The Socialist Democracy school: Response to a letter
7 December 2007
I wish to respond to the letter from Allan concerning a comment which I made at the Socialist Democracy school to the effect that a capitalist united Ireland would preferable to the current situation of partition.
This was a deliberately provocative remark on my part which I knew would scandalise certain people, although it should not. I intended to prompt reflection on the extent of the problems posed to workers and the socialist movement by the current undemocratic situation created by imperialist rule. This includes the partition of the country and of the working class, between north and south and on a religious basis within the north, and the poisonous sectarianism that results. These political arrangements have strengthened reactionary forces within the working class including unionism so that a whole section of workers defines itself politically by its loyalty to an imperialist monarch. When this state of affairs was challenged peacefully in 1968 it led to a vicious sectarian reaction backed up by state violence. This state repression has legitimated draconian measures ever since, not only in the north but also in the rest of Ireland and in Britain. It seemed to me perfectly obvious that had we been living in a united Ireland much of these particular problems would not exist, although it almost goes without saying that others would.
The point was not to say that Socialist Democracy supports a capitalist united Ireland – it doesn’t. We do however find it ironic that some socialists get their proverbial knickers in a twist about the prospect that unionist workers might be forced into a capitalist united Ireland although they are oblivious to the fact that the last 35 years, in fact since 1922, nationalist workers have been forced into partition. I should say right away that I am not including Allan in this category.
We do not favour unionist workers being forced into a united Ireland but we do not, unlike some on the left, pretend that their opposition to Irish unity has some progressive content, implying that it is the capitalist bit of a united Ireland they object to. They equally, if not more, object to a united socialist Ireland. The task then is to win them to this objective not speak of compulsion. But then this is true of nationalist workers and also of Southern workers. It may be argued that there are particular difficulties winning unionist workers to this objective but there are particular difficulties with Northern nationalist workers and Southern workers as well. To the extent that the difficulties with unionist workers are greater this reflects the totally reactionary nature of their current political identification. But this again is something those who see a particular problem of force when it comes to unionist workers don’t like to accept
It is not appropriate to ask in response to my remark just how a capitalist united Ireland might arise since not only do we not fight for one but my point was not one of creating ‘scenarios’ but what might rather be called an exercise in comparative statics – i.e. comparing one situation with a hypothetical alternative.
So we don’t support a capitalist united Ireland but a second question was raised at the school on the same issue. Do we always support and fight for a Workers Republic?
This is also an easy question to answer and it is of course - yes!
The question arose because we also said we supported the demand for self-determination, and so we do. This latter formulation does of course leave open the precise way in which self-determination is exercised. We fight consistently and always for its exercise encapsulated in the demand for a Workers Republic. We support the demand for self-determination because it is a democratic demand and contains within it the germ of the workers unity we seek. We are therefore prepared to work with republicans who genuinely fight for self-determination (as opposed to Sinn Fein who have effectively abandoned it) while seeking to win them to a socialist perspective. But we have made it clear in our work with republicans opposed to the peace process that we see no future for a new struggle that seeks to avoid the lessons of their last failed campaign in which national liberation came first and working class demands were always postponed or at best came a distant second. Once it is recognised that a renewed military campaign is a disastrous perspective and a political strategy must be elaborated the question becomes what sort of politics should a struggle be based on? A purely democratic programme will not be enough.
This is because Southern workers do not have strong enough interests to fight on a purely democratic programme and no sort of unity is possible without them. This is also true of Protestant workers. Only the most oppressed nationalist workers in the North have strong reason to fight under a purely democratic banner but by themselves they will fail, as they have just done. The Irish capitalist class will oppose even a democratic struggle and only by defeating them could a democratic programme be implemented. This class can only be defeated by a programme that destroys their social and political power and the only struggle that can do that is a socialist one.
A second reason why a democratic struggle will not be adequate is that the globalisation of the world rules out the idea of an independent Ireland free of imperialist control unless that Ireland is also socialist, in which case if it is not part of an international socialist federation it will be too weak and small to survive. The programme that will therefore create democracy in Ireland is not a nationalist one but an international one. Socialist Democracy is not therefore nationalist and internationalist. We are internationalist because that is the only ground on which socialism can be built. We cannot build socialism in Ireland if it is confined to this country. It can only be built by it spreading from here or, more likely, spreading to here.
We recognise the democratic content to the demand for self-determination and do not therefore set up an antagonistic contradiction between it and the demand for a Workers Republic, but neither do we sacrifice the latter for the former. Nor do we seek unity with everyone who genuinely supports the demand for self-determination. In the last few years a small current of right wing Catholic republicans has come to the fore. Their opposition to other democratic demands such as women’s rights and separation of church and state make clear that their nationalism has little, if no, democratic content. It is certainly opposed to socialism and for us the interests of the working class, expressed in the demands of socialism are paramount.