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Response to report on éirígí Easter commemoration 

Philip Ferguson

8 April 2013

This article first appeared on the blog – The Irish Revolution

I’m very pleased that Raynor went away more hopeful than he came.  I think éirígí is the most positive development on the Irish left in over thirty years – essentially since Costello and his comrades established the IRSP (and its associated military wing) and that its attractive power to consistent anti-imperialist leftists is substantial.

My disagreements with Raynor’s piece, which I assume will appear also on the SD site, are disagreements among comrades.

Firstly, on something of lesser political importance.  I don’t know if Raynor counted the colour party and/or the band (the latter of which had travelled from Glasgow to take part), but I think there were substantially more than 100 people who took part in the Dublin event.  It was certainly a great deal smaller than the Belfast commemoration but the official éirígí tally of almost 200 seems closer to the mark; I’ve found éirígí to be pretty scrupulous when it comes to giving figures (unlike the sillier elements of the left who think hyperbole and exaggeration of numbers have some useful part to play in left politics).

On the political side, Raynor thinks the reading from Connolly was not the best choice and making the Citizen Army part of the focus was mistaken.  I think, however, that Raynor misunderstands the nature of the event.  It was a commemoration of the Rising and as such had two points to it: firstly, to commemorate the actual historic event of the Rising and, secondly, to talk about Ireland today in relation to what the women and men of Easter Week had set out to achieve.  So the reading, Connolly’s “To the Citizen Army” was entirely appropriate to the first function of the event.  In fact, it was particularly important because who we identify with in the past is an important marker to how our politics develop today.

To the gas-and-water socialists, it isn’t important to identify with any past revolutionary current.  Indeed, quite the opposite.  The past is full of revolutionary republicans and the centrality of the national question, so it needs to be largely ignored.  It seems to me that the choice of the Connolly reading is part-and-parcel of éirígí nailing its colours to the mast as not republican merely, not socialist merely, but the organised expression of the most politically conscious elements of the oppressed mass of the Irish people.  In 1916 it was the ICA that embodied that most, not the IRB or the Irish Volunteers (which is not to detract from the revolutionary-nationalist nature of much of the Volunteer movement).

At its last ard fheis, éirígí also explicitly identified itself with Connolly and the fact that Connolly was a Marxist.  That takes things substantially further than where the Provisionals were, even in their most left period.  In the latter case, for instance, Adams declared that there were no Marxists in the Provisional movement, something which was patently untrue but did say something about the nature of the leadership cabal around Adams.  Unlike the Adams cabal, éirígí is not afraid to be openly Connollyist, identify with Costello and be equally openly unafraid of Marxism.

This brings me to Raynor’s comment about “that mysterious force Socialist Republicanism”.  I’ve seen Raynor refer to socialist-republicanism in this way before, almost as if it is an oxymoron.  I’m aware that Raynor has seen lots of rhetorical socialism and revolutionary republicanism and so on, so I can appreciate him being sceptical in certain ways.  The evolution of the Provisionals into Britain’s latest handmaidens, when a couple of decades ago they claimed to be in favour of a one-stage socialist revolution and many of Raynor’s own comrades joined them, would add to some justifiable scepticism.  However, I also think it is a sign of the weakness of the Trotskyism that Raynor adheres to that socialist-republicanism appears perhaps more as a fantasy creature than the perfectly logical political expression of the struggle of the mass of the Irish people for complete liberation.

To me, it is Irish Trotskyism that is the creature of fantasy and socialist-republicanism which is the creature of logic.  Republicanism in its left forms has had many false starts, for sure.  But it has *started*.  There is the skeleton of a tradition of socialist-republicanism.  The problem for Irish Trotskyism is that it has never been able to sink any real, lasting roots in the Irish masses.  In my view, it is never going to – the reason being that the bulk of the Irish working class is republican (with a small r) and the ‘lower orders’ in Ireland have been, in their majority, republican (small r) for a good 200 years.

This is because republicanism isn’t something exported or grafted on.  It is the homegrown, almost spontaneously occurring and reoccurring (after every defeat) spirit of resistance in the Irish people.  It isn’t this because of any subjective wish of any individual or even any political movement.  It’s simply determined by the realities of Irish society over the past 200 years.  For better or worse, and regardless of what anyone may wish or not wish, history has made republicanism the expression of resistance by the Irish masses to British domination and to class exploitation (and, more recently, domination by other imperialists and imperialist institutions).

Socialist-republicanism is the most class conscious form of that political expression of the spirit of resistance (republicanism).  It isn’t spontaneous; it’s conscious.  Marxism comes into the equation because Marxism offers the sharpest tools of analysis to socialist-republicans (indeed to any republicans striving not merely for the liberation of a geographical area but the mass of the people who inhabit it).

If we go back to Russia, Lenin used Marxism as a set of tools to analyse “Russian reality”.  He didn’t start with a ready-made programme, pulled from outside that reality.  He polemicised against much of the prior revolutionary tradition in Russia, its conspiratorial and militaristic nature etc, but he didn’t dismiss all of it and he didn’t try to replace it with a set of ready-made formulas from somewhere else.  And this is the dilemma that Irish Trotskyism (like Irish Stalinism before it) faces.  It is, always has been and always will be, alien to the political soil of Ireland, something artifically grafted on, like a bodily organ rejected by the host body.

Socialist-republicans can certainly learn some valuable stuff from the experiences and writings of Trotsky, but “Trotskyism” – which is really a post-Trotsky concoction anyway – doesn’t, it seems to me, have anything much useful to teach anyone in Ireland.  Except, perhaps, what not to do.

I’ll be happy to admit I’m wrong should Trotskyists anywhere lead a revolution.  But there’s no sign of that happening.  The only time Trotskyists got to be a really significant force in the working class – Sri Lanka in the period after WW2 – they joined a bourgeois government and did pretty much what the Sinners are doing at Stormont now.

In my view, SD has far and away the best politics of the ostensibly Marxist left in Ireland, but that hasn’t helped them at all; they are far smaller than they were 30 years ago, when they were PD, and there’s no sign of that changing.  I think SD would be better dissolving and its members joining éirígí.  Not as some kind of entryist project, and not to push Trotskyism.  But to participate honestly as genuine comrades in the building of a genuinely revolutionary movement, one that has some chance of success.

éirígí is still a very young, new movement.  No-one in it would claim the party has got answers to all the questions currently on the table in Ireland.  For instance, the party is thoroughly hostile to the trade union bureaucracy in fact, far more so than most of the Irish Trotskyists – but it certainly doesn’t have a worked out strategy for involvement in the unions.  That’s something that comrades from SD have more experience and more thought-out ideas on that could be very helpful.  The position of éirígí on the right to abortion is disappointing – in 2013! – and that’s also something that SD comrades could contribute on.  But it would mean leaving the specific baggage of Trotskyism at the door.

I’d say that for SD comrades the real issue is not whether éirígí will meet the challenge of building a revolutionary movement but whether SD will.  It’s not whether éirígí will move beyond republicanism per se – they already have – but whether SD will move beyond the narrow confines of Trotskyism.


Socialism & Irish Republicanism: A reply to Philip Ferguson
by D.R.Connor Lysaght.

The tone of Philip Ferguson's reply to this writer is welcome and  the answer to it will be made as far as possible in the same spirit, though with rather more stringency as regards the facts.

Firstly, to dispose of what Philip describes correctly as being of lesser political importance, the writer is prepared to accept that the attendance at the commemoration was 200 rather than 100, though the smaller figure was supported by others who were there and were, indeed, more favourable to Eirigi than he. What is significant is that the attendance was higher than that last year.

More to the political point is Philip's defence of the choice of text for the reading. He says that the event was at once a commemoration of the Easter Rising and an analysis of the present situation in the light of that. This is true, but it does not mean necessarily  separating the two functions between the reading and the oration. Each has a role to play in inspiring its listeners to carry out their tasks in the coming period. Philip's remark about gas and water socialists preferring to avoid commemorations of past revolutions is perfectly correct, but, equally, such a commemoration should provide a guide for future action. The immediate task facing the Irish revolutionary left is not the military (and traditional republican task of building of a new Citizen Army (though this will come). It is the political task of it to take its part in leading the fight against austerity in and out of the unions and against the appeasement policies of the official leaders of the organised workers. That this can be done has been shown today by those workers' rejection of Croke Park II. The writer considers that in the year of the centenary of the Dublin Lockout it would have been more relevant to read from one of Connolly's articles attacking the Labour fakirs of his time.

And so to "that mysterious force Socialist Republicanism".  The writer admits to scepticism about it, not because he sees it "as a fantasy creature", but, rather because its reality appears as, in itself, too nebulous to sustain any guide to revolutionary action. 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. The author has known self-proclaimed "socialist republicans" in all parties, though not, recently, in Fine Gael. There was even one in the late, mercifully defunct Progressive Democrats (admittedly, he did not last too long). 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. What's yours ?"

Marxism can do something to reduce the ideological weakness, but it cannot cure it without breaking it out of its Irish republican assumptions. These can be summarised as Elitism; republicans, socialist and non-socialist represent "the republic virtually established" and tend to see no reason to mobilise mass support that they can't easily control. Instead they rely on the army of the virtually established republic before they have done the nine-tenths of non-military revolutionary work  necessary to give effective backing and, when the futility of this approach is obvious they abandon armed struggle for electoral reformism. This does not mean that there isn't a period of transition in which they can consider mass interventions, but the pressure of their tradition handicaps this. What is more, there are those who would claim to be Marxist who would encourage socialist republicans to take an electoralist line.It is not necessary to agree with the view that the Communist Party(s) had moles in the republican movement after Operation Harvest to acknowledge that that movement  was influenced by individuals themselves influenced by reformist-stalinite ideas, with results that are now history. Moreover, Stalinised socialism fits very well into the broad republican tradition in its emphasis on class-collaboration even after the establishment of a socialist republican Government and, in the longer term weakness of the republican tradition by its Nationalism, handicapping it from working to secure Ireland as a free nation in a federation of workers' republics.

Philip mentions Lenin: how he used Marxism as a set of tools to analyse "Russian reality". He didn't start with a ready-made programme, pulled from outside that reality. He polemicised against much of the prior revolutionary tradition in Russia, its conspiratorial and militaristic nature, etc, but he didn't dismiss all of it and he didn't try to replace it with a set of ready-made formulas from somewhere else  .This implies a closer relationship between Bolshevism and "the prior revolutionary tradition in Russia" (Narodism) than existed. Lenin's Marxist "tools" (method is a more accurate term) led him to reject nearly all Narodism, save its commitment to overthrowing the Tsarist state and its recognition of the role of the peasantry. What is more, on this last, he opposed strenuously the idea that socialism could come to Russia through the traditional system of village communal agricultural working, asserting, yes, the formulae from the international socialist movement outside that Russia would have to undergo a form of capitalist agricultural production. He maintained this against the Narodnik Socialist Revolutionary Party, which remained larger than his Bolsheviks, at least formally, even after the October revolution. It should be added that the Narodnik belief in Russian exceptionalism, like the traditional Irish republican belief in Irish exceptionalism, resembles the cause of the error of the Sinhalese Trotskyists that conditions on their island made it possible for them to flout the need to maintain their political independence and go, accordingly, into coalition with their class enemies.
And so to "the narrow confines of Trotskyism". Philip urges Socialist Democracy to abandon Trotskyism and enter Eirigi "as genuine comrades in the building of a genuinely revolutionary movement, one that has some chance of success".  The writer has heard such arguments before, most notably on the lips and documents of the liquidationist minority of comrades who left him and the majority to join Sinn Fein, when, admittedly, it looked more revolutionary than it does now. We can agree that Eirigi is a more appealing pole of attraction even than Sinn Fein then. Nonetheless, does he expect Socialist Democracy to abandon its programme and perspectives at his behest?  What programme and perspectives should its members adopt instead? And how would they differ from that which it follows? Philip distinguishes "Trotskyism" from the actual theories of Leon Trotsky and implies that it is an accretion that has grown over the original ones. Well, certainly, there have been many such accretions over the years, a number of them quite disastrous, but the healthiest parts of the movement have been able to discard the mistakes.

By Trotskyism, this writer (and, he presumes, his Socialist Democracy comrades) means no more than the concept, justified by historical observation of the process and strategy of the Permanent Revolution, the maintenance of the revolutionary process to the achievement of state power by the forces led by the working class, and the extension of that power under the inspiration of the said achievement throughout the world as the base for the truly actually achieved socialist society. The writer himself did not come to this perspective simply by pulling it "from outside reality", but by comparing it with the results of his own investigation into the course of Irish history. He does not claim to be like Lenin even to the small extent that the population of Ireland compares to that of Russia. Nonetheless, he thinks his analysis remains valid. If Philip Ferguson has a better one, it would be interesting to read it.


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