on Ireland reprinted here were adopted by the International Executive
Committee of the international Spartacist tendency on 5 August
In the absence of any significant section of the Irish working class historically freed from national/communal insecurity, the result is a seemingly intractable situation in which prospects for the development of a genuine class-struggle axis and for an end to the interminable cycle of imperialist exploitation/repression and inter-communal violence appear remote. The strong possibility remains that a just, democratic, socialist solution to the situation in Ireland will only come under the impact of proletarian revolution elsewhere and concretely may be carried on the bayonets of a Red Army against opposition of a significant section of either or both of the island's communities.
Nevertheless, no matter to what extent a bleak immediate prognosis is justified, the conflict in Ireland presents a crucial test of the capacity of a revolutionary internationalist tendency to provide a clear analysis and programme and to confront the national question in the imperialist epoch. For revolutionists, who refuse to deal in the simplicities (ultimately genocidal) of the nationalists, the situation in Ireland can appear to be exceedingly complex and intractable. The ‘Irish question’ provides a strong confirmation of the unique revolutionary potency and relevance of the international Spartacist tendency's understanding of Leninism, particularly in relation to geographically inter-penetrated peoples.
2. An essential element of our programme is the demand for the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of the British army. British imperialism has brought centuries of exploitation, oppression and bloodshed to the island. No good can come of the British presence; the existing tie between Northern Ireland and the British state can only be oppressive to the Irish Catholic population, an obstacle to a proletarian class mobilisation and solution. We place no preconditions on this demand for the immediate withdrawal of all British military forces or lessen its categorical quality by suggesting ‘steps’ toward its fulfilment (such as simply demanding that the army should withdraw to its barracks or from working-class districts).
At the same time we do not regard the demand as synonymous with or as a concrete application of either the call for Irish self-determination (that is, a unitary state of the whole island) or for an independent Ulster – two solutions which within the framework of capitalism would be anti-democratic, in the first case toward the Protestants and in the second toward the Irish Catholics. Nor is the demand for the withdrawal of British troops sufficient in, itself, as though it has some automatic, inherent revol-utionary content or outcome. As the eminent British bourgeois historian AJP Taylor observed in an interview:
As historically demonstrated by examples such as India, Libya, Cyprus and Palestine, the withdrawal of British imperialism, while a necessary objective of the communist vanguard, in itself does not automatically ensure an advance in a revolutionary direction. Thus, the demand for the immediate withdrawal of the British army from Northern Ireland must be linked to and constitute a part of a whole revolutionary programme.
3. As Leninists we are opposed to all forms of national oppression and privilege and stand for the equality of nations. Writing in 1913 Lenin succinctly set forth as follows the fundamental principles underlying the revolutionary social-democratic position on the national question:
Thus, the right to self-determination means simply the right to establish a separate state, the right to secede. We reject the notion that it means ‘freedom from all outside interference and control' or entails economic indepen-dence. In the general sense the right to self-determination is unconditional, independent of the state that emerges or its leadership.
However, for Leninists this right is not an absolute demand, a categorical imperative, to be implemented at all times and everywhere there is a nation. It is only one of a range of bourgeois-democratic demands; it is a part, sub-ordinate to the whole, of the overall programmatic system. When the particular demand for national self-determination contradicts more crucial demands or the general needs of the class struggle, we oppose its exercise. As Lenin notes:
In particular, in the case of interpenetrated peoples sharing a common territory, we oppose the exercise of self-determination by one nation where this flatly conflicts with the same right for another nation. In this situation the same general considerations apply, namely our opposition to all forms of national oppression and privilege, but in such circumstances the exercise of self-determination by one or the other people in the form of the establishment of their own bourgeois state can only be brought about by the denial of that right to the other. Under capitalism this would simply be a formula for reversing the terms of oppression, for forcible population transfers and expulsions and ultimately genocide. It is a ‘solution’ repeatedly demonstrated in history, for example in the cases of India/Pakistan, Israel/Palestine and Cyprus.
In general our support for the right to self-determination is negative: intransigent opposition to every manifesta-tion of national oppression as a means toward the unity of the working class, not as the fulfilment of the ‘manifest destiny’ or ‘heritage’ of a nation, nor as support for ’progressive’ nations or nationalism. We support the right of self-determination and national liberation struggles in order to remove the national question from the historic agenda, not to create another such question. Within the framework of capitalism there can be no purely democratic solution (for example through universal suffrage) to the national question in cases of interpenetrated peoples.
The same general considerations apply not only to ‘fully formed’ nations, but also to nationalities and peoples which may still be something less than fully consolidated nations, for example the Eritreans in their struggle against Amharic domination or the Biafrans at the time of the Nigerian civil war. Indeed, not infrequently the historical formation of nations is tested and completed in the process of struggles for self-determination. Our opposition to the exercise of self-determination by an interpenetrated people would also apply where one or more of the groupings, though not a historically compacted nation, has sufficient relative size and cultural level that the exercise of self-determination could only mean a new form or reversal of the terms of oppression.
4. Concretely, in Ireland the question of Irish national self-determination was not fully resolved by the establish-ment of the Republic of Éire. But to demand ‘Irish self-determination’ today represents a denial of the Leninist position on the national question. It is incumbent on revolutionists to face up to exactly what the call for ‘self-determination of the Irish people as a whole’ means.
Obviously the call is not one for the simultaneous self-determination of both communities, an impossibility for interpenetrated peoples under capitalism. In another sense the demand is about as meaningful as calling for ‘self-determination for the Lebanese people as a whole’ in the middle of last year's communal bloodletting. In the case of Ireland such a demand utterly fails to come to terms with the question of the Protestant community of Ulster, comprising 60 percent of the statelet's and 25 percent of the whole island's population. Such a demand is a call for the formation of a unitary state of the whole island, including the forcible unification of the whole island by the Irish bourgeois state irrespective of the wishes of the Protestant community. It is a call for the Irish Catholics to self-determine at the expense of the Protestants. It is a call for the simple reversal of the terms of oppression, an implicit call for inter-communal slaughter, forced population transfers and ultimately genocide as the way forward to the Irish revolution.
5. The present six-county enclave in Northern Ireland is a ‘sectarian, Orange statelet,’ the product of an imperial-ist partition. Prior to the partition revolutionaries would have opposed partition, striving to cement revolutionary unity in the struggle for independence from British imperialism. However, with the partition, the accompanying communal violence and demographic shifts, and the establishment of a bourgeois republic in the south it was necessary to oppose the forcible reunification of the six counties with the rest of Ireland. At the same time the present statelet guarantees the political and economic privileges of the Protestants. We oppose the Orange state and the demand for an independent Ulster as forms of determination for the Protestants which necessarily maintain the oppression of the Irish Catholic population of Ulster, an extension of the Irish Catholic nation. Since they are the local bodies of the British repressive state apparatus and the training ground for the present Protestant paramilitary groups and a future reactionary Protestant army, we demand: Smash the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).
6. There is a series of urgent democratic demands that apply to the situation of the oppressed Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland. We demand full democratic rights for the Catholic minority and an end to discrimination in housing and hiring. But such demands must be linked to class demands which transcend the bounds of bourgeois democracy. Without the demand for a sliding scale of wages and hours, for example, the call to end discrimination will simply imply leveling in an already economically depressed situation. The relevant partial, negative, democratic and economic demands must be integrated into the revolutionary transitional programme which transcends the capitalist framework of economism and democratic reformism.
7. Historically the Protestants of Ulster were an extension of the Scottish and English nations. The 1798 United Irishmen uprising was led by the Protestant middle class and reflected the impact of the French and American bourgeois revolutions on the nascent capitalist class (overwhelmingly Protestant) in Ireland. This insurrection against British imperialism, which was defeated in part by development of the reactionary sectarian Orange Order and the mobilisation of the peasantry by Catholic priests, was the opportunity for the establishment of a modern nation of the whole island. Since that time, though the most modern capitalist sectors remained Protestant for a long period, the Protestants have acted for the most part as loyal and fervent defenders of the union with British imperialism. The bigotry and discrimination among the Protestants toward the Irish Catholic nation necessarily exceeds the worst excesses of Irish Green nationalism, and most of the sectarian murders in the current period have been carried out by Protestant paramilitary groups.
Though not yet a nation, the Protestants are certainly not a part of the Irish nation and are distinct from the Scottish and English nations. Presently their separate existence is defined in large part as against the Irish Catholic nation and at the ideological level is expressed in religious terms. With their own social and cultural fabric (epitomised in the Orange Order) and history of opposition to the Irish nationalist cause, they have therefore acted as the ‘loyalist’ allies of British imperialism. At the same time, in this century the allegiance has been more a means than an end, demonstrated, for example, by the willingness of Sir Edward Carson to seek German aid if British imperialism would not fulfil the Ulster Protestants' demands and by the 1974 Ulster Workers Strike.
In all likelihood, a definite resolution of the exact character of the Ulster Protestant community will be reached with the withdrawal of the British army and will depend on the circumstances surrounding this. The particular conditions will pose point-blank their future and the ‘solution’ to the Irish question. The solution posed by AJP Taylor is but one possibility.
At the same time the social organisation, weaponry, military expertise and alliances of the Protestants, make a ‘Zionist’ solution entirely conceivable. On the other hand, if the withdrawal of the British army was in the context of massive class mobilisations, opportunities would undoubt-edly arise for a class determination of the question.
8. Attempts to ignore or deny the separate identity and interests of the Ulster Protestants through the familiar liberal plea that British or other socialists cannot ‘tell the Irish how to wage their struggle’ or the argument that only oppressed nations have a right to self-determination can be rejected easily on general theoretical grounds. The Protestants are neither a colonial administration (as were the British in India) nor a closed colour caste (as are the whites in South Africa). Arguments that the Protestants have no legitimate claim because they were originally settlers and the present statelet is an artificial imperialist creation are based ultimately on notions of nationalist irredentism and ‘historical justice.’ Although sometimes expressed as the demand that the Protestants go ‘home,’ such arguments are in the last analysis genocidal. Also inadequate is the explanation of the Protestants as simply a backward sector of the Irish nation, whose loyalism/Orangeism is purely an imperialist ideology given a certain nationalist tinge in order to attract a mass base.
9. Protestant communalism does have a material basis in the marginal privileges enjoyed by the Protestant workers. The most explicit attempt to confront and discount the Protestant community's separate identity in ‘Marxist’ terms is the description of the Protestant work-ing class as a ‘labor aristocracy.’ This explanation is similar to the New Left theories about the American white working class and involves an attempt to broaden the term so as to destroy its original meaning, while failing to recognise that the Protestant community extends through all classes and strata of society. Even to claim that the entire Protestant working class of Northern Ireland is a labour aristocracy is a gross distortion of the term. The Northern Ireland working class as a whole has some of the worst wages, unemployment and housing in the British Isles. Moreover, wage differentials between Protestant and Catholic workers are not so marked that the two communities have significantly different living standards.
10. From the point of view of the general interests of British imperialism the border between Ulster and the Republic is now anachronistic:
While historically British imperialism has used the sectarian divisions, played the ‘Ulster card' to its own advantage, it is not now committed to the preservation of the Orange statelet and would prefer a settlement which would remove its direct political responsibility on the island. With the decline of Ulster industry and the growth of investment opportunities in the south, the border is an obstacle to its overall intentions. But at the same time as it adopts various schemes to this end British imperialism is constrained to maintain capitalist law and order and prevent a complete breakdown in the social order. The increase in independence talk by Ulster Protestants, the Ulster Workers Strike of 1974 and the significant number of Protestants imprisoned for political offences do not reflect mere ‘tactical' differences between the imperialists and their subordinates, but rather a divergence of interests between genuinely distinct forces.
11. We reject the argument that Protestant workers are so reactionary that only force will convince them and that the precondition for winning them is the destruction of the Orange statelet. The understanding that the current partition is inherently oppressive is perverted into a conception of a ‘two-stage’ revolution in which the socialist tasks can only follow the completion of Irish national unity on the whole island. Sometimes linked to this is the claim that it is ‘naïve’ to expect the Protestant and Catholic workers to unite on ‘economic’ issues, since it is these that divide them. By analogy, no working class could ever transcend its sectional interests. Economism is the political expression of the failure of the working class in the absence of a revolutionary leadership to reject bourgeois ideology and place its revolutionary class interests above particular, sectional or apparent needs or desires. The above argument is based on the central premise of economism – that the working class cannot transcend its immediate sectional interests and identify with all oppressed and the future of humanity. Such ‘anti-economism’ is in fact a denial of the pertinence of the Transitional Programme in the service of the nationalism of the oppressed.
12. The Protestants feel legitimately threatened by the proposal for a united (bourgeois) Ireland, that is, their forcible absorption into an enlarged version of the reactionary clericalist state of Éire. The communalism/nationalism of the Protestants has a defensive character and is not the chauvinism of a great power. A united bourgeois Ireland would not provide a democratic solution for their claims and we must therefore reject such a solution. Such a state would necessarily be sectarian, and the Protestants will not voluntarily enter such a union.
The difficulties of such a solution are indicated in the earlier experience of the Bolsheviks. At the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920 the Ukrainian delegate Merejin observed in an amendment to the ‘Theses on the National and Colonial Questions’:
The present Irish bourgeois republic is a clerical reactionary state in which the Roman Catholic Church enjoys considerable real and latent powers. An essential aspect of this is not the current level of religious persecution or discrimination (though the current repressive measures directed mostly against the IRA are an indication of the Irish bourgeoisie's intentions), but the relationship of Roman Catholicism to Irish nationalism, especially as it helps to define the divisions between the two communities.
Leninism and nationalism are fundamentally counterposed political viewpoints. Thus, while revolutionists struggle against all forms of national oppression, they are also opposed to all forms of nationalist ideology. It is a revision of Leninism to claim that the ‘nationalism of the oppressed’ is progressive and can be supported by communist internationalists. In one of his major works on the national question Lenin stressed:
To attempt to dismiss the above-mentioned features of Irish nationalism and the Irish Republic, to suggest that somehow these matters are not important, is to imply that Irish nationalism and capitalism are in some way ‘progressive’ and (unlike all other nationalists and capitalists) will not promote racial, sexual and communal divisions in the working class, in particular will not discriminate and persecute non-members of their national grouping.
like other situations of interpenetrated peoples as in the Middle
East and Cyprus, is a striking confirmation of the Trotskyist
theory of permanent revolution. The inevitable conclusion is
that while revolutionists must oppose all aspects of national
oppression, they must also recognise that the conflicting claims
of interpenetrated peoples can only be equitably resolved in
the framework of a workers state. We struggle for an Irish workers
republic as part of a socialist federation of the British Isles.
while the establishment of a united workers state of the whole
island may be preferable, the above demand is algebraic, leaving
open the question of where the Protestants fall. This recognises
that the nature of the Protestant community has not yet been
determined in history. As such, it is counterposed to calls for
a ‘united workers republic' or for a ‘united socialist
Ireland’ (where this demand is not simply an expression
for left/nationalist or Stalinist two-stage theories). Placing
the demand in the context of a socialist federation has the additional advantage
of highlighting the essential relationship of the proletarian revolution
in the whole area and the virtual impossibility of the resolution of
the Irish question on a working-class basis outside this framework.
This, and the strong representation of Irish workers in the working
class in Britain, points to the demand for a British Isles-wide trade-union
federation as a method of promot-ing joint struggle and cutting
across the divisions in the working class in Ireland.
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