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Continuation of debate on Republican Socialism 

17 May 2013

Phil Ferguson rejoinder:

Rayner’s piece has now been up a week, so I’ll respond.  I almost didn’t because I have laid out elsewhere the key ideas I would respond with.  But I’ll start by responding with how I see things in a more general sense, then move onto a couple of other issues in Rayner’s piece.  Anyway, here’s part of what I wrote last year (the full article is here):

1. The national question, although it currently moves only a small section of the Irish people, remains absolutely central to any serious struggle for human liberation in Ireland.  Socialism can’t exist in one country, let alone a fraction of a country!

2. Only the working class can lead the national struggle because only the working class has nothing to lose but its exploited and oppressed state; conversely, the working class can’t free itself without freeing Ireland.

3. The British state won’t withdraw from Ireland unless it is forced to do so, and neither are the ruling classes on both sides of the border likely to relinquish economic and political power; they will have to be expropriated

4. The British and Irish revolutions are bound up together.  It’s inconceivable that the struggle for national liberation and socialism in Ireland could be victorious without a massive political-social crisis in Britain that crippled the British ruling class.  While most of the British left haven’t got a clue about ‘the Irish question’ and simply can’t be relied on when the going gets tough, it’s unlikely such currents would survive even the beginnings of a massive class shake-up in Britain; new, harder left formations would begin to emerge.  In the meantime, it’s vital for Irish revolutionaries to ‘feel out’ the ground in Britain in terms of building political support networks based around class fighters.

5. Militarism is an absolute dead-end; not only can it not drive out the Brits but, when the guns are in charge, the politics are inevitably under-developed.  This means that when the military movement eventually needs a political wing, as it always must even at just the level of organising support for prisoners and publicising the armed cause, the politics that emerge cannot develop to the level required to meet the complex challenges of the Irish revolution.  Also, when the militarism becomes exhausted, as it always does, the lack of revolutionary politics mean that lowest common denominator politics replace the guns and bombs.  The result of militarism is disaster after disaster.  Militarism is not the opposite of reformism; it’s simply the other side of the same coin.

6. A conscious revolutionary-political movement, a political vanguard organisation, is needed.  Politics have to be in control and when the time comes to establish a military element to the struggle, the politics have to call the shots.  The political movement has to be militant, both in order to challenge the three states that block the cause of human liberation in Ireland and also to ensure it provides radical working class youth with a real alternative to militarism.

7. The exact form of the military aspect of the struggle cannot be known in advance, although what it can’t be is (ie militarism).  Rather, the development of the overall political conditions reach a point at which the particular form of military element necessary becomes clear – workers’ militias, armed communities, armed wing of the socialist-republican party, an armed party, or any other formation or combination of formations.

“There’s no place in this for reformism, militarism or mere Irish nationalism.  The vanguard can only be built on the basis of revolutionary socialism (as opposed to the gas-and-water type only too prevalent on the Irish ‘Marxist’ left) and revolutionary republicanism (as opposed to mere nationalism, which is too sectional).  Such a vanguard needs to settle accounts with the past, being absolutely clinical in examining what is dumped – including commemorations of people who had appalling politics, like Liam Lynch – and what is developed further in the context of the twenty-first century.

“And, it must be said, the merger of the militarist currents into New IRA surely must press upon socialist-republicans the need for a process of coming together of all those whose aim is the workers and socialist republic.  The answer to the New IRA is not condemnation but the building of a united, revolutionary, socialist-republican party.”

Now to turn to several very specific points in Rayner’s piece.  For instance, Rayner says,  “Philip twits Trotskyists for having never been able to sink any real, lasting roots in the Irish masses. Actually, its problem has been, here as elsewhere, too many roots for too many groupings. Certainly, when they are attacked by non-Trotskyist socialist republicans for their failure to lead the workers and oppressed to state power, they can answer: Our excuse is our smallness. Whats yours?”

But that simply begs the question.  Why are you so small?  If the politics of Trotskyism, and there’s quite a it of dispute as to what they are beyond the theory of permanent revolution (which I agree with, although I don’t think it provides a magic formula for each individual country and process of struggle) and the transitional method and transitional programme (which I don’t agree with, to the extent that it was historically specific; it made sense in the conditions of 1938 but the things it was predicated on, like a significant vanguard of workers, simply doesn’t exist in most of the western world; and, as Lenin noted, lots of people can repeat formulas, but it’s quite another thing to understand the preconditions for those formulas).  A couple of other objections I have to modern-day Trotskyists, as opposed to the ideas of the great revolutionary himself are: auto-Labourism; organisational forms which are more akin to Stalinism than the Bolsheviks of Lenin’s time; and lecturing people o0n the way forward without ever risking much themselves (of course, there are exceptions like Hugo Blanco and others. . . including the comrades of PD days).

I would’ve thought the fact that Trotskyism as an *ism* has failed in every revolutionary set of circumstances – every single one – might have caused these folks to engage in some critical reflection, as it certainly did me.  In the case of Ireland, for instance, it’s all very well to chatter about the dangers of militarism, as both Rayner and I do, but what about the conditions of 1969?  To me, it is unfathomable that any revolutionary could believe that it was possible in those circumstances to build a revolutionary movement that didn’t have an armed wing.  The Irish Trotskyists certainly discussed getting arms and training in arms, but it seems never to have gotten beyond the discussing stage.

One of the turning points in my political development was a discussion in the Fourth International about Lebanon in the mid or late 1970s.  I was a teenage supporter of the LTF faction in the FI, as against the ‘Mandelite’ IMT faction.  (Looking back, I thihnk I might have been on the wrong side!)  Anyway, the Lebanese Trotskyists were getting some guns; this was at a time when the whole of Lebanon was divided into armed camps and Beirut was afire.  The US SWP, which saw itself as the leading section of the FI, was aghast and one of their “leaders” (some office type who had internalised their hopeless legalistic approach to everything) wrote a document against the Lebanese section’s plans.  I was only very young at the time, but I was gobsmacked that they thought the way forward for the Lebanese section was just to do stuff like open a Pathfinder bookshop in Beirut in peacefully and legally make abstract propaganda for socialism.

It seems to me that the reason the Provos became *the* mass force in the nationalist ghettos was that, despite all their considerable political weaknesses, they understood the centrality of the national question and of fighting; they got guns.  The Trotskyists, no matter how great some of their theory may have been, had little understanding of how to put it up to the Brits.  PD was at its best in those days, and did actually experiment eventually with some armed stuff I gather, but probably too little, too late.  But the group in the south, the RMG or MSR I think it became a bit later, lacked that understanding.  (And, of course, the SWM and the Grantites never had a glimmer of it; the latter essentially scabbing on the struggle.)

Rayner mentions what he calls the liquidationist element in his organisation that, in the mid-80s, counseled dissolving the organisation and joining SF.  But there are two important differences.  One is that, in my experience as a Sinner from 1986-1994, those people were never very radical.  Anne Speed was never on the left in SF; she was in the centre, if not the right.  The average working class Dublin SF activist was much more militant than the people I came across from Rayner’s group who joined SF.  The ones I met – and I’m not pretending I met them all – would have fitted into a vaguely left labour-type party, pursuing posts as ink monitors in a constituency branch, like their IMG counterparts.  (If they had’ve been in England they would have been in the imperialist Labour Party over there.)

Secondly, Sinn Fein at that time was nowhere near as left as eirigi is.  SF before I joined, and in the first few years I was in it, did identify from time to time as a “revolutionary socialist”. At the same time, Adams was publicly denying there were any Marxists in the Movement, which was patently ridiculous as prisoners spent a substantial amount of time studying Marxism and the Education Dept organised stuff every weekend in the countryside on socialism.  However, the Movement was clearly being shifted rightwards by the Adams cabal.  By contrast, eirigi specifically identifies as revolutionary and socialist, identifies with Connolly and Connolly’s Marxism.  Moreover, the experience of 40 years from the late 60s to when eirigi was founded, indicates that, as Connolly put it, Irish nationalism without socialism is simply national recreancy.  That understanding seems to have well-permeated the comrades who started eirigi and those from a Provo background who have joined since.

Lastly, Rayner and I agree to some extent, as per: “Yes, history has made republicanism the expression of resistance to imperialism in its traditional and modern form, and, yes, socialist-republicanism is the most class- conscious form of that political expression of the spirit of resistance. At this point the fog descends. Socialist republicanism does not mean all things to all people, but it means too many things to too many to be an effective force for revolutionary change.”

Yes, but the same thing could be said of Trotskyism.  How many varieties of it are there now?

I would think that socialist-republicanism is somewhat more specific than Trotskyism.  There is sufficient agreement, for instance, among socialist-republicans in Ireland for a merger of them to take place, should they be prepared to take such an initiative.  Certainly more agreement than there appears to be among Trotskyists such as SP and SWP who couldn’t stay even in a coalition for more than a couple of years, and even that rather half-heartedly, let alone build a common party.

In Russia, the Bolsheviks supplanted narodnism in a couple of decades.  There’s no sign at all of Trotskyism replacing republicanism in Ireland.

To me, Trotskyism in Ireland always seemed like some odd plant that could just never take root in the soil.  On the other hand, republicanism, no matter what was done to it from within (selling out) or from without (repression by the various state forces on the island) continually regenerated itself, continually produced outstanding revolutionary fighters and political activists.  It is the revolutionary tradition in Ireland, has been for a bit over 200 years, and nothing else, no other “ism” of any kind has come anywhere close to that.  Republicanism itself, however, has also been clearly revealed to be insufficient. Socialist-republicanism, however, is the truly revolutionary form, and the one that can win.


D.R.O’Connor Lysaght.

In his rejoinder to the writer's comments, Philip Ferguson shows how little divides the two but papers over considerable chasms that lie between. His opening credo is generally fine, though the writer would not have worded a number of his points in the same way.

"The national question............remains absolutely central to any serious struggle for human liberation in Ireland." Right on!  However, the attempt, then, to bring in the impossibility of socialism in one country does not work; the question is bigger than that of the Irish. In any case, while a socialist society is, indeed, impossible within the borders of one country or a fraction of a country, it is not impossible for the workers to take state power within such limit, and is certainly possible for the twenty-six county workers to do so, though the divisions between the six county workers maintained by partition makes a Northern Irish workers' state improbable in the extreme.  This is another reason for Irish unity. Apart from it the struggle for Irish reunification is an integral part of that for working class state power and socialism because a/ that the workers of a nation that oppresses another cannot themselves be free, any more than all the workers of the nation oppressed, b/ that the struggle of the workers of the oppressed nation against their oppression has a progressive content, and c/that the possibility of the Irish national struggle turning into a struggle for a thirty-two county workers' republic was shown on several occasions during the recent thirty years war (This last point will be revisited.).

"Only the working class, not Britain nor the Irish ruling classes can free Ireland" (to paraphrase) Absolutely !  A politically based strategy and organisation rather than a military one. Again, the writer and his comrades have been saying that for years.

Yet something is missing: in fact two things, and they illustrate the differences between socialist republicanism and international Socialism. While Philip Ferguson lambasts trotskyism (and his criticisms are fair enough, though not general to all groups), he is coy about the characteristics of his chosen alternative. All he tells his readers is that it will unite Ireland in a workers' republic. His credo leaves gaps that betray the inadequacy of this approach.

Firstly, it contains no mention of the international dimension beyond these islands. This omission is notable for two reasons. Firstly, there is the fact that any revolution is usually part, if at times an initiating part of a wider revolutionary movement spread across the world. Secondly a socialist society restricted to this archipelago is as impossible as one restricted to Ireland or either part of it, and, indeed, even less possible now than in Trotsky's time. The future of a workers' republic can be secured only through the process of permanent revolution being executed in an international strategy to achieve socialism in its only possible form. On this, the writer and Philip Ferguson seem to be agreed in principle, at least. As part of the process, Socialists have to learn from each other, from their experiences, including their mistakes so that, from this education and the method behind the Transitional Programme they can develop a strategy of world revolution necessary to ensure working class state power in all countries. It should not have to be added though Philip Ferguson appears to deny it, that not all Trotskyists believe in the literal execution of the said Transitional Programme as against the method behind it. There was a sect, perhaps there is, still, that refused to join any joint front unless it adopted that programme unamended; it is no longer a major force even in Trotskyist politics. Certainly, as this writer has stated in his recent introduction to the programme, though the method of analysis and the overall conclusion remain valid, the detailed conclusions have changed with circumstances. Nonetheless, there is still to be found a new programme as specifically relevant to its period as the original was to its own time. 

It is true to say that this concept of internationalism is foreign to Irish Republicanism. Certainly, until after the Fenians, its tendency was to align itself with the international progressive causes of the day (with his support for slavery John Mitchel was a notorious exception). The climax to this process came when, in turn, James Stephens, John Devoy and J.P.MocDonnell joined the First International. Since then, however, Republican international orientations hae been on the pragmatic, and pre-Republican, basis of "England's difficulty = Ireland's opportunity" without too much concern for the broader issues. Of course, a feature of Socialist Republicanism has been such a concern and, as in the Spanish War it was demonstrated most heroically. Nonetheless, that action did not lead to any deeper internationalist analysis, except, yes, among the handful who turned to Trotskyism. Today Eirigi shows a basic spirit of internationalism in identifying with national liberation struggles; it needs to recognise that it needs to make links, too, with the workers and oppressed of the oppressor nations in their struggles to liberate themselves as victims of the sources of the national oppression.

The second major point of disagreement between International Socialists and Socialist Republicans lies, as has been stated, in the latters elitism that leads them to vere between armed struggle and constitutionalism. That this is shared by Ferguson is shown in his Rejoinder. He declares "a significant vanguard of workers simply does not exist in most of the western world", it would seem even in potential. Yet this makes nonsense not just of the Transitional Programme but of the idea of permanent revolution in which he claims to believe, in fact of any revolutionary strategy beyond that of the categoric imperative of armed struggle. More specific is the attitude expressed in the Rejoinder towards the strategy necessary in '69:-

“To me, it is unfathomable  that any revolutionary could believe that it was possible in those circumstances to build a revolutionary movement that didn't have an armed wing.......... 

It seems to me that the reason the Provos became “the” mass force in the nationalist ghettos was that, despite all their considerable weaknesses, they understood the centrality of the  national question and of fighting; they got guns.

The Trotskyists, no matter how great some of their theory may have been, had little understanding of how to put it up to the Brits.”

So, in Philip Ferguson's opinion, the Trotskyists should have begun an immediate armed struggle in competition with the Provos. Presumably, their "great" theory (or some of it) would have enabled them to execute such a struggle successfully, rather than leading it to the Good Friday Agreement after nearly three decades of campaigning. How Trotskyist theory within this context could have overcome the problem that, while armed struggle could and did "put it up to" the Loyalist mobs, Motorman showed that the heroism of its fighters could have only nuisance effect against the actual British Army is not given even an attempted explanation.

In fact, it can be admitted that Trotskyism failed in 1969. However, this is not because of its aversion to guns, a relatively large proportion of Trotskyists were "experimenting with armed stuff" to use Philip's term. The problem was that Trotskyism was practically new to Ireland. The Fourth International had had a section here in the forties, but it had disintegrated just after its formal affiliation and before the end of the decade. The movement had to begin again from scratch from 1965 onwards. By 1969, it was represented by two or three tiny sects: the Healyites and the Grantites mainly in Belfast and a group called the League for a Workers' Republic almost exclusively in the twenty-six counties. Though the People's Democracy had enough Trotskyists among its leaders to give it a flavour of the theory, it was not, as yet, a Trotskyist group, but one built consciously on the lines of the mass centrist come-all-yes in vogue in Europe since the spring of '68. Although everyone on the left, Trotskyist and non-Trotskyist alike wanted a united socialist Ireland (Two Nationism would come later), no one had developed a perspective for achieving that, other than the Stalinites who added a new stage to their normal schema to postulate, firstly, a democratic bourgeois six county state, then a bourgeois united Ireland and then, well, who knew?, a united actually achieved socialist Ireland. Opposition to this from the left came mainly within a six county perspective, pointing out the inadequacy of the civil rights political demands as a means of overcoming the sectarian divisions and preaching the economic demands of socialism to reassure loyalist workers that their preachers were not merely Catholic sectarians. The invasion of the ghettoes revealed the inadequacy of this approach to those who had eyes to see, though their education process was slow. While it continued, the Sticks maintained the civil rights strategy, even while maintaining their own armed defence of the Catholic areas.  Of course, the Provos went further, turning armed defence into a military offensive and using the presence of British troops to maintain the pretence that their quarrel was only with those, not their fellow Irish. It was the Trotskyists in what became in 1972 the Revolutionary Marxist Group who came to recognise that mobilising both in the republic and the north behind anti-capitalist as well as democratic demands was the only way to make matters too hot for Brits and Loyalists and, at least, neutralising, the less bigoted Protestant workers. That this was a real possibility was recognised by the British and twenty-six county governments after the Maxwell/Tan attack on Bloody Sunday raised ghosts of the republican expansion after 1916, the only way that any act arising from the war could create such mobilisation. To release the anger that was beginning to be expressed in strikes and occupations of productive concerns the British Embassy had to be given to the people of Dublin. The move was successful. The mobilisations had came too late; the Provos' armed struggle strategy was hegemonising the resistance, the more in that the Sticks and the Stalinites had abandoned the mass mobilisations that were the saving grace of the civil rights approach, Physical force with its base ghettoised as a political minority of a religious minority of a territorial minority became the dominant anti-imperialist strategy. It was often magnificent, but it was self-defeating. Save in the hunger strikes, the Brits kept their atrocities subtle enough to allow their equation with republican military actions. The results can be seen today.

It is likely the present situation will prove a prelude to a new struggle. Eirigi shows signs that it can play a major role therein. Moreover, the signs are that such a role will be more constructive, more genuinely revolutionary than they were for the Provos' role in '69.What can be said is that if ir avoids the elitism of its origins (and stimulated by its relatively small size), if it propagandises to prepare the workers and oppressed of the twenty-six counties for the real situation in the six and its crash and the need to mobilise accordingly with socialist demands, if they learn from and contribute to the experiences of the revolutionary movement worldwide, then they will be more than socialist republicans; they will be Trotskyists. 


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