Originally published as a supplement in The Leninist No.15 December 1984. Available on our archive here
1. Ireland – a Weak Link
IN THE FIRST TWO parts of our study we concretely examined some of the main contradictions which exist in Irish society. The primary contradiction that we saw was the fact that the country has been divided and thus dominated by imperialism.
This contradiction affects all aspects of social development, bends other contradictions to it to such an extent that social progress was in certain respects held back and even reversed. Thus the developing revolutionism of the masses, which was such a prominent feature at the turn of the century was through partition diverted and reaction triumphed north and south.
For British imperialism this has undoubtedly been a great achievement. But the forward movement of history can only be temporarily blocked. Today the forces of progress show all signs of slowly but surely undermining the dam of reaction imposed by British imperialism.
The most overt signs of this have been in the Six Counties, where as we saw in Part II since 1969 there has existed a revolutionary situation. The fact that this revolutionary situation has been extended for such a long period of time is not only a tribute to the Catholic masses but a clear indication of the weakened state of British imperialism and its inability to resolve the situation in the negative.
But it is not only in the north where the forces of progress were exerting themselves. The Twenty-Six Counties, for so long a rural backwater, has now industrialised under the impact of the declining rate of profit in the imperialist heartlands and the search for superprofits. At the end of the nineteenth century industry was more or less confined to Belfast and its environs; today industry totally dominates production.
With this the urban proletariat has grown to become the most important class. The number engaged in agriculture, especially small farmers, has steadily declined. From being by far the most numerous class they have declined to 21% of the labour force in 1971, to 16.5% in 1976, and it is projected they will be down to 10.2% by 1986. Correspondingly the proletariat grew: from 200,000 before World War II to 880,000 in 1971, and in 1981 their numbers exceeded one million (200,000 in manufacturing alone), or well over 80% of the workforce.
Now, although Ireland has industrialised and has even developed finance capital it has done so while being dominated and exploited by imperialism; its monopolies are collaborators with imperialism in exploiting the country and its workers. Ireland is thus a medium developed capitalist country which because it is unable to participate in the exploitation of the world finds that its class antagonisms at home cannot be blunted, as they are in imperialist nations through obtaining super profits. Thus as a result of its marginal position in the world economy the social order is extremely fragile not least because of the burden of exploitation suffered by the enormously expanded working class.
The burden of exploitation placed on the workers is undoubtedly a result of Ireland’s domination by imperialism, and the fact that its native monopolies have to attempt to secure their “super profits” through exploiting their own workers. Thus Irish workers find themselves in a sense under a double yoke of exploitation.
The full extent of the burden imposed on them can be seen by the Fine Gael/Irish Labour Party government’s three year plan Building on Reality launched in October 1984. Because of the massive foreign debt piled up in order to attract investment from the imperialist monopolies there now exists a chronic debt crisis. It is this debt, in October 1984 standing at £18 Billion that the plan is intended to cope with.
To repay the interest and in an attempt to stabilise the principal there will be massive cuts in public spending on a scale not witnessed since before 1945. For the working class the plan means higher rents, higher health and education charges, higher food prices, and a virtual freeze in the pay of public workers.
Even if the plan succeeds the Twenty-Six Counties will have a “public sector borrowing requirement equivalent to 11.25% of the GNP, unemployment around 16%, and the highest level of taxes in the European community” (Financial Times October 17 1984). And this depends on the following assumptions agreed by most observers to be wildly optimistic: the punt will be stable; world trade will grow by 4.5% per annum; foreign and domestic interest rates will fall; and export earnings in its main markets will grow by 7% per annum. If one of these factors proves to be over optimistic then the whole plan will collapse, as it is undoubtedly will, and the attacks on the working class increase.
Already before the full effects of a new general crisis bite, national wage settlements have become a central political question with the government doing all in its power to keep down pay and at the same time preserve social stability. This is a balancing act which is becoming ever more difficult given the necessity of jacking up the rate of exploitation and the fact that unemployment is now around 20% of the workforce – an official figure which vastly underestimates the true number because of sending thousands of youth on work schemes.
The dire effects of imperialist domination exacerbate the contradictions in Ireland, make it a powderkeg, a weak link of imperialism. This must make bourgeois democracy – already a farce in the Six Counties – ever more precarious in the Twenty-Six Counties. What is more, the stupendous growth of the proletariat, the fact that they suffer a double yoke of exploitation because of the combined effect of imperialist domination, and the development of native monopoly capital and their drive for “superprofits” means that it is correct to talk of the struggle for national unity, the anti-imperialist struggle, becoming increasingly bound up with the class struggle between labour and capital.
2. The Irish Revolution
In formal terms, because the main contradiction in Irish society is the national question of national reunification the method of resolving it is a national democratic revolution led by the national bourgeoisie, not least because national reunification would represent the completion of the bourgeois revolution. But Marxists worthy of the name reject formal logic and cut-and-dried formulae in both matters of theory and practice. We arrive at our conclusions through being guided by the laws of social development discovered by Marx and Engels and through examination of the concrete situation. Only then can we discover how and in what form dialectical laws operate, how the situation should be appraised, and what the line of action should be followed if we are to achieve victory.
A magnificent example of developing a correct strategy can be found in the theory and practice of the Bolsheviks in Russia, an example of which we consider has particular relevance to the situation faced by communists in Ireland today. Russia’s socialists were confronted with the problem of how best to overthrow the Tsarist regime, whom they should fight for the small working class to align itself with, and in the event of victory at what pace should they proceed towards socialism. Like in Ireland their immediate tasks were essentially bourgeois. Two major approaches developed.
The Mensheviks, claiming to be the true disciples of Marxism, declared that as Russia’s revolution was bourgeois in its tasks the bourgeoisie must take the lead, and the peasantry and the proletariat should encourage and back them up. After the victory of the bourgeoisie, the proletarian parties would become oppositional. And after capitalist development had proceeded for some time and the number of workers had greatly increased, the struggle for socialism could be won. Any attempt to skip ‘artificially’ the bourgeois stage, the bourgeois revolution, attempts to deny the leadership of the bourgeoisie and the need for them to crown their victory of consolidating their rule through their own state would, despite subjective intentions, end up hindering the struggle against Tsarism and lead to disaster.
On the basis of concrete study of the development of capitalism in Russia and the understanding of Russia’s place in the world economy the Bolsheviks rejected the Menshevik approach as mechanical and branded them liquidationist for wanting to subordinate the proletariat to a bourgeoisie which had long since ceased to be revolutionary, not least because of its fear of the proletariat. In place of the Menshevik call to tail the pusillanimous bourgeoisie the Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin declared that while the forthcoming revolution would be democratic – bourgeois in its tasks, it was the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry that must lead the revolution. And that far from placing in power the bourgeoisie, a democratic revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry should consolidate itself against the bourgeoisie. While this regime would allow the development of capitalism it would wield state power in the interests of the popular masses. The proletariat itself would seek to achieve hegemony over the revolution and the revolutionary government, and to the extent it succeeded the revolution could proceed uninterruptedly to socialism in step with the broader European and worldwide fight of the working class.
Without being bound to the dots and commas of this strategy, without constant debates, change of tactics, and creative adaptation to developments in the world situation, the Bolsheviks achieved victory in October 1917 and then proceeded uninterruptedly to carry their revolution to socialism.
Now, in Ireland as we have shown while the tasks of the revolution are bourgeois the bourgeoisie is thoroughly reactionary. In the north it has historically been a collaborator with imperialism and in the south it now also plays this role. What is more the proletariat has grown in numbers and economic significance to a point where it bears the main burden of the imperialist domination of the country, where the contradictions caused by the imperialist domination and labour and capital are increasingly bound up with each other. In these conditions, to expect the bourgeoisie to play any part in ejecting imperialism from Ireland, let alone a leading one, is blockheadedness to the point of lunacy.
With the complications of a collaborating bourgeoisie north and south, a loyalist Protestant working class, and the block to progress and the divisions caused by the border, we believe that the national liberation of Ireland relies on the strength of the working class and its commitment to a programme which will not only see it gaining hegemony over the national struggle but fighting to carry the revolution uninterruptedly to socialism as in Russia.
Only a Marxist-Leninist programme of uninterruptedly carrying the national revolution towards socialism throughout Ireland, only by fighting for proletarian hegemony over the revolution, can the contradictions caused or exacerbated by partition be resolved. With such a programme it becomes possible to split Protestant workers from loyalism, something impossible by insisting that the revolution is halted at a bourgeois stage. A programme of uninterrupted revolution also has the advantage of providing the best possible conditions for independent economic development which would not only protect the working class from the ravages of monopoly capitalism but also the hard pressed small farmers. It also links the struggles in the Six Counties with the massive potential represented by the proletariat in the Twenty-Six Counties.
So while we recognise imperialism as the main enemy we see the necessity of also striking at local monopoly capital because it is integrated with imperialism. This, far from losing the revolution allies, gives it the potential to greatly weaken the enemy camp and strengthen itself by winning all exploited and oppressed sections to its banner.
The extent to which the revolution can become uninterrupted depends centrally on the degree to which the proletariat can gain hegemony. If it fails to exert its strength, if it allows itself to merely tail the forces of petty bourgeois revolutionism, if the revolution stops short and a bourgeois regime consolidates itself, then of course a new specifically socialist revolution would become a necessity. But given the mass of acute antagonisms produced by imperialist domination and the huge growth of the working class there is every possibility of the workers playing an independent course, imposing its hegemony over the revolution and then succeeding in dominating the state machine.
Thus along the path of its fight for a socialist future the proletariat should seek to align itself with the forces of revolutionary republicanism like the IRSP and Sinn Féin. With these and other revolutionary allies the proletariat should aim at smashing the existing state machine both in the Six and Twenty-Six Counties. But while striking together with its revolutionary allies the proletariat must maintain its political independence, its own specifically socialist goals. Thus, on the ruins of the old state machine the proletariat would fight for an all-Ireland revolutionary government which would, given the power of the working class, proceed to take the country onto a course to socialism.
We believe that this perspective is the correct one for workers in Ireland to follow; other strategies fail to creatively apply Marxism or they adhere to reformism, or simply engage in revolutionary romanticism. For example, there are those on the sectarian fringe or the workers’ movement who refuse to recognise the democratic content of the Irish revolution, who deny the centrality of the anti-imperialist struggle for national reunification, and who reduce the struggle in Ireland to a simple matter of the class struggle between labour and capital. The most notable exponents of this view are the numerous brands of Trotskyism, and its offshoots, ranging from Militant’s Irish clone to the SWP’s “sister organisation”, the Socialist Workers’ Movement. They declare for a straight class struggle leading directly to a workers’ government. This hopeless leftism reveals a total absence of understanding of the laws of dialectics. It is a one dimensional workerist approach to living reality which deprives the working class of correct strategic and tactical direction and allies, fails to grasp the main contradiction in Irish society, and despite itself slips into economism.
But the main strategy which dominates the workers’ movement in Ireland is based on the so-called theory of stages. This comes in both revolutionary and reformist variants but fundamentally whatever its coloration it represents the outlook of the petty bourgeois elements in society. Most adherents start with the situation in the Six Counties and look to the struggle in the north to create the conditions for national reunification, the role of the masses in the south being seen as essentially supportive. Thus the Provisionals and the IRSP consider defeat for British Imperialism in the Six Counties to be a precondition for both national and working class unity. Only on this basis can the struggle for socialism (both organisations declare that they are in favour of socialism) begin.
Because of this, while we recognise the heroism of the IRA and the INLA, the revolutionism of Sinn Féin and the IRSP, we fight for the working class to organise independently of the republican movement while seeking a revolutionary alliance with it aimed at smashing the existing state machine. If the working class followed their strategy there would exist no possibility of splitting the Protestant working class from imperialism, the struggles in the north could never be organically linked with those in the south, and not only would labour “have to wait” but it would be reduced to nothing more than an auxiliary role in which socialism is used as nothing more than a carrot to spur them into action.
So while we proclaim the need to strike together with the forces of revolutionary republicanism, at the same time we must always march separately all the while fighting for working class hegemony over the revolution simply because the working class is the only consistently revolutionary class of contemporary society, a class which takes as its starting point the fact that it can only liberate itself by liberating the country from imperialism, by liberating all the oppressed, and by building a society free from all forms of exploitation and oppression as part and parcel of its international struggle for world revolution and communism.
3. Towards a Communist Party
To carry out its historic role the working class needs to build a party guided by the revolutionary theory of Marxism-Leninism, which scientifically expresses its fundamental interests. With such a party the working class in Ireland would become capable of assuming the leadership of the whole nation against imperialism and the bourgeoisie, and would be able to point the mass struggle towards socialism.
In Ireland a Communist Party was established in 1921 in order to play this vanguard role. The path it traversed and the positions maintained by the present leadership of the Communist Party of Ireland need critical study especially in the light of the burning tasks that confront workers in Ireland today. Indeed, the conditions which gave birth to the Communist Party of Ireland were rich and themselves repay examination. This is especially so given the fact that the last years of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth saw the working class in Ireland emerge first as a class in itself, with its split from the labour aristocracy in Britain enshrined in the split from the British trade union movement and the formation of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1908.
Dialectically connected and preceding this was the struggle for separate Irish working class political expression. In 1898 James Connolly founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) which, despite objections from British delegates, managed to secure independent Irish working class representations at the Second International in 1900. Significantly the ISRP stood for linking the fight for national liberation with that for socialism. “The national and economic freedom of the Irish people must be sought in the same direction, viz the establishment if an Irish Socialist Republic”, declared its first programme. Connolly argued that this had to be the case because the propertied classes were “bound by a thousand golden threads to Empire”. Socialism would be linked with the national liberation struggle because the “Irish working class must emancipate itself, and emancipating itself it must, perforce, free its country”, Connolly wrote in his first major theoretical work, Erin’s Hope (p23).
Unfortunately Connolly never placed the ISRP at the centre of his attentions. Although the party contested several elections, agitated amongst the working class, and published a paper Workers’ Republic, through which Connolly brilliantly expounded his views, membership never exceeded one hundred, and no effective internal structure or democracy was ever developed. What is more, Connolly left for America in 1903; there he was influenced by the ideas of industrial syndicalism propounded by Daniel De Leon. Thus when he returned to Ireland in 1910, while he helped out his old party (reorganised as the Socialist Party of Ireland – SPI – in 1909), after being appointed Belfast organiser of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) his main energies went into the union not the party.
This was also the case with Ireland’s other great revolutionary of the time, James Larkin. As a result, in the great Dublin lock-out of 1913, which was the culmination of a wave of industrial militancy beginning in 1907, it was the ITGWU not the SPI which led the working class into battle.
The lock-out involved 20,000 workers, a huge number given the level of industrialisation in Ireland outside Belfast. And while the ITGWU emerged at the end of the struggle badly battered, working class militancy had reached heights unheard of outside Russia, not least with the creation of the Irish Citizen Army – a workers’ militia formed for protection against police brutality, subsequently dubbed the world’s first ‘Red Army’.
It was with the Irish Citizen Army that in Easter 1916 Connolly launched an insurrection against the forces of British imperialism. Together with the Irish Volunteers they seized the centre of Dublin and declared an Irish Republic. Tragically, the uprising proved abortive. The broad masses, uninvolved in any moves towards armed struggle, and lack of any preparatory propaganda and agitation in favour of it, meant that they remained passive. The ITGWU and the SPI, likewise unaware if what was planned, were put on the sidelines because of Connolly’s allies’ insistence on keeping the whole affair a secret. Connolly’s abortive attempt to speed Britain’s defeat while it was at war with Germany, while heroic, revealed the shortcomings of his mechanical interpretation of Marxism and showed the desperate need for a Leninist type vanguard party.
With the rising crushed, many of its best leaders, including Connolly, dead, and Larkin in prison in America the working class in Ireland famed for its militancy became prey to the leadership of opportunists. The fact that the SPI was a loose centrist organisation, and the very all-embracing nature of the ITGWU, meant that the workers movement had no ideologically trained vanguard to resist the replacement of Connolly and Larkin by opportunists like William O’Brien (secretary of the SPI and Dublin Trades Council, vice chairman and later general secretary of the Irish TUC). This was not unconnected to the failure of Connolly and Larkin to fully grasp Marxism and the influence syndicalism exerted on them, indeed syndicalism provided fertile ground for opportunism to flourish.
In the period from Easter 1916 to the 1921 treaty, the fact that the working class in Ireland had no steeled vanguard party was to prove decisive. The catapulting of centrists to the head of the labour movement inevitably under conditions appertaining in Ireland led to the breaking of the organic link between the working class and the national struggle. Under O’Brien the official labour movement accepted that “Labour must wait”. This break in turn laid the basis for the Green bourgeoisie in the form of the not so long ago stunted Sinn Féin to capture the leadership of the erupting national movement, and with it the loyalty of tens of thousands who had previously looked to Connolly and Larkin.
It was on the basis of this confusion, in the midst of the Black and Tan War, civil war, and the partition of the country that, inspired by the Russian Revolution, the CPI emerged. The October Revolution was greeted with acclaim by Ireland’s proletariat; the SPI organised a rally to celebrate which attracted 10,000 to Dublin’s Mansion House. But for the SPI leadership, praise for Russia’s revolution was tempered by the needs of opportunist practice, especially its bureaucratic running of the ITGWU which had grown from 5,000 members in 1916 to a lucrative 100,000 by 1918. It was thus classic in its centrism. It was against these forces that the left of the SPI, with the encouragement of the Comintern, fought to transform the party into a Communist Party. Given the small size of the SPI and its lack of intimate links with the masses, indeed its very lack of importance, the labour bureaucracy was in the end prepared to lose control of the organisation without too much of a fight. And on October 28 1921 the membership of the SPI, having expelled O’Brien and Co, voted to change the name of the party to the Communist Party of Ireland and to seek affiliation to the Comintern.
4. Communism in Ireland
Starting with an active membership of around twenty, the fledgling CPI found events running ahead of it with such power and force that it was unable to play any really influential role, let alone a leading one. The civil war which broke out a mere six weeks after the Party was formed saw Griffith’s British-backed pro-treaty forces succeed in crushing the republican movement and establishing a firm pro-imperialist government. This doused the rekindled flame of industrial militancy which according to Countess Markievicz (Minister of Labour in the government of the Irish Republic), had created the conditions where social revolution was imminent (Mike Milotte Communism in Modern Ireland, p.49).
Although the CPI fought valiantly alongside the IRA anti-treaty forces, it could not attract any significant numbers from the IRA to its ranks. What is more, O’Brien and the labour bureaucracy not only kept the labour movement in pro-treaty ‘neutrality’ with the outbreak of civil war but set about isolating the communists by having them expelled from the Irish Citizen Army.
Having, despite heavy sacrifice and great effort, failed to shift the IRA anti-treaty forces to the left by getting them to adopt a progressive social policy, the CPI came out of the civil war not only with its morale shattered but in theoretical disarray. During the civil war the CPI adhered to an essentially stagiest theory. Its paper, the Workers’ Republic, declared on November 12 1921 that the CPI would
“fight as actively as our means permit for an Irish Republic, for a Capitalist Irish Republic, for a Republic wherein we shall still be wage slaves, shall still be an oppressed class, so long as this helps to destroy British Imperialism, the greatest enemy of the world revolution. This fight will teach us and prepare us for our own coming class fight – our fight for a Workers’ Republic.” (Quoted by M Milotte Ibid p54).
The CPI’s uncritical tailing of de Valera and the IRA, its lack of independent activity in the working class, meant that at the Fourth Congress of Comintern which met in November and December 1922 its leadership faced sharp criticism in private discussions with members of the Comintern Executive Committee. Unfortunately, because of the theoretical weaknesses of the CPI, this criticism had the effect of allowing a syndicalistic tendency to capture the leadership of the Party at its First Congress. The national question was all but abandoned in favour of the fight for “One Big Union”.
Comintern intervened in an attempt to rescue the situation. Roddy Connolly (son of James Connolly), previously the Party’s president, who had faced expulsion by the new leadership, was coopted back onto the Executive Committee as “director of propaganda”. But despite this the internal struggle, which the Comintern considered counterproductive, continued. This and James Larkin’s return from America and his refusal to associate with the “little wasps” in the CPI prompted renewed Comintern intervention, this time to order the Party’s liquidation. Its members were ordered to join with the Larkinite Irish Workers’ League, which had been formed in September 1923, and which was quickly accepted as the official section of the Comintern in Ireland.
Faced with a tiny and divided CPI, knowing full well the prestige James Larkin still enjoyed amongst a mass of Irish Workers, the Comintern decision was understandable. But this said, it was still wrong, indicating as it did an attempt to shortcut the arduous path of ideological struggle and the sorting out necessary to building a genuine revolutionary vanguard party. Certainly proof of the incorrectness of liquidating the CPI was given in the negative not least by the woeful performance of the Irish Workers’ League (IWL).
The IWL never became a party of the new type. Conditions of membership were extremely lax, and there was not even the organisation for collecting dues. And although 6,000 marched with the IWL in Dublin when Lenin died, it was only in Dublin that the IWL managed to establish any permanent organisation in Ireland. Even there meetings were constantly cancelled because Larkin himself could not attend. In fact, Larkin, although an EC member of the Comintern, far from seeing his main field of activity as the building of a vanguard party looked as he had in the past to industrial unionism as the key to the proletariat’s liberation. As a result he gave priority to work in building the Workers’ Union of Ireland, which has split from the O’Brien dominated ITGWU taking 16,000 of its Dublin membership.
Throughout the vicissitudes of the ‘twenties, Comintern doggedly backed Larkin’s IWL despite its nominal existence. Even when former leading members of the CPI disgusted with Larkin’s unwillingness to activate the IWL formed the Workers’ Party of Ireland the Comintern refused to give it recognition and ordered its liquidation. The liquidation of the CPI and then the Workers’ Party of Ireland (WPI) crushed the morale of many a fine communist in Ireland. The Comintern’s instruction to join a non-existent party and its insistence that the hopes of communism in Ireland be placed in the hands of the temperamental and increasingly erratic Larkin led to many leaving active politics.
It was only in 1930 that the remnants of the communist movement in Ireland were reorganised. In March of that year a Preparatory Committee for the Formation of a Workers’ Revolutionary Party (renamed the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups – RWGs – in November) was formed with the help of Comintern and the CPGB in the form of Bob Stewart and Tom Bell.
Unfortunately, the growing domination of centrism over the Comintern which manifested itself in the liquidation of the CPI and the WPI in the 1920s now spawned sectarianism as its official politics. The RWGs has despite this some remarkable successes, not least the establishment of a communist tradition in the Six Counties, where communists lead unemployed workers (both Protestant and Catholic) against the police. Under the banner of “class against class” the RWGs moved to the left in regard to the national movement: “Not a single move can now be made for independence without a struggle to overthrow the Irish capitalist class”, declared Sean Murray in Workers’ Voice of July 19 1930 (quoted by M Milotte Ibid p99). But for the RGWs, though under the influence of the Comintern, this was reduced to a mechanical, straight fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat, and in the workers’ movement the Irish Labour Party was branded “social fascist”.
In June 1933 the RWGs met to found the second Communist Party of Ireland. But the high hopes of the founding conference were to be disappointed. Soon after its foundation its paper Irish Workers’ Voice virtually collapsed. Still tied to the centrist sectarianism of the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, in the face of a reactionary onslaught north and south the CPI found itself isolated.
Relations with the IRA hit an all time low. In reaction to the CPI’s declared intention of organising factions in the IRA, its executive organised a purge of CPI members. Many joint members of the CPI and IRA chose the latter, no doubt because of the CPI’s isolation. Bad feeling between the two organisations became so acute that the Wolfe Tone commemoration on June 1933 CPI members were attacked by IRA volunteers and their publications were seized and destroyed. (M Milotte Ibid p143)
Although in 1934 relations between communists and republicans temporarily improved with the formation of the short-lived Republican Congress and the shift in Comintern policy from “class against class” towards popular fronts (which broke the isolation of many communist parties), the fortunes of the CPI still declined. Having shifted from sectarianism, the CPI again adopted a stagist approach. Sean Murray, the General Secretary of the CPI, declared to the first and only Republican Congress “I say you cannot smash capitalism until you get rid of British imperialism” (M Milotte Ibid p156). Because of this the CPI fought against moves for the Republican Congress to declare for a Workers’ Republic. And with the decisions of the Seventh and last Congress of the Comintern, held over July and August 1935, the CPI took another clear step to the right. In order to win allies amongst the ‘progressive’ elements in the bourgeoisie the CPI flung itself into the fight for respectability. The Unemployed Workers’ Movement and rank and file groups in the transport unions, amongst the CPI’s most impressive achievements of the early 30s, were merely the first victims, as the CPI in both north and south sought to align and integrate with the labour bureaucracy.
While these moves were motivated by a genuine desire to defend the Soviet Union against the growing menace of fascism, they were shortsighted. For by elevating defence of the Soviet Union above the interests of the world revolution and by placing trust in sections of the bourgeoisie, including the Progressive Unionist Party, the seeds of political liquidation were planted. In Ireland these centrist seeds quickly germinated and bore right opportunist fruit.
Like the rest of the world communist movement, the CPI tailed the diplomatic manoeuvres of the Soviet state through the twists and turns of its calls for an anti-German alliance between itself and the bourgeois democracies, its non-aggression pact with Hitler, and finally its wartime alliance with Britain. From 1937-39 in the Six Counties the Party desperately sought to cobble together a “Labour/Progressive Unionist” alliance, and in the Twenty-Six Counties it backed de Valera and called for him to join with imperialist Britain against Nazi Germany – a pro-British position which led it to denounce the IRA’s bombing campaign in Britain as “helping Hitler”.
During the time of the Soviet/German non-aggression pact and the ‘phoney war’ the CPI, like the CPGB, first found itself out of step with the Soviet Union by maintaining that the “cardinal enemy” was fascism; then on receiving news of the Comintern’s line that the war between Britain and Germany was imperialist the CPI executed a volte-face and came out with calls for peace on German terms. This brought about a certain coming together again of the CPI and the IRA and a renewed emphasis on the national struggle against British imperialism. Of course, with the German attack on the Soviet Union this line was put into reverse and in the Twenty-Six Counties the ending of neutrality was called for.
These gyrations, above all the fight for the nationally oppressed to join with their imperialist oppressors, left the CPI in the south more isolated than ever. This and the logic of liquidation enshrined in the decisions of the Seventh Congress led the leadership of the CPI, without any murmur of dissent from the Comintern, to close down its Dublin branch – now the only one in the Twenty-Six Counties – and call for its members individually to enter the Irish Labour Party.
In the Six Counties the Communist Party of Northern Ireland (CPNI) was formed. Under the banner of full support for British imperialism and its Soviet ally it not only gained significant sympathy from Protestant workers but even thousands of Protestant voters in the 1945 Stormont elections. But this had a price. The national question was not just dropped, it was buried. The Party became almost entirely based on Protestant workers – the labour aristocracy – and it showed little interest in winning the disreputable anti-British Catholics. The right opportunist national nihilism of the CPNI was bluntly stated in its pamphlet For a Prosperous Ulster, which declared that the Party’s aim was to “build a new Ulster of the common man… to keep in step with Britain and the new world” (quoted by M Milotte Ibid p212).
The right opportunist course was programmatically enshrined in 1962 when, inspired by the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU and the British Road to Socialism, the Irish Workers’ Party (IWP – formed as the Irish Workers’ League in November 1948 by former CPI members in the south) and the CPNI adopted programmes which were thoroughly permeated with reformism, pacifism, and dominated by the theory of stages. Both the IWP’s Ireland Her Own and the CPNI’s Ireland’s Path to Socialism argued that the goal of a free, united and socialist Ireland could only be achieved through a whole series of stages, at the centre of which lay the task of laying hold of the existing state machines in Belfast and Dublin, above all parliament. Through using parliament it would be possible to peacefully change the top echelons of the state and carry through far-reaching reforms. In the Twenty-Six Counties the immediate task was to construct a ‘progressive’ alliance which would push the government to defend the country’s political and economic independence and strengthen native capital against the transnationals. Likewise in the Six Counties workers should not fight for socialism but after achieving workers’ unity they should seek change through the existing state machine. Stormont, the CPNI maintained, should be given greater local autonomy by Westminster so it could pursue independent fiscal, foreign, and trade policies.
On the basis of a reformed Six Counties statelet and an independent Twenty-Six Counties the next stage of evolution could take place. The ‘progressive’ governments north and south would be able to develop their respective economies to such an extent that pure economic logic would dictate the establishment of one government for the Island. From this stage the path to socialism would be smooth, peaceful, and inevitable.
5. Theory and Practice
Armed with Marxist-Leninist theory communists can base their practice on a knowledge of the objective laws of social development and the dynamic of the balance of forces between the various social classes in a given country, its objective stage of development, and the relationship between that country and other countries. It is from this knowledge we have put forward our conclusion that Ireland is a medium developed capitalist country where, because the development of native monopolies has taken place under the domination of imperialism, indeed as an appendage of imperialism, the main task of the working class is to achieve hegemony over the national struggle, and, in alliance with other forces which are prepared to fight in a revolutionary way, smash the existing state machines both in the north and the south. We also say that with our understanding of the peculiarities of development in Ireland, especially the existence of a labour aristocracy which has had its privileges and its sectionalism reinforced by the partition of the country, that the communists must have a clearly stated perspective of fighting for not only working class hegemony over the revolution but of taking it uninterruptedly to socialism, transforming the democratic dictatorship into the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The true test of the correctness of our theory and especially our programmes – which are after all the crystallisation of our theory and general perspectives – is practice. Under the impact of practice our theory can be adjusted and developed in order to reflect our deeper understanding of reality which in turn makes our practice more effective. This is the method of Marxist-Leninists, a method opportunists merely pay lip service to.
For if we look at the programmes of the IWP and the CPNI and their later variants we can see that in the stormy and indeed revolutionary period ushered in with August 1969 they have proved useless in providing the working class with a clear guide. Throughout the great events of the 1970s, and the growing depth and breadth of the revolutionary movement in the 1980s, communists in Ireland have found themselves marginalised at best and at worst playing a negative role. But let us have a look at the words and deeds of communists in Ireland during the last fifteen years to make our point.
Far from opening the path to peaceful social evolution as the CPNI had expected and its programme had promised, agitation around civil rights proved in the context of the Six Counties to be political dynamite. So as social peace exploded the communists were horrified that potential ‘progressive’ allies, like unionist Prime Minister O’Neill, would become alienated. Because of this, while they played a leading role in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) they consistently opposed militant actions. When it did take militant action it was denounced, and even accused of provoking reactionary onslaught on civil rights marchers and Catholic areas by loyalist thugs and B Specials in 1969.
So the role communists played in NICRA was not revolutionary but conservative. In the same way when the civil rights agitation was transformed into insurrection with the Battle of the Bogside in August 1969, although the CPNI declared its “full support for the defensive action taken by the working people of the Falls Road” (Unity August 23, 1969), instead of fighting to spread the insurrection, win it active allies, and inculcate socialist consciousness among the masses, the CPNI looked to Westminster for salvation.
Under the idealist illusion that British monopoly capital wanted to unite Ireland all the better to exploit it; that it considered sectarianism a relic from the Stone Age; the CPNI expected that the intervention of British troops and British administrators would have positive results. “British monopoly capitalism waits ready to smash their former partners in crime” confidently but stupidly declared comrade Jimmy Stewart (Unity March 27 1971).
Because of its abstract, reformist, programmatic outlook the CPNI was even reduced, in the midst of the developing armed struggle, to trite quotes from Napoleon Bonaparte about “never interfering with the enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself”. So while the Catholic masses battled with the B Specials, while the IRA fought against British paratroopers, the communists stood on the sidelines moralising.
As the revolutionary crisis matured with the consolidation of no-go areas, the mass activity around internment, the shattering of the Unionist Party, and the fall of Stormont the communists offered meaningless reformist stunts such as the Better Life For All Campaign. (The fact that this Campaign was backed by Labour’s proconsul in Ireland, Roy Mason, Tories, and the British TUC should indicate to all partisans of the class struggle that objectively it was pro-imperialist.) And such is the inner logic of reformism that the communists ended up equating the violence of the oppressed with the violence of the oppressors. Comrade Andy Barr even denounced the Provisional IRA as “psychopaths” motivated only by their “appetites” for blood (quoted by M Milotte Ibid p238). Not surprisingly, they mechanically counterposed violent and peaceful, and illegal and legal methods of struggle. And flying in the face of reality they maintained that the armed struggle of the Provisionals “Far from weakening British imperialism (has) in fact contributed to its strengthening.”
The commitment to the theory of stages has meant that the communists in Ireland (reunited as the Communist Party of Ireland in 1970), far from giving the movement a clear revolutionary perspective looked to hold it back under the slogan of “workers’ unity”. This has meant in practice economism and playing down the national question. The CPI abandoned the oppressed for place-seeking in the trade union structure, which is dominated by the Protestant labour aristocracy, claiming that the Northern Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NC of ICTU) exemplified “workers’ unity”, something far from being feared by imperialism as the CPI claims is supported by it as long as it is “reformist unity”. So as increasing numbers were drawn into revolutionary activity the CPI sought, in the words of comrade Tom Redmond, to hold them back, to “return” them to “bourgeois parliamentary order” because according to him “it requires ‘normality’ to win people’s minds” (quoted by M Milotte Ibid p283). In an attempt to wean the masses back to ‘normality’ and ‘bourgeois order’ the CPI opposed the abolition of Stormont in 1972 and have ever since championed its restoration.
While the IWP and the CPNI were united into an all-Ireland Communist Party in March 1970, it was organised into areas, each with its own paper, policies relevant to its area, and leadership. This meant that there could exist a sort of opportunist division of labour. In the Six Counties under the leadership of comrade Jimmy Stewart (now General Secretary of the CPI) a pacifistic, economistic, national nihilist reformism was pursued. In parallel and superficially in contrast the leadership in the Twenty-Six Counties under the then General Secretary Michael O’Riordan placed more emphasis on the national question, albeit in a totally reformist fashion. In this way the Party in the south could look to influencing the greener sections of Fianna Fail as part of the stagist perspective of replacing “the present ruling parties by Progressive Governments North and South” (For Unity and Socialism, the 1970 programme of the CPI, p8).
So instead of fighting for a revolutionary democratic government in the Twenty-Six Counties, having a perspective of using it as a revolutionary bastion from which to expel British imperialism from Ireland, instead of seeking to bring about a close identity with the revolutionary masses in the Six Counties from the workers in the south so as to cultivate a revolutionary and a socialist consciousness amongst them, drawing the struggle in the north into the life of the south, the CPI urges workers to call for UN intervention and for the Dublin government to “exert pressure” on Britain.
Such an outlook has nothing to do with a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist unity of theory and practice. The CPI’s analysis is determined by its reformist theory of stages which, because of its unscientific nature, finds itself totally at odds with reality, especially as events have become so dramatic. Of course, the fact that the leadership has done nothing to dump its stagist junk only goes to prove that its opportunism is based on something for more fundamental than intellectual misconception.
The fact that British imperialism has not been more severely damaged by the armed struggle in the Six Counties has everything to do with the failure of the communist movements in both Ireland and Britain. In Ireland, if there had been an ideologically-steeled vanguard Communist Party the course of the last fifteen years would not only just have been very different but would, more importantly, be more advanced. The spontaneous uprising in the Catholic working class areas of Belfast and Derry in 1969 could, with the active intervention of communists, have been given socialist consciousness. What is more, guided by a Marxist-Leninist programme communists could have achieved considerable successes in defeating the collaborationist SDLP, undermining the loyalism of the Protestant workers, and drawing together the struggles in the north and south. Certainly the existence of a revolutionary situation in the Six Counties combined with the massive growth of the working class in the Twenty-Six Counties, where the social order is visibly under pressure, means that there exist the raw materials which could both give a revolutionary Communist Party mass influence and, under its leadership, British imperialism could receive a body blow which could have far-reaching consequences in Britain itself.
In Britain the prevention of Terrorism Act, riot training, plastic bullets, and blatant censorship, initially used against the Irish with the consent of the workers’ movement in Britain, have now proved with a vengeance Marx’s famous dictum, that “A nation that suppresses another can never be free.” First we saw ‘anti-terrorist’ raids, troops at Heathrow, and residents of the Six Counties denied entry into the rest of the United Kingdom; then radical and even liberal TV documentaries and plays were put in mothballs, and even relatively innocent pro-Irish pop songs were banned.
But the most striking example of Ireland coming to Britain has been the miners’ strike. The police have fought miners using all the paraphernalia and tactics learnt in the struggle against the nationalist population in the Six Counties. The fact that the CPGB leadership has gone out of its way to do nothing, say nothing, and has done its best to ignore Ireland has indirectly contributed to the police terror the miners are now having to confront.
We Leninists of the CPGB are out to expose the rotten record of those who dominate the Executive Committee of our Party. We are fighting to rescue it from the gutter where the opportunists have trailed it. We promise our Irish friends that in our struggle Ireland will be a central question because the liberation of Ireland will open the door for the liberation of the working class in Britain.