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Beyond Republicanism

Joe Craig

For the majority of republican critics, the peace process it is a betrayal of republican principles.  And so it is.  But it is so only at the level of ideas.  In terms of actual practice, the peace process, in all its essentials, is an inevitable result of the republican struggle.  Not for the first time a republican leadership has realised the futility of their struggle and can see no way forward within the traditional republican framework.  Effective repudiation is the result, covered up in the language of reformism.  Every generation has witnessed such a failure along with a new cohort ready to continue the struggle without having learnt any lessons from their failure.  The argument here is not that the republican struggle has been betrayed but that republicanism inevitably proved unable to accomplish the tasks it set itself.

For the majority of socialist critics, the peace process is also a denial of socialist principles.  Obviously this is also true; but again, only at the level of ideas.  For the majority of socialists, by which we do not mean the likes of the Labour Party or Workers Party but those styling themselves part of the revolutionary left, the peace process has been welcomed as a chance to unite workers around real class issues.  In practical terms for these people the peace process should be welcomed although it clashes so obviously with the most basic socialist principles that this is difficult for them.  The contradictions involved are ignored, all the more easily since it issues from a complete confusion of ideas.

Thus the peace process is the result not just of the failure of republican politics but also of socialism in Ireland.  So what then is the alternative to the peace process?  We want to argue that while the failure of republicanism is inevitable the failure of socialist politics in Ireland is the failure only of that crude variety of socialism that Lenin long ago described as economism.  The alternative to the peace process is thus a genuine socialism that has been hidden from most political activists by the republican armed struggle that stifled all political debate, and the self-inflicted weakness of the organised socialist alternative. This genuine socialism presents a set of ideas within which a new project can be thought of and in terms of which a practical struggle can be built.

Republican Failure

But first, is republicanism irredeemably incapable of delivering on its goal?  For republicanism the key task has been to break the connection between Ireland and Britain.  Genuine socialists have solidarised and joined this struggle because the relationship between the two nations has been one of oppression. The struggle to end British rule involved a legitimate democratic struggle against oppression.  For the Irish working class it promised an end to foreign military occupation, the ability to form a new more democratic State and an end to sectarian discrimination and division.  By raising these questions the struggle also potentially made it possible for socialists to raise the question not just of which national state ruled but which class ruled.  For republicans this latter question was of very secondary interest and could only be meaningfully raised after the struggle, certainly not during it.

Today, two hundred years after the foundation of Irish Republicanism, the task of breaking the connection with Britain remains and to this extent the much-vaunted continuity of the republican position can be vindicated.  However in every other respect this continuity is spurious.  Breaking the connection today takes place in a radically different context and involves a completely different set of political forces than it did in the 1790's or even 1920's.  Republicanism has been forced to adapt to these changed circumstances but without acknowledgement.  Thus after the highpoint of the republican struggle in the twenties the raison d'etre of the IRA was a second round against the Free State Forces that betrayed the struggle by supporting the Treaty.  Today the idea of a renewed armed struggle against the southern establishment is not even on the dissident militarist agenda.  Yet this unacknowledged capitulation to the forces of Irish capitalism has profound implications for any modern republican struggle.  By the way, our criticism of republican capitulation to the Irish capitalist class does not mean we advocate an armed struggle in the south (or a militarist strategy in the north for that matter), but simply points out that republicans, previously dedicated to armed struggle as the way to freedom, signalled a political capitulation when they gave up the militarist project.

The implications of this capitulation are that modern republicanism has no strategy or even conception of how it can challenge and overthrow a key prop of imperialism in Ireland, the Irish capitalist class, politically represented by Fianna Fail in particular.

The latest offensive of the republican struggle grew out of a demand for civil rights that quickly revealed the relevance of the republican agenda of ending British rule.  Unfortunately republicans proved incapable, despite heroic effort and sacrifice, of being able to seriously threaten the northern State - a key fact yet to be acknowledged or come to terms with.  To do this they would have needed to threaten the southern State as well and they had no intention or ability to do so.  Even within the north the idea that a small guerrilla army could defeat a large imperialist power such as Britain was nonsense.  This was covered up in the claim that not being defeated was itself a victory. The idea of victory has now been further re-defined to include joining unionism in administering the northern State.

The pursuit of a military strategy without prospect of success proved completely demoralising to wider society, north and south, especially among those needed to be won to struggle.  It helped ghettoise northern republican communities and turn a movement not renowned for political theorising or critical thought further away from such concerns.  A siege mentality all of its own wedded a republican membership to an unaccountable leadership that made the most of rank and file loyalty and lack of independent criticism.  All resources and the best militants were turned to an unwinable war and the need to develop politically was ignored.  When politics did enter the republican movement it was drip-fed from the leadership on the basis of clientelist, electoralist and reformist politics.  The war itself underwent its own degeneration, which affected the moral basis of the whole movement.  This process took a long time, which explains its success.  The number of republicans who today acknowledge this failure of armed struggle and of the need to develop a political strategy is very small.

The struggle has turned full circle over thirty years.  Starting with the project of reforming the State through civil rights the entry of the SDLP and Sinn Fein into a Stormont administration is meant to show that equality of the two traditions has been achieved.  Even here however the SDLP and Sinn Fein have bastardised the demand for equality so that the sectarian state can accommodate it.  There is all the difference in the world between demanding equality of citizenship irrespective of religion and the sharing out of privilege from on high on the basis of two sectarian blocs.  The former was designed to eradicate sectarian difference while the latter seeks to strengthen it by making it the qualification for reward.  Instead of escaping sectarian identification 'equality of the two traditions' is designed to shackle working class people to the respective leaders of two sectarian blocs.  The idea of an identity in common as workers (or even citizens), or of a tradition of solidarity being created around the ideals of democracy and socialism, is regarded as fantasy politics.  The ideal of equality has been twisted and grotesquely disfigured.

Traditional republicanism offers no alternative because the strongest defence the peace process has comes from those whose alternative is a return to a futile armed struggle.  A prospect from which so many are desperate to escape that they have been prepared to swallow umpteen unpalatable political developments in order to prevent it.  It is mainly the promise of a return to war that gives the peace process what popularity it has.  The formation of an alternative republican political strategy has yet to be made.  We do not believe a credible one can be forged unless it embraces the objectives and methods of socialism.  This brings us to the latter's failures over the last thirty years.

Socialist Failure

From the point of view of the development of republican militants by far the most disastrous influence of so-called socialism was the embracing of Stalinism by those that became the Official republican movement.  This totally and utterly discredited socialism in the eyes of the most militant republicans for a generation and its effects are still felt today.  In hindsight this split in the republican movement had fatal long-term consequences.  The discrediting of socialism shut off the road to the only programme that offered republicans a way out of a dead end military strategy.

Today the predominant form of socialist politics even on the revolutionary left, represented mainly by the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party, is economism.  This involves systematically downgrading the political tasks of the working class in favour of purely economic struggles.  Lip service is paid to politics but in practice this means calling for socialism in a purely abstract way when presented with political tasks in a way not done when presented with economic struggles.  Thus it would be next to useless to explain to workers that socialism is the answer to wage cuts, changes in working conditions or unemployment.  Socialists in such situations raise separate, more immediate and concrete demands.  Yet today these groups respond to the big political issues and the no less immediate questions raised by the peace process by putting forward slogans about socialism.

Despite the utterly reactionary and divisive nature of the state framework put in place by the peace process, involving reconstitution of a discredited sectarian Stormont with its protracted struggle to survive, the left groups cannot bring themselves to raise political demands that call for its overthrow and replacement.  Instead the height of the consciousness they can reach, and wish workers to reach, is to raise purely economic demands around privatisation and term time workers in education.  While not ignoring such struggles they are much less decisive in turning the working class into the new ruling class than the issue of which sort of state configuration rules over them.  In effect they accept the political framework set by imperialism because they raise no immediate alternative, in effect becoming its loyal opposition.  Real politics becomes the preserve of the various reactionary forces.  Their political alternative becomes 'socialism' but since this 'socialism' is devoid of any concrete democratic tasks in the here and now it can only be of the most purely abstract character.

The working class is viewed as an economic class exploited under capitalism that must free itself from such exploitation and create socialism.  This is to be done by politicising the economic struggles of the working class around which workers should unite.  This is supposed to be the opposite of economism.  In fact it is the very definition of economism.  In fact the working class must first and foremost be seen as a political class that must train itself to become the new ruling class through taking up every political issue and every manifestation of political oppression in society.  Economic struggles are only a subsidiary, of course very important subsidiary, part of this duty.  The task of socialists is not to reflect the existing level of working class anger at corruption or inequality but to give such anger political expression by raising the political demands through which they can end the whole system of corruption and inequality.  Thus we can easily see how far away the existing forces of socialism are from offering a genuine Marxist alternative to republican militants seeking a new political direction.

Despite these weaknesses socialism contains a key understanding that can form the basis of a renewed struggle against imperialism.  It understands the class nature of society and the fact that the political forces in Ireland today can only be understood in terms of their class nature and interests.  Thus the capitalist nature of Fianna fail explains completely its support for imperialism and the peace process.  The petty-bourgeois nature of the republican movement (its politics and not much of its support) explains the possibility of it being won to socialism but makes inevitable betrayal of its own programme should this fail to happen.  Socialism alone understands that the class interests of the working class involve the most complete struggle for democracy and against all oppression, but that this must involve the working class achieving its own liberation around its own programme, of which a democratic solution to the national question is only one, very important, element.  The history of the socialist movement is rich in lessons in how to advance the struggle of the working class.  It is full of debates and controversies about tactics and strategy that could inform republican militants seeking an alternative to the current betrayal of their struggle

Mutual Understanding

The failure of modern republicans to look to revolutionary socialism for answers to the problems thrown up by their struggle is rooted in the all too obvious truth that many of these socialists have little to offer either practically or in the realm of political ideas.  Their basic theoretical doctrine may be the starting point for constructing a viable political programme but when, to note a recent example from the SWP, unity with protestant workers is offered as the way for republicans to defend themselves against Sinn Fein intimidation, there can be no surprise if such politics is viewed with incredulity.  It is some socialist's inability to distinguish immediate tasks from long term strategy and goals that leads to such nonsense.

The equal failure of many sincere socialists to regard the republican struggle as crucial to their own concerns arises from the long history of republicans ignoring working class economic struggles, insisting they wait for the 'Republic' or taking reactionary positions when they get the slightest grip on power.  Socialists have also been correctly suspicious of 'socialist republicans' whose socialism consists only in recognition that to one degree or other the working class must achieve the Republic.  Invariably there is not the slightest understanding of the complete liberationary project that the working class must be won to, including smashing the capitalist state (not just the foreign one), expropriation of the capitalist class, creation of councils of direct democracy and construction of a consciously planned economic and social system.  In this brand of republicanism the workers become the foot soldiers for creating the republic, not the instigators and creators of their own society.

In a period of political reaction these problems are magnified as each moves to the right and they share less and less common ground.  Many republicans critical of the peace process, but unable to break with the Adams leadership for want of an alternative, are increasingly viewed as supporters of attacks on working class rights and conditions through Sinn Fein participation in government.  On the other hand many socialists appear to have accepted the new political dispensation and certainly fail to offer a meaningful critique or political alternative.  Amid renewed calls for debate among republicans and socialists it must be understood that progress will only be made if this conflict is overcome through elaboration of a real programmatic alternative, not just diplomatic discussions that go nowhere.  The purpose of this article is to outline the political basis of such an alternative.

A New Unity

Socialist Democracy has come to this alternative through its commitment to Marxism and its own history of making mistakes.  We do not say that everyone else has to become a 'believer' before principled republicans or economistic socialists accept either any or all the elements of this alternative.  How people get there is much less important than arriving at the destination.  We would therefore concur with Tommy McKearney when he wrote in 'Red Banner' that a connection must be kept both with the republican constituency and the republican project.  We do not believe this means a simple addition of republicanism and economistic socialism.  We are as likely to combine the errors as overcome the weaknesses.  Better still is to debate and agree the rational core in each position and seek to go beyond them.

Tommy McKearney is also correct that a sizeable republican constituency that has always sought the overthrow of the existing state is a valuable resource, although with its present leaderships the potential will always remain unrealised unless the limits of its republican politics, either New Sinn Fein or traditional militarist, are overcome.  The question of 'branding' the political alternative (see his article in the journal 'Red Banner' no. 8) is less important than the political demands and strategy adopted.  The brand will necessarily follow from the product.  It would be true to say that the traditional republican brand is tarnished by the brutalities of its armed struggle and the New Sinn Fein brand is not one we want to emulate especially as it disgraces itself upon achieving governmental office in coalition with the most right wing parties north and south.  Among republicans socialism, as we have noted, is discredited but if that is the nature of the politics then a process of education is required.  The fatal error to be avoided is that of 'republican socialism' that hides traditional republican politics and strategy under left wing phrases.

The rational core of republicanism lies in its identification of imperialism and partition as a key source of division and oppression within Ireland.  Socialists seeking the overthrow of all oppression should not fail to ignore this.  The republican position also identifies the political question of the state formation as key and for socialists intent on training the working class to become the new rulers of society this has the potential to raise the sights of the working class to the political level.
The rational core of socialism lies in the understanding that the basis of all oppression in society is the fundamental social system of capitalism.  This is an ABC that unfortunately many socialists don't go beyond.  The world is full of capitalist societies yet it is obvious that the particular way in which the working class and other sectors of society are exploited and oppressed is radically different in each.  Republicanism raises a key, but not the only, feature of such oppression in Ireland.  Understanding the particular features of oppression in each country as clearly and exactly as possible is necessary in order to arrive at a strategy for challenging it.  Too often the economistic socialist groups import conceptions from their British parent organisation seeming only to understand politics in terms comprehensible in Britain.

These groups are however correct when they say that it is capitalism that is the bedrock of all exploitation in Ireland and that partition does not play the same direct role in politics in the south as it does in the north.  While the reactionary character of southern society has certainly been marked by its birth as a confessional state in a pale catholic equivalent of the orange state in the north, clearly sectarianism and foreign state repression does not play the same role.  For the southern working class the issues raised by republicanism - partition and imperialist rule - do not have the same resonance.  Since there can be no revolution of any character in Ireland without the full-scale involvement of southern workers the nature of their exploitation and oppression in Irish society must be understood differently.  At the very least it must be understood that it is an Irish state that is the most immediate and direct mechanism upholding their subordinate position in society.  It is not 'the Brits.'  Seeking an alliance with this State against imperialism is not only impossible, because this state does not oppose imperialism, but even the attempt is a betrayal of the real interests of Irish workers.

New Sinn Fein have attempted to address the question of the relevance of republican politics to the southern working class but their alternative is the crudest form of clientelism and electoralism.  On all the big issues they have and will prove to be on the side of the rest of their 'nationalist family.'  If they have been prepared to join a Stormont coalition government with Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party in order to implement privatisation in hospitals and schools what's the problem with coalition with the rotten capitalist parties in the south.  But if we reject this way forward surely the only progressive alternative is an explicitly socialist one.

This is not to say that the issues around which republicanism has traditionally organised are irrelevant to southern workers.  Clearly the restriction of democratic rights, the power of the catholic church - strengthened by partition, the creation of a state and political parties committed to a junior role under imperialism - either British or American or both and division of the working class expressed in every manifestation of working class organisation.  All these are questions impossible to frame, never mind understand, without reference to imperialism represented either by US multinationals or British State occupation.  The possibility of socialism in Ireland will not be occasioned by two separate revolutions but through a combined crisis of both Irish states within which the question of direct imperialist occupation of part of the country will be central.  Although we discount the rather simplistic idea that the northern struggle could flow over in a straight forward way from the north to the south, on a number of occasions, for example after Bloody Sunday and during the hunger strike, we have seen the influence the working class in the south can have on the north.  During these episodes we have also seen the role the north can play in allowing southern workers to escape the control of their capitalist rulers.

Strategy and Tactics

Socialism therefore gives us a framework within which we can envisage the removal of imperialism from Ireland as part of a general revolutionary transformation.  This is undoubtedly a very ambitious task and its accomplishment is not around the corner.  Simple reunification of the country may seem a much less daunting and therefore more realisable goal.  What we have tried to argue however is that the search for short cuts will fail and that national unification can only be achieved within the pursuit of socialism.  We have argued that the southern working class cannot be mobilised in the way necessary if the goal is for simple territorial unity because this would not promise significant enough change.  It could not even begin the process of organising workers for progressive change because it would ignore so many of the issues around which they are compelled to become active.  The forces ranged against the project would be hardly less strong.  In fact by aiming for a genuinely popular revolution with international significance for workers around the world the forces that can potentially be mobilised for socialism are much greater both in Ireland and around the world.

While providing a framework socialism does not provide a detailed blueprint.  What it does contain is a rich historical arsenal of debate on the politics necessary to make it a reality.  This programmatic heritage must be the starting point for an alternative to the peace process.  The working class must have its own political demands within which it can begin to put forward its own political alternative to the Good Friday Agreement.

* Instead of partition and imperialist occupation the solution to the national question must involve the genuine self-determination of the Irish people free from the threat of war from unionism or the British State.  Self-determination cannot therefore be reduced to the separate referenda, north and south, that formally ratified the Good Friday Agreement and which was implicitly based on these threats.  In reality only the northern referendum counted and a single vote cannot be held as a genuine and continuing exercise of democracy free from imperialist interference.  This position has nothing to do with the traditional republican position which either holds the ridiculous notion that the only vote that ever counts was held in 1918 or that a secret, unelected and unaccountable IRA army council is the resting place of popular sovereignty.

* This demand for genuine self-determination is given institutional expression in the call for an All-Ireland Constituent Assembly as an alternative to the new Stormont.  Such an Assembly would decide its own powers and would give representatives of progressive working class opinion the platform to put forward measures that would strengthen the political, social and economic position of the working class and small farmers.

* A socialist alternative would highlight and oppose the sectarian nature of the peace process made explicit in the new Stormont, which requires elected assembly members to register in sectarian terms in order to have their vote counted in crucial debates.  Any socialist elected to the Assembly should protest this requirement and seek a designation that makes clear total opposition to sectarian qualification for the franchise.  Opposition to sectarianism requires complete opposition to the ideology of 'the two traditions' that tries to shackle workers to reaction.

* Socialists must oppose every anti-working class measure that comes from the new institutions.  This includes the privatisation policies of Sinn Fein.  Opposition to the new Stormont should not prevent socialists from placing demands on the new institutions both to expose its reactionary nature and to achieve concrete gains for working class people.

* A renewed democratic and socialist opposition must constantly explain its opposition to armed struggle and its argument that the real source of violence in the country comes from imperialism and its supporters.  The continued coercive nature of the police force and the retaining and extension of repressive legislation can be held as proof of this.

* The alternative must assert that there can be no such thing as a nationalist family.  Irish society like every other is divided in to classes with irreconcilable economic and political interests.  Unity signifies only that the workers have subordinated theirs to the interests of capitalism.  In the south the alliance of the workers movement with their bosses has been cemented under the project of social partnership that has seen trade union organisation attacked by both the state and foreign and domestic capitalists.  A massive shift in wealth has been organised from the working class to the rich, its most criminal aspect only partly exposed by the series of corruption scandals rocking the southern establishment.  These scandals are proof, were it needed, of the opposing interests of this establishment and the working class.

* Social partnership has had its most drastic impact not on the living standards or working class conditions of the working class but on its capacity to formulate its only class interests politically.  This above all has allowed the rotten nature of establishment society to continue, even in  its project of social partnership, despite the scandals. In this credit must go to the bureaucratic leaders of the trade union movement who have played a pivotal role in shackling workers to bosses. This can be understood as another variant of the nationalist family by which the interests of all classes in the country are supposed to harmonious. Social partnership has assured the removal of the working class from the political stage and allowed many victories for the southern establishment. These victories include not just the Good Friday Agreement, explicitly endorsed in the partnership deal, but also the deepening of the European capitalist project carried forward by European monetary union and the further erosion of the already threadbare neutrality policy.

* These defeats do not invalidate the socialist project but only help set out our tasks and the consequences of refusing to fight the policy of the present trade union leaders.  The alternative must address all of these issues and more. Central has to be opposition to social partnership and the fight to create a militant and democratic trade union movement.

The immediate task of creating the forces that can turn such a programme into a living force involves republicans and socialists in a debate about political programme, unity and the way forward.  It involves a willingness to address past errors and seek concrete initiatives where collaboration can begin.  If the northern State really is irreformable there will be occasions and issues around which organisation is possible.  Only by preparing for such events through a correct political orientation will those republicans and socialists seeking real progressive change be able to take advantage and lead a way from the present strengthening of imperialist rule and capitalist exploitation.



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