Imperialism and Ireland

















In the last post Boffy alerted me to a debate he has had on imperialism, the last few comments of which brought up the question of Ireland and its relationship to imperialism, and it is on this I want to make a few remarks.

He asks – “Does Ireland today conform to the ideas portrayed in Lenin’s “Imperialism, of a colony? Has development in Ireland been held back, by foreign investment or has it been advanced?”

On the first question the answer is partly yes – at least the North-East of the country, Northern Ireland – is a colony.  It is a part of one country ruled by a larger foreign neighbour that has not been integrated into the larger conquering territory, witness the howls of rage at the DUP supporting a Tory Government when not the slightest notice is taken when this Party is lauded for peacemaking in Ireland by being in government.

A settler-colonial population has historically claimed superior social and political rights over the native population, including most importantly, the claim that it needs a separate state because the native Catholic Irish cannot be trusted not to discriminate against Protestants the way Unionist Protestants have discriminated against them.

Sectarian social and political practices have been carried out that have been variously allowed, sanctioned and enforced by the British rulers.  When resistance to this erupted, the British State employed its superior force, armed the local settler colonial population and facilitated some of the worst sectarian atrocities by paramilitary thugs based in this population.  In the worst period thousands of Catholics moved in order to escape potential pogroms.

Even today the marking of territorial conquest is expressed through segregated residential areas with flags flown and footpaths painted to denote sectarian control.

A lot of this is widely recognised but the label colony is avoided in order to legitimise the role of the British, the role of the colonialists and the role of the erstwhile resistance to this British rule which has now accepted the partitionist framework.  It is also less easily appreciated because the native population are white West Europeans and could not have been, and generally have not been, subject to the barbarity of darker skinned native populations in other parts of the world.  The Great Famine, an Gorta Mór, is a major exception.

An English leftist, working for a while in Belfast in the 1980s and attending a meeting, noted that the ‘war’ that was taking place was indeed ‘low intensity’ and comparatively few people had or were being killed.  It was noted by a comrade of mine that while this was true the conflict was remarkably prolonged and protracted.  The two are undoubtedly related, but it is also the case that the North of Ireland is a small place and scaled up the scope of the violence looks less meagre.

But for all the reasons that the North is a colony the Southern Irish state is not.  It is as independent a state as any small Irish state could be.  As I have noted before, the last trappings of foreign British rule, including the oath of allegiance to the British monarchy and ownership by Britain of certain Irish “treaty’ ports, is history.

Some ‘anti-imperialists’ reject this level of independence and want a ‘real’ independent Irish State, one that can only come from being what is called a Workers’ Republic.  In fact, behind this ideal of ‘real’ independence lies Stalinist notions of state socialism, which involves nationalist politics and nationalisation, in other words it is much more likely to involve state capitalism.

What it isn’t is socialism and a Workers’ Republic.  It’s also utopian because there can be no independence, in the sense of a self-determining autonomy, for an Irish State within globalised capitalism.  It also has no support, as the tiny level of support for the Irish State leaving the EU demonstrates.  As for a real Workers’ Republic, it will enjoy much greater integration and unity with its neighbours than the current Irish State, so if you’re supporting socialism in order to be a ‘real anti-imperialist’ and have ‘real independence’ you’re backing the wrong horse.

These considerations matter for the approach of Irish socialists to the fight for socialism.  Whoever thinks that anti-imperialism is the banner under which to organise the whole Irish working class has to explain what national liberation content there is for Southern workers who face their own state and not a British one.  On this score, the answer to Boffy’s second question – “Has development in Ireland been held back, by foreign investment or has it been advanced?” – is that it has been advanced.

In the debate, Phil remarks that “In Ireland the pro-Moscow Sticks (Workers Party) supported imperialist investment for precisely the reasons you give. But the choice was not imperialist investment or no investment. Completely missing from that approach is the overthrow of capitalism. Not waiting until some magical figure of output has been reached and the industrial working class has grown to be a certain percentage of the population. All thanks to imperialism.”

Ignoring the irrelevant flourish of the last two sentences, and the fact that we are nowhere near approaching socialist revolution in Ireland, as a real, concrete and practical proposal in the here and now, in the sentence before these, Phil will know that it’s not just the Workers’ Party that supports multinational investment in Ireland – everybody does!

As the political joke goes, the difference between the Official Republicans and the Provisionals is merely a matter of timing; Sinn Fein do not now oppose this investment.  And neither does the social-democratic left, in the guise of the small self-proclaimed Marxist organisations, who signal their acceptance of this investment by proposing only that the low corporate taxation especially set to attract this investment actually is 12.5%; that the tax rate does what it says on the tin and is not lower than this headline rate.

The real question at issue is whether the struggle for socialism must be prosecuted under the banner of national liberation.  Those who say yes have taken last years’ centenary anniversary of the founding blow for national liberation as the guide for future action.  As I pointed out in a series of posts beginning with this one, the 1916 Rising did not itself pose a solution to the division of Ireland and neither has any nationalist or republican struggle since.

A purely democratic struggle or revolution could on paper offer a solution to the undemocratic abomination that is partition and the sectarianism that passes both for the problem and the solution in the North.  A truly democratic platform would be enough to indict the colonial Northern state but what would it offer to Southern workers.  Even a classic capitalist democracy in Ireland would destroy sectarianism and destroy the power of reactionary unionism but it would offer little to Southern workers.

What is required in Ireland therefore is the strengthening of the working class, and the prominence today of foreign capital, and the country’s history and current reality of foreign state intervention, should make it blindingly obvious that the alternative is not any sort of nationalism, under the banner of ‘anti-imperialism’ or not, but the international unity of Irish workers with their class brothers and sisters across Europe.  The idea that Irish workers will overthrow Irish capitalism because they want to get rid of foreign imperialism is utter nonsense.  Southern workers won’t go to war to fight British imperialism in the North and they won’t go to war to drive out multinational companies.

The stages involved in increasing the strength of the Irish working class include building stronger and more active trade unions; cooperative production that visibly heralds the alternative to capitalism, and a working-class party that expresses the best impulses to political independence among Irish workers, no matter how under-developed that may currently be.  It also means clarity on the nature of Irish reality and the lessons to be learnt from the history of the Irish and international socialist movement.

7 thoughts on “Imperialism and Ireland

  1. My question for you is, if the North of Ireland is still taken to be a colony, and it is a British one, what importance does the designation of A Colony have for a correct political designation for the rest of Ireland? One conventional way of viewing it is to argue that the colonial ‘Occupation of the North’ must entail the South is a Neo-Colony. This is clearly not your understanding, but the conclusion is hard to walk away from without causing intellectual damage. Boffy in my opinion is wrong but his merit is logical consistency, the terminology of colonial- imperialism is no longer relevant to any part of Ireland.

  2. In the nineteenth century all of Ireland was treated as a definite unequal territory within the British Empire. In 1800 it was the British Whigs who abolished Grattan’s Parliament, the political committee of the Protestant Landed Ascendancy. The immediate reasons were several, in essence the Whigs felt the Anglo-Irish Aristocracy had lost political control over Ireland, with the 98 popular rebellion and even the threat of a French invasion. They decided to take back control and reconstituted an unequal union between Britain and Ireland.

    The problem with every Marxist analysis of colonialism and neo-colonialism is that it expects to find an objective economic explanation for the most urgent political things. What the economic explanation come down to, in the end is providing an account in terms of some extrapolated economic tribute. The simplest version would show a direct income transfer from one political jurisdiction, Ireland to Britain.

    But the social relations of capitalism are not focused on a juridical economic transfer ie an income based tribute at the level of the juridical State. The more essential economic transfer is conceived as an economic transfer between the social classes, the class of capitalists and the class of workers. The Republic of Ireland may be deemed to be in an post-colonial situation because the Irish workers are forced to transfer part of what they produce, the economic surplus to the transnationals and not to a foreign State, at an above some European average of profits, sometimes called super profits, evidence is given to the very low level of just 12 percent State levy on profits and also that the transnationals are completely free to remove the profits out of the jurisdiction.

    A complicating factor is the presence of an income tribute transferred on the basis of the debts incurred by the Irish State, the budget deficit and the National Debt. This is deemed to be especially onerous as it is levied against the combined Irish taxpayers. It is often hard to discern
    just who his in receipt of the above income streams.

    It is then suggested that profit and income that is sent from one political jurisdiction to another is
    what is now just normal for all capitalism and Ireland merely fits in with some global norm or mean of capitalism. The counter argument is that there is no single international norm, there is in fact what in ethical language we refer to as a double standard, meaning some political jurisdictions are long run receivers of extracted economic tributes and streams and others are long run senders of economic tribute and streams.

    In the past it was accepted by all revolutionaries that Ireland was a sender of an extracted economic tribute however ill defined, and that this economic tribute somehow ended up in Britain. Today it is not evident that any economic surplus extracted in Ireland ends up benefiting Britain and this is reason enough to conclude that Ireland no longer stands in a colonial relationship at least as far as Britain is concerned.

    However as I said at the beginning, we have to consider more than the objective economic process, we have to at the very least pay special heed to the State, especially the Irish State. An argument is made that today it is the Irish State that is in fact the permanent security agency for maintaining the social relations of capitalism in Ireland, it used to be the British State but this is no longer the case. The persistence of the neo-colonial strand of thinking within Irish revolutionary thought stems from a basic scepticism about the purported central importance of the Irish State for maintaining capitalism and ensuring the constancy of an economic tribute.

    The Irish State for example is not strong enough to and maintain a basic political security over the whole of the country, both the United States of America and the European Union fully expect the British State to maintain political partition and overall stability. The neo-colonial strand of revolutionary thinking points to the history of Ireland and its partition in 1920-21, the Irish State that supposedly took back control of the 26 countries in 1921-22 was helped into power with the help of British guns and British support, its legitimacy was questioned from the beginning and while the republicans may no longer question its legitimacy, its real power to supervene for international and domestic capitalism in Ireland is what is most questionable. So the neo-colonial argument is founded more on a weighing of the relative power of States within capitalism than it is on tracing a direct economic tribute.

  3. I should in my comment, in that debate, have specifically referred to the Irish Republic rather than Ireland, so as to distinguish my comments from that situation in the Six Counties.

    In relation to the Republic, I think the situation is clear that it can in no way be considered still a colony, or even a neo-colony, in the sense that Lenin described that term in the Theses on the National and Colonial Questions. Marx in Capital, described the United States, as still effectively a colony of Britain, into the middle of the 19th century, on the same kind of basis that Lenin talks of neo-colonies or semi-colonies, i.e. as countries which have become politically liberated from a former colonial power, but which remain economically tied and dependent upon it.

    The Republic of Ireland certainly still has very strong economic ties to Britain, in terms of the amount of trade between the two countries, but it is impossible to describe those economic ties in terms of some semi-colonial relation. Ireland obtains probably more investment from the US and EU than it does from the UK, and if there is any dominant politico-economic relation it is with the EU not with the UK, as witnessed by the fact that Ireland will remain a member of the EU, whilst Britain may leave.

    And, in fact, this is typical of imperialist global relations as opposed to the colonial relations that existed prior to WWII, and which formed the basis of Lenin’s theory in “Imperialism”. It was precisely the breaking apart of those old colonial monopolies that multinational industrial capital sought to achieve, so as to be able to accumulate capital, and exploit labour wherever it could be found. So, even in the Six Counties, its not British capital that exerts some monopolising role, but international capital from the US, and Europe etc. In fact, it was one of those ironies that after the Iraq War, the first companies to invest in the country were not from the US, but from Europe!

    Its not Britain as the old colonial power that dominates investment of foreign capital in India, but the US, and how are we to consider the relation between India and Britain today. Is Britain still to be considered the colonial overlord, and India the super-exploited colony, or is it that the Indian capitalists such as Tata, or Mittal and so on, who invest and own large British companies like steel companies and JLR, who now have to be considered the imperialists, and its is British steel and car workers who are being super-exploited by them?

    But, its also for these reasons that I don’t think that Lenin’s “Imperialism” is relevant to the Six Counties either. Is the relation of the Six Countries actually to Britain that different to that of Scotland? In many ways, the Six Countries actually has a privileged position relative to Britain compared to Wales. The powers of the Welsh Assembly are extremely limited compared to those of Stormont, were it actually sitting, and the fact that it is not is a decision of Irish politicians themselves not of British politicians acting as colonial masters.

    Britain does not rule over the Six Counties in some kind of monopolistic manner as did Britain over India during the times of the Empire. Indeed, the distinction between the National Question and the Colonial Question is that a colony like India is a separate state entity, under the control of the foreign ruling class, and with the compliance of the domestic ruling class. The difference is that a colony has no right to send representatives to the Parliament of the colonial power. Indeed, the slogan raised by the American Revolutionists was “No taxation without representation.” By contrast, the National Question refers to the condition of oppressed or unequally treated nations within a single state. Such nations may indeed have the right of representation within the state’s political institutions.

    The importance of this was signified by Lenin who declared that only in exceptional conditions could Marxists advocate the creation of some new bourgeois state. A colony, is not a new state, but an existing state, and the question revolves only around the question of a democratic political revolution to gain control over that state. A nation that seeks to separate from the state it is a part of, as for example the calls for Scottish Independence, by contrast, does involve the creation of a new bourgeois state, which is why Marxists should be opposed to such separations.

    Its true that Catholics in the Six Counties are historically oppressed, and unequally treated, but the same could probably be said about Catholics in Glasgow or Liverpool, in the not too distant past. But here too the divergence from lenin’s theory is also clear. And, indeed, the importance of the question of Brexit,a nd its implications for the whole of ireland become apparent.

    The dominance of Protestants in Northern ireland was historically linked to the elements within the British Tory Party, and within the British state itself. The Liberals, of course, who were for a long time the representatives of British industrial capital – the force that Lenin cites as the driving force behind imperialism – were more than amenable to the idea of irish Home Rule. There seems little grounds for defining the North of Ireland as a colony on the grounds of lenin’s theory of Imperialism, because the domination of ireland itself goes back 700 years, long predating capitalism let alone monopoly capitalism.

    Rather, British imperialism inherited Ireland from British colonialism. In economic terms, the North of Ireland is an absolute liability rather than an asset for British capitalism, even now when the sectarian violence and the cost of policing it are a thing of the past, given the large fiscal transfers from the UK into Northern Ireland. That the old patterns of oppression and discrimination followed with it is hardly surprising.

    But, the reason that Brexit poses such a threat is that, over recent decades, the investment into Ireland has come from multinational capital, and the political dynamics were set by Brussels and the EU proto-state, not by London and the British state. There was a reason why British capitalists in the 19th century, and early 20th century should perpetuate in Ireland the old bigotry and relations, there is no reason why a German company, or a US company, or a Spanish or French company that invests in the North of ireland should perpetuate such policies of discrimination, which in fact act to restrict efficient capital accumulation. Nor is there any reason why the EU Commissioners, or the ECJ etc. should uphold patterns of discrimination whose only basis resides in British particularism, and British colonial history, rather than in the polity of 21st Century European capitalism.

    Britain outside the EU, threatens some of that, at least, and presents a good case for Northern Ireland opting out of Brexit, and aligning with the republic inside the EU, where all of those old fears of the protestants about their own potential domination by an Irish clerical state, have now been dealt with by the guarantees provided by the proto EU state, and the ECJ, and ECHR.

    I don’t believe that the North of ireland is a colony of Britain any more than is Scotland, and part of the evidence is the ability of the North not only to send its own representatives to Westminster, including Sinn Fein if they so chose to take up their seats, but is also in the ability of the Six Counties simply by process of a democratic vote, to sever their link with Britain and to form a United Ireland.

    • The north of Ireland is a colony but with the qualification that it is a loyal colony. The loyalty is not unconditional, the republicans made the mistake of thinking the loyalty was unconditional and only political violence held out any prospect of changing things. They now appear to come to the conclusion that the loyalty is indeed conditional and ‘normal politics’ may hold out a better chance of changing things. The idea of normal politics implies the act of persuasion, to see the good sense of your argument for freedom and for justice you have to begin to be a persuader. However the way of persuasion is blocked not as before by the presence of the British military but by the persistence of the sectarian ideology that accompanied the economic development of the north of Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century. The ideology of economic progress in Ireland was for a very long time associated with Protestantism and disassociated with Catholicism. The idea that Protestantism is the historical carrier of economic progress is not specific to Ireland but it has a very powerful influence over Irish affairs. That Reformed Protestantism meant progress is still promoted in intellectual circles even within the Republic of Ireland, Ireland’s very slow economic progress until recently is still attributed to the anti-capitalist side of Roman Catholicism by influential authors like Tom Garvin. What is only an intellectual sideshow in the Republic is the basis of the Establishment Ideology in the north of Ireland, you might say that Max Weber’s thesis about Reformed Protestantism leading to progress and capitalism became the very basis of the Orange State. The Republicans have made little or no progress in persuading the loyal Protestant colonialists that their ideology has been refuted by the modernisation that has taken place in the Republic of Ireland this past 40 years. The typical North of Ireland loyalist thinks he is living in a very modern part of Britain when in fact he is actually living in a very backward part of Ireland. As I like say history is the long story of Irony.

    • You give a number of reasons why the North of Ireland cannot be considered a colony in any way.

      First is the ability to send representatives to the foreign parliament and second is the ability to vote to leave Britain if the majority so wish.

      Northern Ireland MPs do of course attend Westminster (or rather they can if they want) although it’s not very often that they make much difference, and today is one of those limited occasions.

      But this signals no real political integration as, unlike Scotland, the political struggle here has never been along the same political axis as in Britain. There is for example no meaningful Labour Party in Northern Ireland and the British Labour Party has always been unenthusiastic about organising in the North. In other words, political forces in the North act on Britain from outside and not from within the British political struggle. In general we are bystanders waiting to see who will rule us. This is also evidenced by the general ignorance of NI politics in Britain and its completely different, seemingly alien, political concerns. Even the trade unions are nominally at least Irish. Of course, it was not always like this and there was once a more united Conservative and Unionist Party, which Theresa May now refers to as well, but which doesn’t exist.

      Comparisons with the treatment of Catholics in Scotland can be made, but only to illustrate the difference in extent of sectarianism and discrimination in the North of Ireland. Catholics in Scotland suffered discrimination but were a rather small minority, distinguished by their nationality as much as by their religion, or rather by their combination. They never suffered the repeated sectarian pogroms of the North, or the level of political discrimination and exclusion from political power. Most obviously, hundreds have never been killed because of their religion by sectarian bigots aided and abetted by the British State.

      In parts of Scotland the Irish Catholics or their descendants were able to carve out their own areas of political patronage but not in the North of Ireland despite their larger numbers.

      That is until the last few years, with the advent of the power-sharing deal at Stormont. However, while those of an Irish Catholic background could gain influence in Scotland without disturbing greatly the political landscape, in the North of Ireland even some subordinate influence by Catholics has led to political instability and regular political crises. At the moment we are going through yet another one. Partition doesn’t exist to allow equality between Protestants and Catholics. It exists to preserve an artificial sectarian majority and it is the latter that has determined the former.

      This was demonstrated during the negotiations of the current so-called peace process, where it was argued that even if the Protestants became a minority, a vote for a united Ireland would have to have a majority of Protestants vote for it for it to happen.

      There is a certain logic to this since this is the logic that has been used in the past and on which the Northern State was created. So it isn’t quite the case that the Six Counties by democratic vote can enter a united Ireland – the Six Counties exists to frustrate democracy and this frustration of democracy will, with little doubt, be a force attempting to deny a united Ireland in the future, regardless of any vote. Again, an enormous difference between Scotland and the North of Ireland, where it was agreed that the result of the Scottish referendum on independence would be respected. In Ireland, the past in this was not the case and had a similar end to the Scottish referendum been the case in the Six Counties, with the possibility of leaving the UK appearing a real possibility near the end of the campaign, there would have been serious and extensive reactionary violence.

      The rather particular history of Ireland does not make for neat categorisation, so for example the position of Ireland within the UK has been called internal colonialism. The Six Counties has a majority that wants unity with Britain although for most of its history this majority has jealously guarded its own parliament and its own prerogatives.

      The point is not that the description of the Northern state as a colony can be made on the basis of Lenin’s imperialism, but because certain features of it have a colonial character. The issue of partition is a national question in so far as the Irish are concerned – that there is a question of an oppressed minority within the country but not within the state while this oppression, viewed from Britain, is within the state but is occurring in part of another country of which it is in control. And it is important to emphasise here the active role of the British State in this oppression and not as some historical hangover it has just been saddled with.

      In so far as the attitude of socialists is concerned, the sharp denial of democracy that has existed in the North of Ireland has meant that socialists in Ireland could not avoid, even if they wanted to, taking up the demand for an end to partition. This is not to take sides between two sectarian blocs, but to seek the grounds for unity among the working class of both.

      Such an approach has also been framed as seeking the unity of the whole Irish working class in all 32 counties, in part as an attack on the reactionary clerical character of the Southern State as well, where the power of the Catholic Church had its own oppressive results. For socialists a united Ireland would destroy unionism and its reactionary hold on Protestant workers while weakening the power of the Catholic Church. It would not involve the creation of an additional capitalist state and yet another resultant division but a reconfiguration of two existing states and increasing the unity of the working class.

      But just as certain bourgeois democratic tasks, if not solved by the working class, are solved after a fashion by capitalism itself and its political forces, so is this also the case in Ireland. In the North the unbridled rule of unionism is no longer possible, although that hasn’t stopped this being unionism’s objective. But instead of equality of civil rights we have been offered equality of sectarian group rights and while it is possible to build on the equality of citizen rights to go beyond the limits of equality under capitalism, it is not possible to build upon group sectarian rights, which stand as a barrier to workers’ unity. Socialists cannot intervene into the struggle of Catholics for equality if this simply means equality of sectarian privileges and patronage, because this is not democracy and does not point to any higher unity beyond a sectarian identity.

      In the Six Counties, the sectarian division of society proved too strong for a democratic renewal built on civil rights, even when this struggle was initially led by the left, broadly understood. This is mainly due to the alliance between unionism and the British state, the latter by far the strongest political actor.

      In the South the influence of the Catholic Church has taken a hammering but the failure to achieve this from the ground up means it retains almost all its previous levers of power. Its holy character means that it has held tight to its money and wealth even if this has meant lost credibility in the eyes of its flock. It still has powerful influence on health and education even as the numbers of cadres able to impose this power is dwindling as the priestly vocations have declined enormously. From this retained earthly power it will no doubt hope to re-establish at some point the ideological dominance it once had. Southern society therefore has, and has not, secularised without the need for a united Ireland, and women and young people have been the main forces challenging the restraints of the church on their rights.

      In terms of imperialism in the South of Ireland, the influence of this will not decline but will grow and the deepening of the EU project can only be at the expense of any little autonomy smaller countries have. Instead of trying to wish this international integration away, socialist should seek to exploit it by increasing the international unity of the working class as a result. Such unity should recognise the nature of the current divisions that exist.

      • Let me be clear what I was saying about Northern Ireland in terms of it being a colony. Firstly, I am saying that Ireland as a whole most certainly was a colony. But, it was a colony that clearly is contrary to Lenin’s theory, as set out in “Imperialism”. In other words, the occupation and oppression of Ireland goes back 700 years, long before capitalism existed in Britain, let alone the kind of monopoly capitalism that Lenin describes as being the defining character, and cause of imperialism and the division of the world into monopolistic, closed colonial empires. You can’t explain Ireland as being a colony, on the basis of Lenin’s thesis, given that it existed, as such, for centuries before the conditions required for imperialism, according to that thesis, existed. But, as I’ve said elsewhere, that is just a particular example of what is wrong with the thesis in general, i.e. it described a world of colonies and colonial empires that had already been established long before the advent of monopoly capitalism, which according to Lenin was the explanation of the phenomenon, and indeed a world that was already in dissolution, by the time the thesis itself was developed.

        At the time of partition, that condition of being a colony continued for the North, and the South existed as a semi-colony. But, the world is not fixed frozen in those relations. It is in constant flux, and the job of Marxists is to analyse the world as it exists, today, including the current dynamics, using the tools that Marx and others provided. Marx himself, in Capital, refers to the US as still being a colony, given the nature of its economy, in the middle of the 19th century, Engels revised the view, when he edited the later volumes, and no one today would describe the US as a colony. The Irish Republic is today neither a colony nor a semi-colony. It is a relatively developed capitalist state, in its own right, within the EU. The dominant politico-economic relation is with the EU, not with the former British colonial overlord.

        The question then is, in the nearly 100 years since partition, has the nature of the Six Counties changed? Can it still be considered merely a colony, or has it been effectively annexed to the British state, in the same way that say Texas was annexed to the US, or that we might expect Crimea to now be annexed to Russia. I think that it has. The fact of being annexed to, and incorporated within the British state does not at all mean that it has to be a mirror image of the rest of that state, any more than we expect to see the SNP operating in Wales, or Plaid Cymru operating in Scotland, or either operating in England. Even the Welsh Labour Party, and Scottish Labour Party, have different positions, and if you consider somewhere like Spain, the politics within the different regions, even within the PSOE, are different. If the EU does become a federal state, the particularities of each state within it, are not going to change, because those differences will have been inherited from the past. As you say, we should not deny the existence of those differences, but attempt to go beyond them in terms of building working-class unity.

        The nature of politico-economic relations within each of the different nations within Tsarist Russia had their own peculiarities, and many if not all of those nationalities were oppressed, often more brutally than have been the Catholics in Ireland. But, those oppressed nations and nationalities within Russia were not colonies, they were integral parts of the Russian state. That is why Lenin distinguishes between the colonial question and the national questions, and the distinction between the two categories is also important for the question of how Marxists relate to the two different conditions.

        A colony is already a state in its own right. It is a state over which some external state exerts control, usually with the compliance of the domestic ruling class, as for example, with the British in India, or indeed in Ireland. The appropriate response in such cases, is for socialists to support a democratic political revolution, to achieve political independence for that existing state, whilst arguing, in line with the concept of Permanent Revolution, for the need to focus upon the building up and role of the truly revolutionary, proletarian elements within that state, and for them to place no faith in the domestic bourgeoisie and ruling-class, who tomorrow will be their immediate enemy. A responsibility lies with socialists and workers in the country which exerts domination over that state to facilitate the struggle of the workers in the colony, to achieve that independence. But, this immediately throws up a question, because we are led to ask exactly who are the domestic ruling-class in the Six Counties, and in what way are they separate from the ruling-class in Britain or in the Republic? The answer is that they are, by and large, the same people.

        Its precisely the development of gigantic, multinational industrial capital, which dominates the economy, which makes discussion framed in terms of national bourgeoisies now appear somewhat quaint. Part of the problem that socialists face today is that the ruling class has long ago recognised that it is an international class, a global class, particularly as that class, in the age of socialised capital, owns its private wealth almost exclusively in the form of fictitious capital, of shares and bonds that are internationally traded, and can be bought and sold instantaneously, shifting that paper wealth from assets in one country or continent to another in a matter of milliseconds, whilst, the working-class, still sees the world in national terms, and is still seeking solutions in national terms, as the Brexit vote indicated, and, as the ridiculous calls for Lexit showed, infect the organisations of the working-class that are supposed to be its most advanced representatives.

        Even then the question over whether such a state is entirely separated as a colony, or whether it is, in fact, largely incorporated within the more powerful state is often not entirely clear, as witness the discussions of Marx and Engels, in relation to Ireland and Poland, and the subsequent discussions on those matters by Lenin, Luxemburg and others. The primary concern for Marxists is not the niceties of bourgeois democratic freedoms, but the struggle for socialism, and of prime concern within that struggle is the unity of the working-class across borders. Where possible we seek to remove borders not erect new ones. Given the nature of international capital, as described above, framing solutions in national terms is even more irrelevant.

        And that is where the position in relation to the National Question differs to that of the Colonial Question. No one doubts that within a single state such as Tsarist Russia, there can be oppressed nationalities, and other minorities. The question is what is the appropriate response to that oppression or unequal treatment of those minorities. The Marxist answer has always been to focus not upon a sectionalist or nationalist solution, but to marry the struggle for a solution to that oppression to the general struggle of the working-class, for socialism, within the existing given state. Jews, for example, were terribly oppressed and faced repeated pogroms within Tsarist Russia, but Lenin rejected the calls of the Bund, and of Bauer and others within the Austrian Social-Democracy for national-cultural autonomy.

        In some ways the solution provided in Northern Ireland via the Good Friday Agreements, which rather than providing for civil rights, provides, as you say,for separate sectarian rights, is an application of that concept, of national-cultural autonomy. In some ways devolution in Scotland served a similar purpose, because for Blair, it was a way of attempting to retain votes for Labour in Scotland, where workers were seen as not being so likely to be wooed by the ideas of New Labour. Few people today, would support the ideas of Marcus Garvey, for example, that the answer to the question of the oppression of blacks in the US, is the creation of a separate state. Its impossible to see the problems of blacks in the US being addressed separate from the struggle of the US working-class in general. Its not only why I oppose calls for Scottish independence, but why I found the proposals for devolution to be highly dangerous, as the history proved it to be the case.

        But, its also impossible to see how the problems of Catholics in the North of Ireland, today, are to be resolved separate from a struggle by the Irish working-class as a whole for socialism, and indeed, the struggle of the Irish, British and EU working-class in such a struggle. Moreover, a significant element of that working-class, in Ireland, and certainly in the North, comprises Protestant workers. Had partition never happened, we might today, be viewing the situation from the other end of the glass, and asking how best to deal with the oppression of a Protestant minority within a Catholic clerical-state. In fact, its only necessary to look at the reversal of fortunes of Sunnis in Iraq, or of Kosovan Serbs in Kosovo, to see how formerly oppressed groups, themselves become the oppressors, when solutions are framed in purely sectionalist or nationalist terms.

        If Northern Ireland is a colony, then the appropriate response is to call for a political revolution so as to bring about its independence as a sovereign state. But, no one is calling for such a solution, although there were some Protestants floating the idea some time ago, when it looked possible that Britain might just walk away from its commitments. In fact, its unlikely that any kind of political revolution would be required if there was any groundswell of opinion calling for such a solution, because its likely that Britain would be more than happy to walk away from the North of Ireland, and the costs to the exchequer it involves. The main motivation for the British state not walking away from Northern Ireland is, in fact, that it would undoubtedly lead to a backlash from sections of the Protestant community, and the creation, once more, of instability on its border that would inevitably flow over into the mainland. Its not a settler community of colons acting as the agents of a colonial power, but a former colonial power, being held hostage by the consequences of history. It certainly cannot be explained on the basis of anything that Lenin wrote in “Imperialism”.

        And, of course, in fact, in the last Stormont elections, it was Sinn Fein that for the first time became the largest party. It is undoubtedly the case that many of today’s workers in the North including young Protestant workers do not have the same fears of the Republic that their parents had, precisely because the last thirty years of EU membership, of economic development across the whole of Ireland, and of free movement across the border has fundamentally changed the material conditions. It is why a large majority in the North voted to Remain in the EU, leaving the DUP considerably at odds even with the community it purports to represent. Its still unlikely that a border poll would come down for reunification, but it is at least today something that is not as impossible as it was even twenty years ago, and there is absolutely no possibility that should such a poll vote for reunification, the British state would prevent it, any more than they would have prevented Scottish independence had the people there voted for it.

        And that is even more so the case as far as capital is concerned. To the extent that it makes any sense now to speak of British capital or Irish capital, as opposed to EU capital or even just multinational capital, the problems of the border, post-Brexit, are considerable. If Britain is to leave the EU, then by far the simplest solution for capital will be for a reunification of Ireland.

  4. It is usually taken for granted that Lenin was an absolutely frank author in regard to his own publications, this assumption is made questionable by the later words of Lenin. He prefaced his re-publication concerning Imperialism ‘This pamphlet was written with an eye to the tsarist censorship. Hence, I was forced to confine myself strictly to an exclusively theoretical, economic analysis of the facts, but to formulate the few necessary observations on politics with extreme caution, by hints….It is painful, in these days of liberty, to read the passages of the pamphlet which have been distorted, cramped, compressed in an iron vice on account of the censor….I had to speak in a slavish tongue, and I must refer the reader who is interested in the subject to the articles I wrote while living abroad 1914-1917.

    Most of the articles about the direct political side of monopoly capitalism like ‘Notes for Lecture on Imperialism’, ‘The Nascent Trend of Imperialist Economism,’ ‘A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism’, ‘Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” and many more go unmentioned by modern readers.

    Lenin says ‘I sometimes resorted to Esopian language,, ie the language of deception, to express myself. The very translation of title of the pamphlet makes for a difference in our immediate understanding, some have it as ‘highest’, some have it as the ‘last’ and some have it as the ‘latest’ stage of capitalism. When we take on board all that we know, latest stage seems to be the closest to what he intended.

    Perhaps we should stop thinking of authors in the Marxist tradition as being unusually frank and open about what they really thought about all important matters. If you compare what Karl Marx published in respect of the Paris Commune and what he says about the Commune in his private letters you find something not the same. Marx was very drawn to classical Technics of rhetoric. When he was a student he made a partial translation of Aristotle’s book about forensic rhetoric. The right to speak and write freely or openly is of very recent origin in most locations. We know that Gramsci was forced to dress up his marxism in a whole new vocabulary and this at a time well after Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Lukacs, due to the eyes of the censor.

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