Irish Nationalism and British Imperialism, by Robert Dorn (DR O'Connor Lysaght), 1973

Communism and the National Question

The Debate on the Irish National Question

Appendix I: Communists on the Nation

Appendix II: Documents of the Left Opposition (YS) and RMG on the Irish National Question

Preliminary Remarks on the Question of Protestants in Northern Ireland
Document A, presented to the Socialist Labour Alliance Belfast Conference, June 1971 by DR O’Connor Lysaght

The Northern-Irish Protestant question is, for the Irish ‘national’ bourgeoisie, merely a disagreeable hangover from the struggle that it concluded to its own satisfaction in December 1921. For Revolutionary Socialists, it is a problem that, handled correctly, can give the initial impetus to the achievement of the Workers' Republic, and, if necessary, could spread into Britain the revolution that created it.

As a problem, it is an acid test for anyone claiming to operate the Marxist method. The issues concerned cannot be clarified by a mechanical reference to the case histories of Scientific Socialism. Only Connolly had to face a problem similar to (because the same as) this. The Russians and the Germans had to deal with the straight issue of a metropolitan power's exploitation to its colonies: The Americans, Debs and de Leon, had a similar matter. Only the Scot, John Maclean, in his handling of the problem of the break-up of a metropolitan power (the United Kingdom) into its component nations (England and Scotland) had to deal with anything of any likeness, and his solution is still arguably invalid.

The Problem about the Protestants of Northern Ireland is this: a colonial community bearing certain of the stigmata of a nation insists that it has the right to adhere politically to the metropolitan imperial power in defiance of the claims of the majority on the island where they both dwell. For Marxists, there are two immediate questions to answer: is this community in itself a distinct ‘nation’ and, if so, so what?

The scientific description of the ‘nation’ was formulated by JV Stalin, during his Bolshevik period in his personal masterpiece Marxism and the National Question (1913): ‘A nation is an historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture.’

How many of these features are seen in the Protestant Ulstermen?

To begin, their community certainly ‘evolved’ historically. It has existed (or part of it with most claims to be a nation: the area cast of the River Bann: the ‘Belfast Pale’) for some 300 years.

As to its ‘stability’, that is a matter deserving more scrutiny later.

It possesses ‘community of language’ certainly in Stalin's sense (‘We are referring, of course, to the colloquial language of the people and not to the official government language’) but so do all the people of the British Isles.
It does have ‘community of territory’ in the East European sense in that there is an area (the aforesaid ‘Pale’) which is recognisably a ‘Protestant’ area, albeit with ‘foreign’ (ie, Catholic) enclaves (The Falls Road, the Glens of Antrim).

‘Community of Economic Life’ exists also amongst the Protestants of the North-East of Ireland. Here is one particular difference separating them from their neighbours elsewhere in the island. In his work, Stalin goes into the matter at length:

‘The bourgeoisie plays the leading role (in the national movement). The chief problem for the young bourgeoisie is the problem of the market. Its aim is to sell its goods and to emerge victorious from competition with the bourgeoisie of another nationality. Hence its desire to secure its ‘own’ its ‘home’ market. The market is the first school in which the bourgeoisie learns its nationalism.’

In Ireland the twin facts of union and rack-rent landlordism operated, after 1801, to drive a wedge between the two communities in the country. On the one hand, the industrial bourgeoisie of the south, handicapped by the poverty of its potential 'home' market and lacking supplies of raw materials for producing capital goods gave up the ghost (with a few exceptions). In the North-East its counterparts were closer to the sources of their raw materials and were able to use the religious differences amongst their employees to good effect to maintain and increase their rate of exploitation. Their loss of a viable 'home' market was made up (as, in similar circumstances, those of Scotland and Wales were made up) by their participation in that of England, and, as the 19th century progressed, in that of the British Raj. This provided the formal economic basis for their hostility to the claims of their opposite numbers in the south for ‘Home Rule’ or for anything that might ‘open the floodgates’ and destroy the empire. The later development of Irish nationalism, with its, culmination in the Lemass protectionism of the 1930s, gave the Protestant industrialists a definite justification of their stand. Of course, by contracting out of the Irish national struggle, they had allowed it to develop as it did. But it is at this point that the last factor making up the nation appears.

The psychological make-up of the Ulster Protestants, as manifested in a community of culture was encouraged to develop during the 19th century in a manner different from that of the Irish Catholic majority. As with the economic factor, this was a turn away from the trend of the 18th century, It had been encouraged by the scabbery of the Catholics against the northern front of the '98 rising, compared with rumours of atrocities against Protestants in other areas. Later, religious division amongst the plebeians was a useful force for the bosses to use to maintain profits at a time of depression and rationalisation. In turn, this trend was maintained by the Catholic sectarian development of Irish nationalism from O'Connell (and, in particular, from the Emancipation Act) onwards. And this continued, in turn stimulated by the North-Eastern Protestants' refusal to continue in the tradition of '98. By 1886, Ulster industrialism was, in its way, even more dependent on the Catholic Church than the gombeen-men of that religion. The latter could have continued their economic role without their clergy, but at a time of increasing labour militancy (culminating in a Lib-Lab candidate for North Belfast in 1885), the industrial bosses feared continuing religious unity and took the opportunity of the Home Rule Bill to divide their workers again. How far this was conscious, it is hard to say. Once again the criminal bigotry, of all sections of the Irish national movement (including such so-called 'non-denominational' bodies as Sinn Féin, the IRA, and the Labour and Communist parties) has fed the belief amongst the Ulster Protestants that Home Rule means, automatically, 'Rome Rule'. This again, has encouraged the 'Prods' to maintain their own form of superstition.

But there is more to the north-eastern culture than Religion. The fact that the economy was more dependent on the British raj than those of the other nations and ur-nations of Britain resulted in a corresponding popular paranoia about that raj that exceeded that of the said communities. The Flag of Protestant Ulster is the Union Jack rather than the Red Hand. The Unionists are ‘British’: the only people in the British Isles that actually described themselves as such. After the First World War, Belfast had the largest (and most proletarian) membership of the British Empire Union in the United Kingdom. At Westminster, from their incorporation the Ulster Unionist MPs were the vanguard of imperialism.

Of course, there is an exception to all this loyalty: the two years (1912-1914) when Ulster looked like having to defend its separation from the Catholic south even against the armed forces of that Empire to which it proclaimed its loyalty. But the apparent exception does but prove the rule. The fact remains that when, at last, the Ulster Volunteers went to war they did so in defence of the entity that they had been formed to oppose. But this might have been mere accident, until one remembers that they had the support of nearly half (and an increasing number at that) of the British MPs, a large section of the Army and large minorities in the Dominions (especially Canada). All these would (and at the Curragh, did) defend Ulster's 'right' and saved it from having to fight. Battle would be its last resource -and would come only as a prelude to wide-spread imperial civil war. By August 1914, the Unionists were winning without a shot being fired.

Of course, there are other attributes to the culture of the Ulster Protestants. They have a liberal side to their rhetoric when they care to use it. They have a considerable repertoire of folk songs (mainly based on ‘Taig’ tunes). Nonetheless these are secondary to the outstanding forces in the Orange psychology – Imperialism and the Protestant religion.

It is the nature of the economic and psychological factors in the Ulster Protestant community that makes its stability as a separate unit less than is usual for a true nation. On this subject, it is worth recalling what Stalin has to say in his work:

‘It is unquestionable that the great empires of Cyrus and Alexander could not be called nations, although they came to be constituted historically and were formed out of different tribes and races. They were not nations, but casual and loosely-connected conglomerations of groups, which fell apart or joined together depending upon the victories or defeats of this or that conqueror.

‘Thus, a nation is not a casual or ephemeral conglomeration, but a stable community of people.’

The examples quoted might seem to be a far cry from the small, compact, Belfast Pale. However, the subject has more in common with the Persian and Hellenic Empires than appears at first sight. For, whatever about the Ulster Protestants' claim to be a separate nation, it is certainly true that, on the data given, they (or rather, those around Belfast) can (and do) claim to be part of the nation, not of Ireland but of Britain. This claim has been upheld, though less, recently, than before, by their leaders.

But the creation of a British community was a process that was based on a certain historically short-term situation: Britain's role as the first industrial capitalist country (‘the workshop’) of the world. Even before this, of course, England had intervened to slow down (in the second case, to halt) the development of two peoples (The Irish and the Welsh) towards nationhood. However its capitalistic pre-eminence enabled it to continue to expand and consolidate itself: to merge politically with the nation of the Scots, to keep the Welsh divided amongst themselves, to thwart the development of a united Irish nation and, as its crowning achievement, to win to its active support a major section of the Irish national vanguard of '98. Had its monopoly position in the capitalist world not been challenged by Germany and the USA it might even have been able to win over the rest of the Irish despite the religious problem (and the Irish clergy would not have opposed a merger) and the bitterness created [by] the famine.

But, as its empire breaks up, so, too, does the British community. Scotland is now restive. So is Wales, though because of its lack of the economic factor it is not yet a full nation. Northern Ireland is dependent for its identity, now, on British bribes (covering actual exploitation) its puppet regime and religious vendetta. Of these, it is significant of the present political trends in Britain, that Stormont is regarded as something to be preserved. The founders of the sub-state accepted it reluctantly. Of the other two factors, the British welfare state is contracting and, in any case, can be countered by a Socialist analysis of the actuality of imperialism's exploitation of the Six Counties. The religious divide looms as wide as ever, due, as we have seen, to the incompetence and downright malice of bourgeois and petty bourgeois (including so-called Socialist) political movements on both sides of the border. Here, again, a scientific Socialist policy that does not funk the question of religion will play a major role in winning the Protestant workers.

Thus the Northern Ireland Protestants do not constitute a separate nation, or part of a nation separate from the majority of the Irish people. It is rather a part of an unformed Irish nation that had its growth stunted when its original bourgeois revolution was smashed and of which the establishment will be one function of the coming Socialist revolution.

There are several corollaries to all this. In the first place, the fact that Ulster Protestants do not constitute a nation as such means that, similarly, the claim that the Irish Catholics on their own form a nation must be rejected for the same reasons. Until the present decade (the 1970s) it was notable that those readiest to accept the separation of Northern Ireland – including such as Ernest Blythe and Desmond Fennell – were also those who were most prepared to accept the confessional nature of the twenty-six county state as being most in keeping with the national 'psychology' (in reality because the Catholic Church is useful to discipline the workforce). Again, it must be asserted that, after 1800, not only did the Northern Protestant psychology change, the Irish Catholic psychology did so too. The latter became less Gaelic and more Catholic-Jansenist. Even without the presence of the Protestants, an 18th century Gaelic Irish Republic would in matters of faith and morals, have been freer than the modern 26 County State. In short the 26 County community is merely a section of an unformed national community that has had the fate to fall under the influence of what is called ‘the One Catholic and Apostolic Church’ And vice versa, as has been shown, the Ulster Protestants have been diverted similarly by sectarian Protestantism and imperialism.

Secondly, the statement of the Socialists' duty to complete the formation of the nation will undoubtedly cause disagreement on the ultra-left. After all, we want international Socialism, we can't have ‘Socialism’ in one country (or in one nation), etc. For such as these, it is worth recalling that Connolly anticipated the end of ‘states, territories and regions’, under Socialism, but not ‘nations’, that indeed he insisted on the impossibility of having ‘international-ism’ without ‘nationalism’, and, of course, that he saw the Irish national revolution as the first sign in the world Socialist revolution.

Further, the actual Government of the first Workers' Republic of the world passed at the Tenth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1921) a resolution stating its aims to be ‘The elimination of actual national inequality . . . (b) . . . a stubborn and persistent struggle against all survivals of national oppression and colonial slavery’ amongst the 30,000,000 soviet citizens ‘consisting principally of Turkic peoples . . . who have not passed through a capitalist development, who do not or practically do not, possess an industrial proletariat of their own, who in the majority of cases preserve the pastoral and patriarchal tribal form of life . . . or who have not yet progressed completely beyond a semi-patriarchal, semi--feudal form of life (ie all those whose claims to national status were dubious) . . . but who have already been drawn into the common current of Soviet development.’ To do this the government was to encourage a development of co-operatives, and also, in common with the better developed nations ‘to help them (a) to develop and consolidate their own Soviet state system in forms consistent with the national social conditions of these peoples: (b) to develop and consolidate their own courts, administrative bodies, economic organs, functioning in the native language and recruited from among local people acquainted with the customs and psychology of the local population (c) to develop a press, schools, theatres, clubs and cultural and educational institutions generally, functioning in the native language, and (d) to organise and develop an extensive system of courses and schools both for general education and for vocational and technical training given in the native languages (mainly for the un-formed nations enumerated above) in order to accelerate the training of native cadres of skilled working men and Soviet and Party workers in all spheres of administration, and particularly in the sphere of education’. In other words, clearly, Soviet policy was to develop national characteristics in so far as they did not clash with working-class power.

Of course the development of a nation under Socialist government is different from its development under capitalism in one aspect: the economic community that it possesses will be merely a part of an overall economic community (unless Ireland is as unlucky as Russia in the failure of the Revolution to spread). But what will be developed after the revolution will still be a recognisable nation.

The third corollary is that of the League for a Workers' Republic's definition of Northern Ireland as a ‘nationality’, distinct from a nation. Presumably this coincides with the definition given above, but since the League has failed to date (29.5.71) to clarify its definition beyond saying that a ‘nationality is an undeveloped nation’ it is uncertain.

Analysis is useful only if it forms the basis for future action. Thus, the Socialist Labour Alliance must be offered a possible strategy as well as the theoretical base for it. Such a strategy should be based on 6 points:

1. Full support for workers' struggles north and south. A campaign must be carried out for all working-class demands, against redundancy and unemployment. The long-term aim must be a general strike which, unlike those of 1918-1920, will involve the Ulster Protestant working-class, as well as the workers elsewhere.

This point should not be necessary to mention as part of a strategy for a Socialist Labour Alliance. However, as it should be part of such a strategy, it should not be ignored here.

2. In propaganda work, much more should be done about the economic effects of imperialism in the republic. What has been achieved on that subject, so far, is remarkably scrappy.

A study group should be set up to produce such a report, and link it to the Common Market issue, the subjective facts of the matter, etc.

3. The issue of religion is the major cultural cause of division between the two parts of Ireland. Revolutionary Socialists must attack it not only because of this but because Revolutionary Socialism is, of its nature, secular, or it is nothing.

Certainly there must be freedom for all outside the movement itself to practice their peculiar individual forms of superstition. However, the movement must insist that for itself it can accept these only as forms of superstition such as its members must overcome and which it can allow to survive in public life only on its own terms. (It is, of course, true that from its inception the People's Democracy has been carrying out this task. But against the PD it must be pointed out that it has often tended (as in the Belfast-Dublin march of April 1969) to concentrate on that particular matter to the exclusion of the problems at the economic basis of society. The first two points (above) will operate to avoid this danger).

As the major part of the struggle against religious superstition, it is proposed that the following 5 Secular Proposals be adopted by the Conference as Alliance policy:

a) End of denominational (ie, non-secular) education north and south.

b) Expropriation, of all religious property without compensation, north and south.

c) Withdrawal from Bunreacht na hÉireann of articles 41 (on the Family) 42 (on Property) and 44 (on Religion).

d) Repeal of legislation in the Republic that forbids contraception, adult homosexual activity, divorce and abortion.

e) Ending of the right of a priest to carry out the function of a State Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

4. The above three points will contribute greatly to the weakening of Northern Irish Protestant separatism. Nonetheless, the question must be asked whether or not it will be principled and/or necessary to give formal recognition to the validity of this separatism, if only to carry out Lenin's formula: ‘disunion for the purpose of union’.

The Protestants of the Belfast ‘Pale’ are not a nation. They may be what the LWR describes as a ‘nationality’. Should they be allowed the right to self-determination?

The question is one of tactics: how is such a right likely to affect the Irish revolution and its continuance abroad? In the long run, and with the policies already enumerated, it would not make much difference: it could only be a dangerous red herring. As has been shown, the objective factors weakening the solidarity of the Ulster Protestant community are operating and must be encouraged.

But matters cannot be 'left to the development of these factors, simply because there are pressures working to prolong the agonising survival of the community.

First of these is British capitalism. Now that, economically, the Republic is qualitatively as subordinate to Britain as Northern Ireland, its natural instinct is to reunite the country. But this would cause too many security problems on Britain's flank. Irish capitalism cannot afford (if it ever could) to maintain the declining economy of the North East. Politically it is unattractive not only to the Protestants but to increasing numbers of Catholics. Reunification of Ireland under capitalism (ie under Britain) would weaken that capitalism.

Nor is it likely that Britain can establish that liberal bourgeois state in Northern Ireland that it has promised. Northern Ireland was designed as a state divided within itself. A normal bourgeois democracy needs greater unity than it has enjoyed. Economic decline, clerical dominance in the Republic, the crisis of leadership in Irish Socialism and over a century of ‘Divide and Profit’ tactics by the Protestant industrialists have combined to ensure that the largest single political force amongst the Ulster Protestants is Paisleyism. Britain can do one of three things: it can continued the status quo, with either Republicanism or Paisleyism. It is not difficult to see which is the most likely.

In these circumstances, anything that can at least neutralise enough Protestants is worth trying, and it is purely in this spirit (the spirit of Lenin dealing with the Moujiks) that one must consider allowing self-determination to the ‘Pale’ of Belfast. Of course, it must be stressed that self-determination cannot mean surrender either to Paisleyism or to British imperialism – nor can it be applied in Northern Ireland per se.

It is arguable that such limited (but Bolshevik) terms of self-determination would lack sufficient credibility to win enough of the Protestants from Paisleyism. On this matter however, it can be pointed out that it should be taken in conjunction with the other proposals listed.

Accordingly, more investigation should be done into this matter and more discussion should be instituted through the theoretical journals available to the Alliance, particularly the Northern Star (as this is most involved in the areas concerned).

5. The probability that, despite eleventh hour attempts, Paisleyism will triumph in Northern Ireland (for the time being) means that the Alliance must struggle to provide Socialist Leadership for the Republican areas. It must warn the inhabitants of these areas of the facts of the political situation, point out why the policies sponsored by Gardiner Place, Kevin Street and the various terrorist groups, cannot achieve even the reunification of Ireland, and emphasise, once more, Connolly's dictum: ‘Nationalism without Socialism is national recreancy’. It must prepare the Northern Ireland Catholic areas for the revival of the barricades, and, for the immediate transformation of the new communes into Soviets. The Southern branches of the Alliance should give their comrades all possible help in this. Two definite proposals can be made immediately.

Firstly, members of the Alliance should prepare to get training in using arms.

Secondly, a pamphlet explaining the failure of the insurrection of August 1969 (basically a failure to escalate intensively and extensively) should be prepared and published as soon as possible.

6. At all times the Alliance should remember and should try to explain that the Irish national revolution is but the beginning of an uninterrupted international revolution, and that its fate is bound up with its spreading.

1. Because of the instability of the factors providing its distinct character, the Northern Irish Protestant community is not a nation but rather a part of the unformed nation of the Irish.

2. The particular characteristics that gave the Protestants their (‘national’ appearance (namely British capitalism and religious superstition) are being eroded, or are likely to be eroded by the inter-national decline of imperialism and religion.

3. The British Government, because of its capitalist nature, cannot hasten this process, however much it may desire to do so. In practice it can only make matters worse and is likely, unchecked, to have to prepare a Paisleyite-Fascist dictatorship.

4. Only a Socialist movement can reunite the country as part (perhaps a catalytic part) of the process of Permanent Revolution.

5. The question of Protestant self-determination is a matter of pure tactics to be considered only in connection with the overall Socialist strategy.

6. This strategy will include struggles against capitalism, against religious superstition, and against the petty bourgeois aspects of Republicanism. All these struggles are described above in detail.

Forward to Appendix II, Document B

Back to Appendix I

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