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Socialism, Ireland, the permanent revolution & the provo campaign

(Edited version of a paper read at the Welsh Centre, London)

by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

9 November 2018

Today, Socialism is on the agenda but, as yet, nobody knows it. The general course of history appears to be away from it and towards barbarism. In the United States sits a President who represents the notion that it is the social aspirations of liberal democracy that abort its economic aspirations. This has been the de facto approach of his country towards its satellites (that is, most countries in the world), but his attitude encourages its intensification. In these islands alone there is a flicker of serious resistance and this comes from a revival of the flawed social democratic tradition and one that may not be consummated before 2022, by which time it would more certainly have its task cut out cleansing the Augean mess left by its predecessors.  Throughout the world, the ruling classes are variously ignoring and encouraging the suppression of human rights. Genocide and torture threaten to become norms whilst overall is the prospect of slow annihilation due to governmental acceptance of global warming.

Yet these stem only from the failure of human will. Today, the objective possibilities for the world’s working people to control their lives are greater than in 1918. A century ago, industries were restricted mainly to a few powerful countries in the northern hemisphere with their colonies and satellites  supplying raw materials as necessary. Since then there has been a worldwide tendency to industrialise and, accordingly, proletarianise. International transport has become easier. This has not resulted in any major tendency to go beyond utopianism, resulting in inevitable failures that leave too many open to what is called euphemistically the alt-right.

Why is this? Many expected that the implosion of the Soviet Union would give impetus to a revival of socialism and genuine Communism, as it revealed the bankruptcy of the perspective of a socialist society being built within the limits of a single country. This has not happened. The perspective is unmentioned but remains, while the Social Democrats who share the single country perspective, if not the socialism side of it, decline but slowly, reviving, it seems only when one of their old style social democratic programmes is dusted for presentation. This failure reflects the fact that degenerate soviet power fell to the right. It was not the workers who overthrew it, but sections of the bureaucracy with links to the capitalism to which they aspired. This might have been overcome had a more coherent non-Stalinite left existed. As it is, the left has got more fragmented since ’91. There are several Internationals and potential Internationals, each with their mini-Lenins, each anticipating an immediate seizure of a winter palace somewhere or other and each avoiding debating another’s perspectives. Since such debate is necessary to achieve the clarity that must guide the working people to winning the state power that is the
prelude to socialism, I am happy to have accepted the invitation to present my case at this meeting.

The first heading of the title is Socialism. Pretty well everyone here regards this as the aim, but does everyone agree as to its nature? For clarification, this presenter would state that he sees Socialism as based on (not limited to) an economy planned by all the working people without discrimination by race or gender, on a worldwide basis. This will not be worked easily, though it can be achieved more easily than it could a century ago.  There is a more immediate problem: how to get from here to there.

There are several answers to that. In the past, there has been the reformist one, in which socialists get themselves elected to parliament in sufficient numbers to initiate reforms that will bring about Socialism. This has fallen foul of two facts.  Firstly, it assumes that the existing state will be neutral rather than, as it is, the enforcer of the possessing classes. For the reformists, the government is the state rather than just its civil administrator. Secondly, it is linked to the revisionist-Stalinite illusion that Socialism can be achieved in a single country. In any case, and inevitably, nearly all currents with this perspective have capitulated to neo-liberalism, their members being happy to pass as its left wing. In this, the revived British Labour Party may be an exception, perhaps even an example that other social democratic bodies may follow, but, on past form, this is very doubtful.

There are movements at the other end of the spectrum. The anarchists repudiate involvement in bourgeois elections even for propaganda purposes. Their repudiation of the nation state is in the name of internationalism, yet, in practice, it takes the form, where it occurs of local communalism, even more vulnerable to the state than reformism.

More positively the world’s working people require a vanguard party of national sections, with a strategy geared to building a workers’ state machine within the shell of their capitalist nation state up to where that shell can be broken by the Workers’ Republic. It will not be Socialism. Such power seizures are unlikely to be co-ordinated with any ease, but the new state will provide a base and an inspiration for the working peoples elsewhere to copy it and link up with it in to start the construction of Socialism.

In Ireland, the first point to be noted is that it is still an unfinished capitalist entity. Its bourgeois revolution was compromised to a greater degree than those of its neighbours. The leaders were happy to allow a third of their fellow nationals to live in a province ruled by their old oppressors. Nor have they been willing to establish the secular regime required for the most economical use of capital. Politically the Republic is defined best as a limited theocracy. Much has been done but schools and health stay organized on a firmly sectarian basis. Agriculture and industry, north and south are definitely capitalist.

So how are the Irish working people likely to win their Republic? There are encouraging signs. Seven members of proclaimed Marxist parties sit in Dail Eireann. A number of others are of the same broad persuasion. It is not enough but it is a start. The question remains as to what perspectives these parties have for leading their constituency to state power. The answer is uncertain. They are energetic and have organized successful agitations, most recently against an attempt to privatize water supplies. They are definitely secularist. Yet their strategies remain unclear beyond this point.  No doubt it is early to describe the forms that the embryo workers’ state will take. All that can be said is that it is unlikely to be based on existing longstanding working people’s institutions under their present class collaborationist heads. In any case, it is unclear whether most Irish Marxists are thinking in terms of such a power. More particularly, they seem to accept the partition of the country, conducting their struggles in a manner that does not encourage any general feeling for its unity. People Before Profit (formerly Socialist Workers’ Party) members of the Northern Irish Assembly sit as constitutionalist representatives in a provincial unit, just as their deputies, and those of their rival Socialist Party/Solidarity ignore the partition issue in Dail Eireann. They raise expectations that they can be elected to govern on their programme without hindrance from the states in whose parliaments they sit. Presumably their apparachiki know that a state structure will not be overthrown simply by a workers’ party becoming its government. The contradiction in believing otherwise is, after all, merely part of a general consensus set by the bourgeoisie, north and south.

The alternative is the revolutionary process termed Permanent Revolution. This was presented in 1905 by Leon Trotsky as the way for the working people of the Russian empire to state power. Up to then the international socialist movement had maintained that such power could be won by the workers in states where economic development had increased their numbers to the point where they could form a stable government, implicitly for most of their leaders through the ballot box. Where their class was politically developed but relatively small, as in Russia, the workers would have to have their party coalesce with another class’ party or parties to achieve bourgeois democracy, and then work constitutionally to win their class’ demands. For Trotsky the workers, organized in their party, should lead the country’s revolutionary but inchoate peasant majority to establish their democracy, enact their revolutionary demands and inspire its comrades abroad to follow its example.
In this way the Russian workers would take power in 1917. It became clear later that the strategy could and should be followed where else the industrial working class was too small to rule alone.

The perspective did not apply to those few countries where industry had developed to employ the bulk of the workforce. However, their relative industrial decline in the last century, their said work force’ failure to win power and the rise of the ‘Alt Right’ raises the likelihood of more cross class campaigns to protect democratic rights. This points to permanent revolution being the probable way to state power for the workers here as for those of other countries.

In Ireland, it can be said that, already, 100 years ago the objective conditions for permanent revolution existed, but that it lacked the conscious party that could execute it. Today, the tasks involved in the bourgeois seizure of power and the elimination of the traditional order can be considered under two headings, the territorial and the secularist. Those trained in the Stalin school would add an economic struggle to overthrow foreign capitalist domination in the name of national capitalism, but that is a fight between sections of the bourgeoisie, neither side confident enough to carry its cause to threaten overthrow of the capitalist state power that both accept.

That is true, too, of the secular struggle so far. In the last few years, the state has encouraged the lifting of traditional clerical vetoes. A major issue has to be resolved in achieving democratic secular education and health systems. Today’s born again enlightened Government is happy to enforce the status quo; it has handed full ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital to the Sisters of Mercy,, who have refused to pay full compensation agreed to the inmates of their slave labour Magdalen laundries. There has been little protest to this scandal. So it is very uncertain whether it is likely to provoke a revolutionary solution.

There remains the question of national unity. This is complicated by the fact that the separated territory contains a majority, diminishing but still a majority including many workers, that sees itself as distinct from, and a superior police force to its fellow Irish. It could be argued that this justifies a call for a Northern Irish Workers’ Republic independent from such a state in the rest of Ireland. The basic objection to this is that the loyalist majority of six county workers think about socialism, if at all, without the democratic, let alone the revolutionary changes necessary to achieving it. When they have mobilized, as in 1912-14 and 1974, it has been against the British government, not the British state. Overtly and covertly that state’s administrators have supported them. They hold the province for the British Crown and, despite its    disclaimers, the Crown is happy that they should guard the far shore of the narrowest and shallowest strip of sea separating these two islands. Only threat and then fact of anti-British resistance forced the overlord to impose on its garrison democratic norms, which that garrison’s official representatives are trying to subvert.

The agitation for limited democratic rights had only a limited potential within the six county province. The movement’s five point programme contained too much that would curtail Unionist privileges. It was shunned by the small Northern Ireland Labour Party as likely to block their perspective of uniting Protestant and Catholic workers within that province’ borders. Its struggle was a cross class one waged by the minority there. When, in 1969, the Unionists began to make a cold war hot by invading the nationalist areas, there was no organized Marxist group able to take the lead to turn the democratic fight into a working class one. The nearest was the student dominated People’s Democracy which called for a secular approach to the agitation and to spread it to the south, but it was too heterogeneous and confused to be effective. On the other hand, there was the republican movement, revolutionary, certainly, but essentially nationalist, united in its cross class (and thereby essentially capitalist) perspective of a united Ireland to be won by physical force. It was able to use the gut reaction among the minority to support an aggressive armed struggle, defying and breaking with its Dublin leadership. That leadership did help maintain the mass agitation until after Bloody Sunday. Then, with the Communist Party, it left the struggle to the armed forces (the British ones, at that) and lapsed into reformism. By then, the revolutionary socialists were too weak to maintain the agitation.

Nonetheless, at times of particular imperial oppression, such as Bloody Sunday, the war split over the border into the republic. There, as after 1916, the struggle stimulated specifically working class actions, which worried the UK government more than did the republicans’ guerrilla struggle. The strike in response to Bloody Sunday was followed by the suspension of Stormont.

After a quarter century, the Provo militarists followed their former republican rivals’ example for the sake of bourgeois respectability. As has been shown since its foundation, its political arm, Sinn Fein is no workers’ party. It wins recruits, workers and others, with its cross class perspective of national unity. Its revolutionism identifies only with the seizure of power by its allied armed force. Its model is a narrow interpretation of the Anglo-Irish War of 1916-22 that ignores such factors as World War One, the Home Rulers’ lies, and, of course, the general strikes. The planning, the construction of an alternative state are merely appendages. So is any basic form of mass action; uncontrolled such action could go beyond the republican programme. Without a rifle at hand, the republican is a reformist.

Today, the republicans uphold a peace process that seems geared to maintain the Unionist status quo by more subtle if bureaucratic, means than before. This may be maintained, since there is a lot invested in it. It is possible, too, however, that Brexit will result in an attempt to harden the border (a massive task involving policing or closure of some 208 crossing places), will destroy the process, and also, more disastrously, the ceasefire with which it has become identified. There is an alternative that may prevent such a collapse being one more political disaster as well as an humanitarian one. A major agitation must be prepared. Unlike in the sixties such a movement is likely to span the border and this could lead to its expansion throughout the island as a working class struggle.  For this to happen will require revolutionary political leadership. Otherwise, the prospect is a revival of the armed struggle. It is up to the revolutionary left.

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