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100 years of Sinn Fein - Part 1

Joe Craig

1st February 2005

In the middle of January Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams launched a year of events celebrating one hundred years since the founding of Sinn Fein in 1905.  He claimed that one of its purposes was ‘about learning the lessons of a century of struggle,’ and the centenary does indeed present an opportunity for a longer term perspective on the history and development of the party, on its successes and on its failures.

His brief remarks to the republican gathering were focused more on current concerns than history, but history can never be divorced from the contemporary results of its development.  In his historical reflections Adams claimed that at its foundation Sinn Fein was the ‘political expression’ of the trade union movement, thus ignoring the fact that the Irish trade union movement had rejected the party and set up its own political voice.  He further claimed James Connolly as a republican, although it was he who proposed the resolution to create a Labour Party.  He also mentioned the support of republicans for workers during the lockout in 1913, though he failed to mention the opposition of the founder of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith.

He made very large claims for the essential nature of republicanism that are also open to question.  Thus he claimed republicanism to be the river into which the tributaries of socialism, feminism etc flowed - thus the narrow concerns of Irish republicanism claim the expansive philosophy and politics of socialism.

One can therefore harbour some legitimate doubt about republicans learning ‘the lessons of a century of struggle’ when bare facts about their history are presented in such a way.  But if we can doubt republican’s ability to learn from their history can socialists do any better?

The historical process

Such a task does not primarily involve puncturing the claims of Adams or of placing a negative where republicans put a positive.  For socialists the place to start in examination of any historical process is that set out by Karl Marx in ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:’

‘Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.  The traditions of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living.’

It is hard to think of a movement on which the weight of dead generations has hung so heavily as Sinn Fein.  In the week after the launch of Sinn Fein’s celebrations its chairperson Mitchell McLoughlin confessed to subscribing to the nonsensical historical dogma that the IRA leadership is the legitimate government of Ireland.

The weight of dead tradition is not however the key to understanding the history of Sinn Fein, for the history of that party is not just how it has shaped Irish society but how Irish society has shaped it.  It is, in addition, impossible to understand the history of Irish republicanism without considering the decisive effects of international developments on the history of the island.  Awareness of the environment in which one struggles and the forces that determine its economic, social and political development is essential to properly developing objectives, and the strategies and tactics necessary to achieve them.

In general the less conscious of its own social position an individual or political movement is the more it will reflect society rather than shape that society.  The remarks of Adams, including his views on the significance of Sinn Fein’s origins and its philosophy, never mind the silences in the speech, display a movement with little social understanding of its role.   In general this is a feature shared by all purely nationalist movements which, because they lack an understanding of the class structure of society, fundamentally fail to understand political dynamics resting on this structure.

One example.  The current peace process has been built on the view that an Irish nationalist consensus, described as a nationalist family, could, in alliance with the leader of US imperialism, become an agency for expelling British rule from Ireland.  The fact that the parties of the southern State are capitalist parties and have interests subordinated and aligned to imperialism and that US imperialism has no interest in overthrowing an allied imperialist power is the stuff of ancient Greek to the pragmatic minds of the Sinn Fein leadership.

Republicans are both unwilling and unable to understand social and political struggles in class terms.  Of course they know, like almost everyone does, that society has classes, but they do not know - nor would not accept if it was proposed to them - that political struggles are fundamentally reflective of, and determined by, class conflicts.  For them their struggle is a national one in which class is strictly secondary.  For their opponents however their oppression of subject nations has nothing to do with national antipathy (which is generated as a consequence and is not a cause) but is a result of pursuit of power and resources by the capitalist class of the imperialist countries.  The capitalist class of Ireland shares with their class cousins in Britain and the US pursuit of capital accumulation and determination to enforce the most stable political conditions that will allow this to happen.

Republicans are thus incapable of registering the class nature of their own movement and are outraged, incredulous or sometimes amused at the characterisation given to them by Marxists.  For Marxists the Irish republican movement is a petty bourgeois movement and as such is incapable of consistent opposition to imperialism.  This is because it does not understand the fundamental nature of imperialism, based as it is on the interests of the capitalist class, and is therefore is incapable of opposing its essential nature and everything that flows from it.

The history of right and left wing lurches by Sinn Fein, its cyclical championing of armed struggle and then descent into the shabby deals of constitutional politics, has been hidden for a long time by the various offshoots which embarked on the latter course adopting different names when they split – Fianna Fail, Clann na Poblachta etc.  Now however it is a party retaining the name Sinn Fein which has accepted the role of junior partner in promotion of capitalist stability within an imperialist dominated Ireland.  A party which daily called for stability when the partitionist structures of the Good Friday Agreement were in place and now seeks a role in coalition government with the arch bigots of the Democratic Unionist Party is one lost to democratic and socialist change.

These however are just the results of its class nature.  A British Troops Out Movement visitor to Belfast once remarked that the republican activist he was staying with during the August internment commemorations could not afford to go out for a drink and appeared to have only one tin of sardines in the house to eat.  The republican movement has thousands of such working class supporters.  It also has members that can accurately be called capitalist – who reap profits by employing wage labour and have considerable personal wealth.   It has others who own small businesses or farms and who sometimes ‘exploit’ themselves as much, if not more, than they do any hired help.  A movements class nature however is not determined by counting which class has a numerical majority within the movement.  It is determined by its political programme, and it is by looking at the programme that the nature of a party or movement can be discovered.

A working class programme reflects the fact that the working class does not own the means of production, which is owned by a separate class that uses its ownership and control for its own ends, i.e. for private profit rather than the needs of the majority.  In order to reorganise a society to do this it is necessary to turn the means of production over to social, collective ownership and democratically regulate it through the control of the working majority.  This programme for the reorganisation of society in the interests of the working majority is the mark of a working class programme.  A capitalist programme, whatever reforms may be part of it, will maintain private ownership of bourgeois property – of the means of production.  Between these two programmes all sorts of confused political ideas can appear but fundamentally only these two options exist.

A petty bourgeois policy, reflecting the in-between nature of that class will do one of two things.  It will attempt some mongrel combination – e.g. state control of large industry but keeping the capitalist state – or it will falsely claim that such a choice does not exist.  Nationalist movements are particularly adept at using populist phrases about the unity of the nation’s ‘people’ or its ‘poor’ but they will reject as divisive the division of the nation into irreconcilable classes.  Equality will never be the real equality that can only arise from the abolition of classes through abolition of the capitalist system.  They will maintain that their programme stands against, above, or outside such divisions.  Since such divisions exist, whether recognised or not, nationalist policies leave capitalist ownership and control unchallenged.

The history of Irish republicanism will present many examples of this.  During the War of Independence in 1919-1921 for example the republican movement exhibited its petty-bourgeois nature by claiming to represent the whole nation regardless of class. It made radical declarations such as the Democratic Programme of 1919 - which had no application, and declared that ‘Labour must wait,’ intervening through its republican courts to defend bourgeois property when Irish workers began to take it over.  Left wing republicans attempting to break pragmatically from such practices generally never went further than calling for workers to support the revolution.  For Marxists the point is rather that the revolution should have such a nature that it is necessary for workers not only that workers are necessary for it.


The history of Sinn Fein continually reveals these aspects of historical development elaborated by Marxism.  The party was a product of the growth of national consciousness found in many European countries in the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.   It was a product not only of international developments but based its programme explicitly on foreign experience.  Hostile commentators have remarked on the incongruity of republican’s commemorating the founding of an organisation that was not republican at all but which instead supported a monarchy, one modelled on the existing Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Not until 1917 did Sinn Fein become republican.

It was not of course this aspect of Sinn Fein’s politics which proved most effective or attractive.  It was the organisation’s emphasis on self-reliance and separatism, reflected in the name, and its policy of boycotting all manifestations of British rule that marked the party off from rivals.  Whenever the leverage of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster did not exist or appeared to be unproductive the policy of Sinn Fein appeared to make sense.

It was these aspects of policy that republicans were attracted to in 1917 after the 1916 rising, which had been mistakenly labelled a Sinn Fein rebellion by the British.  It was these republicans who turned the organisation into a republican one although even then they made compromises with those who continued to support the idea of an Irish monarchy.  Thus republicanism was taken to Sinn Fein rather than Sinn Fein taking republicanism to the people.

Does this matter now?  Perhaps not, except to illustrate the arguments made above and to break the historical continuity upon which the centenary celebrations are founded.  The history of the party however, including recent history, will show many such historical breaks.


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