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Just where do we draw the line?

A response to Aindrias O’Cathasaigh by John McAnulty

14 February 2007

This article was carried recently in the Red Banner Magazine No. 27.  It was in response to an article in No. 26 and was written after the magazine refused to carry an article by Joe Craig.
(Red Banner Discusses Socialist Unity). 

Issue 28 carried a reply to Aindrias from Des Derwin and was quickly followed by the split.

My first reaction on reading Aindrias O’Cathasaigh’s article ‘Drawing the line’ was (I suspect in common with many leftists) a strangled cheer.  It is refreshing to see diplomacy cast aside and some of the sectarian practices of well-known groups given the tongue-lashing they deserve.

On further reading however the cheers became more strangled and some more critical responses emerged.

The first critical response was a reaffirmation of Socialist Democracy’s long-standing opposition to the Red Banner practice of banning direct criticism of named groups.  As we understand the position it is meant to encourage non-sectarian debate.  We believe that the ban removes focus and clarity from debate while not in practice being a bar to sectarian abuse.  This appears to be the case in the ‘Drawing the line’ article.  Who are the sectarian groups? The refusal to name them obscures the argument and prevents debate.  The offending organisations cannot reply without accepting the identity of themselves as the sectarians who were the targets of the article. Yet the critique is in reality far more bitter and uncompromising than the run of the mill criticisms usually made of such groups. For Aindrias sectarianism is not a practice that groups and individuals fall in to – it is part of their nature, an original sin from which they can never be cleansed, the majority of their members beyond redemption.

The next step is to look at the source of such a bitter critique.  What justification is offered for such a sweeping criticism?  In fact the charges are based on a categorisation of different socialisms – reformist, Stalinist, sectarian and finally the true, uncorrupted revolutionary.  Yet such a categorisation is not Marxist nor materialist.  The groups are based on individual beliefs rather than on material circumstance.  There is no recognition that the reformist tradition corresponds to the material interests of a trade union bureaucracy or that the Stalinist tradition is based on the material interests of another bureaucracy.

From this standpoint the attempt to shoehorn sectarianism into a quality of one particular sector of the left is doomed to failure, as is the attempt to assign revolutionary purity to another sector.  Sectarianism is not a form of socialism like reformism, but a tactic or strategy that all sorts of groups can fall into.  By declaring war on sectarianism Aindrias is guilty of the same sort of logical fallacy involved in George Bush’s war on terror.

Why does all this matter? It matters because the ‘Drawing the line’ article is complacent.  It argues that sections of the Irish socialist movement are by their nature sectarian but that this does not matter because there is another, healthy and non-sectarian movement.  In the process it tends to skew sharply the declared policy of the journal of non-sectarian debate, both through the intemperate nature of its language and by declaring for one particular section of the socialist movement, self-proclaimed as the true movement, free from blemishes.

In my view the overwhelming characteristic of socialists in Ireland, before even their disinterest in Marxist theory, is their isolation.  Aindrias gives unconscious testimony to that isolation when he says that the sectarian practices of some groups are a bigger problem than Stalinism or reformism.  Yet Stalinism and reformism are much larger currents than the socialist groups he refers to. They are not a problem because we are too small to impact on them and in any case, where there is a conflict, the left tend to capitulate immediately. The isolation of the socialist movement has a material base, arising from the historic weakness and fragmentation of the Irish working class, and it creates a sort of desperation that feeds political sectarianism as a survival tactic aimed at preserving your group and also feeding opportunism, when you hope desperately to hit on a short-cut that will win you the support of the workers. More recently it has fuelled electoralism, popular alliances with forces that are not working class or a new infatuation on the left with direct action.

A lot of these bad habits would find it much more difficult to survive in any mass mobilisation of workers.  The difficulty is to find agreement and common action in the absence of large-scale workers self-organisation.  The force of argument within the socialist movement rests on internal logic and consistency with past theory and practice and this is often not a strong enough force to change people’s behaviour.

We in Socialist Democracy are optimistic that a way can be found and that the key to united action is, as Aindrias says, the self-organisation of the class.  We have to answer honestly a simple question.  What is it that the working class have to do – have absolutely no choice about doing – if they are to achieve self-organisation? We would argue that it is difficult to picture a self-organised class that fails to notice the shackles of a further ten-year confinement within the confines of social partnership. A risen class might also have some thoughts on the occupation of part of the country by British troops and the enforced division of Irish workers.

Irish socialism is crippled less by sectarianism than it is by it unwillingness to ask this question, let alone answer it.


John McAnulty



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