Ireland in 1948. The RSP was a Trotskyist group, the Irish section of the official Fourth International at the time, formed by a merger of previous small groups in early 1944, and having about 20 members.

The RSP briefly published a weekly newspaper, the Workers’ Republic, but it ran out of money after six issues, and circulated literature from the British and US Trotskyists.

In the arguments among Trotskyists in the 1940s over Stalinism, they sided with Max Shachtman and the Workers’ Party of the USA.

The Irish Trotskyists on trade union unity in the 1940's

Below is a leaflet produced by the Revolutionary Socialist Party, which was then the (small) Irish section of the Fourth International, some time soon after the splitting of the Irish trade union movement (Irish TUC) in 1945 by Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union leader William O’Brien and his allies.

A Marxist surveys mid-50's Ireland: Matt Merrigan in Labor Action, 1955-57


Matt Merrigan

Matt Merrigan was a member of the small Irish Trotskyist group in the 1940s, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, and a socialist all his life. He eventually became president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and died in 2000.

In the mid-50s, for a while, he wrote reports on Ireland for Labor Action, the paper of the Independent Socialist League of Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, and others in the USA.

The first discussion in Socialist Review, 1957

“It would seem that you have altered your programme because some pseudo-socialists in Ireland are ‘unclear’ on the issue. This seems to me to be a perilously near approach to the attitude of the legendary Yankee politician who assured his hearers that ‘Them’s my sentiments, and if you don’t like them they can be scrapped’.” – P Lavin, Socialist Review, 1 March 1959

Socialist Review was the journal of the Socialist Review group, the forerunner of the International Socialists in the 1960s and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) since 1977.

The second discussion on Ireland, 1958

In the first, October 1958, issue of the now fortnightly Socialist Review, a new round of discussion is launched:

“From Northern Ireland, George Adair writes on the need for a United Irish Republic.” This is an attempt to defend Socialist Review’s point of view, and George Adair is most likely a pen name.

A nervous introduction by the editor (Michael Kidron) explains what SR think they are doing:

The 1968-9 discussion in IS (SWP) and its consequences

At the start of the Northern Ireland crisis in 1968, the dominant conception of the “Irish question” on the British left was essentially that of middle-class Irish nationalism.

The partition of Ireland was a brutal British imperialist imposition on Ireland; it was contrary to democracy and the rights of the Irish majority; and it created Protestant-Catholic division where otherwise there would be none or little.

The gist of the 1969 “Troops Out” dispute in the International Socialists

“Tactics contradict principles” — IS/SWP founder Tony Cliff (quoted by Ian Birchall, International Socialism no.127)

In August 1969, IS/SWP suddenly switched from raucous agitation for “British troops out” of Northern Ireland (on the spurious grounds that all the troops would ever do is back up the Orange sectarian regime) to de facto support for the troops as providing a “breathing space”.

The Trotskyist Tendency, forerunner of Workers’ Liberty, had criticised the earlier shallow “Troops Out” agitation, and now also criticised the de facto support for the troops.

US Trotskyists debate Ireland in 1939

In April 1939, the US Trotskyist magazine The New International published an article by William Morgan (a pseudonym), lauding the IRA. The IRA had given Britain an ultimatum to withdraw from Northern Ireland and, when it was ignored, declared war on Britain. It carried out a few bombings in England. “Morgan” retold the populist-nationalist version of Irish history.

Sherman Stanley

The Irish Question

The New International, May 1939

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