From Civil Right to ‘the Troubles’ part 2 – from reform to revolution?

A common left-wing view of the move from a struggle for civil rights to a struggle against the existence of the Northern State itself is that it was an inevitable shift from an attempt to reform an unreformable state to a necessary struggle to destroy it; a move from reform to revolution.

In terms of the subjective intentions of many participants this is largely true, although latterly Sinn Fein has been claiming that actually, it was all about civil rights and equality right the way through.

This, of course, is nonsense, and a complete re-writing of history, but no one but the young or ignorant takes such claims seriously.  Ironically however, such claims are correct in one important and unintended respect, arising from the fact that the political significance of events does not simply depend on what people think they are doing but the objective significance of their actions.

As Marx once said – “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Given the material constraints on people’s actions; the impact on them of the actions of opposing forces, in addition to their own imperfect understanding of what is happening and will happen, it is inevitable that the results of what they are doing are often not consistent with what they intended, or hoped and expected would be achieved.

Certainly, many later recollections by leading participants in the civil rights campaign expressed their shock at the viciousness and scale of the reaction against their modest demands, indicating that they did not fully understand what the results of their actions would be. In the first post I pointed to their statements, even at the time, where this confusion was honestly expressed.

So if we look at what the objective significance was of the struggle for civil rights and the republican armed struggle against the state it is clear that it was the former that destroyed the coherence of the Unionist regime in the North and it was the latter, and its leadership, which led to incorporation of the opposition to the state into participation and support for it, after a long time it must be admitted.

This is where we are today, with republican in-out participation in Stormont and acceptance of partition and British rule.  Since it was never possible for the IRA campaign to defeat the British State their struggle was eventually forced to seek a different goal; the objective significance of their struggle, its woeful inadequacy to its declared task, imposed itself on their subjective intentions to the extent republicans ended up lying, claiming that really it was never about ‘Brits Out’ and always about ‘equality’.

So if we want to look at why events took the course that they did, and what the consequences would most likely be of the various political strategies put forward at the time, we need to understand firstly the circumstances of the struggle.

Partition created a sectarian state in the North of Ireland in which those loyal to the foreign power were a majority.  Their colonial privileges were thus both more secure but also less significant, especially as the state was deemed to be an integral part of the imperial polity and there were therefore limits to how much these could diverge from the democratic norms of the rest of the UK State. There was not therefore the enormous differences in living standards and democratic rights that existed in most colonies where white men ruled native populations. In this particular colony the differences in rights and resources that existed in imperialist occupation of African and Asian societies could not exist.

Features of colonialism existed but were less pronounced. Many Protestants and Catholics lived in different areas – and the Troubles saw this separation increase – and land ownership demonstrated the privileged position of Protestant landowners and farmers. Traditional industries with good jobs were dominated by Protestants while Catholic unemployment was significantly higher.  The repressive forces of the State were staffed almost wholly by Protestants who had more or less exclusive access to arms.

The disintegration of the Unionist regime was heralded by the decline of these industries and the necessity to modernise the economic base of the state through foreign investment, which had no necessary requirement for discrimination. The growth of the Catholic population and employment; the change in economic structure, and the reduction in relative Catholic unemployment has since reduced these colonial features.

There exits therefore a politically divided working class, but it is a single class and not a settler colonial population sitting on top of super-exploited natives.  Neither simple anti-colonialism/anti-imperialism or unproblematic class unity are adequate ways of understanding the tasks of socialists.

Inequality between Catholics and Protestants was thus necessary because of history and to maintain support for, and justify the existence of, the state to the majority who supported it.  On the other hand, such sectarianism was inconsistent with any claim to the bourgeois democratic norms which the British State claimed for itself.  The state ‘solved’ this contradiction through majority support for its rule within the state and ignoring the sectarianism, discrimination and repression that this involved.

The civil rights movement accordingly developed as a claim for rights that were supposed to already exist, and be guaranteed by Britain, but which clearly did not.  The purpose often expressed by the civil rights campaign was therefore to get British intervention to remove the discrimination and sectarianism that was ingrained in the local regime by forcing that regime to reform, or for Britain to take over from it if it did not.  In effect, imperialism was being asked to intervene more directly, clearly not what normally might be considered an anti-imperialist demand or requirement of an anti-imperialist struggle.

The civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland was therefore inspired by the black civil rights movement in the United States, which didn’t have the option of seeking black rights through separation and creation of a black state, but which did have the possibility of forcing intervention by the Federal Government, especially its judiciary, against individual States.  Ireland was clearly different because the majority of the Irish people did have their own state and unity with it was always viewed as the ultimate solution by the majority of the Irish people and by democrats everywhere

The development of the civil rights movement however showed that this was not a realistic option, the Irish state could neither enforce unity nor ensure equality for Catholics in the North.  In fact, it wasn’t particularly interested in either.  When it too began to seek outside capital, it joined with the Unionist regime in the North in seeking to make the island attractive to foreign investment, which meant a new Free Trade Agreement with Britain in 1965 and falling in behind Britain in seeking membership of the European Economic Community.

This is yet another example of the world not being as people think it is.  The majority of Catholics in the North see themselves politically as nationalists and view politics in nationalist terms.  They have therefore repeatedly displayed illusions in the willingness of the Irish State to come to their aid and protect their interests. Its repeated failure to do either shows that whatever weaknesses there have been in socialists’ understanding of political dynamics, they have understood that it is the class interests of the Southern bourgeoisie and its State which have dictated its determination to ally with Britain.  Reclaiming the fourth green field doesn’t come into it.

The Catholic minority in the North appeared to have a number of options to address its grievances and it was the failure of the solutions its nationalist political identity naturally pointed it to that laid the basis for the development of the civil rights movement, and which saw Irish Catholics demand British rights.

These potential solutions included the Irish State, Southern political establishment and public opinion around the world addressing the wrong of partition. A second solution involved the armed overthrow of the Northern State by militant Irish republicanism, building on its earlier achievements.

The decline of traditional industries owned by the Unionist capitalist class and of industries such as shipbuilding dominated by Protestant employment lay behind hopes that the Unionist regime itself would have to reform its most repellent sectarian practices. The advent of the apparently moderate Terence O’Neill as the fourth Prime Minister of Northern Ireland gave rise to such hopes, if not expectations.

Finally, there was some hope that Protestants themselves might seek to end sectarian discrimination, a move that could really only arise and be effective if coming from the Protestant working class.  Such hopes have always been a significant component of socialist strategy, and in fact such a strategy requires it to some degree.

The failure of each led to the development of the civil rights movement, and the next post will set out the story of this failure.

The reality of Northern Ireland in this period dashed one other illusion.  The belief that the struggle had moved from one of reform to a question of revolution led some socialists to argue that since the Northern State could not be reformed it had to be smashed.  Since this required a united Ireland and such a struggle would, and was, opposed by the Southern State and capitalist class, the struggle for an Irish democracy could only be led by the working class and achieved through the struggle for socialism – a Workers’ Republic.  And of course this requires a revolution.

The logic may be impeccable, but it is still a formula, and one that does not start from the material forces that would take the formula from the realm of ideas into the reality of political practice – the final confirmation required by Marxism.

The working class in the North was bitterly divided, with the majority refusing to accept, never mind support, the equality of Catholic workers.  Irish workers in the Southern State were sympathetic with opposition to Catholic oppression in the North but the nationalist grounds for this sympathy excluded any identification of a common material and class interest with the Northern Struggle that would have produced a common struggle.

The struggle in the North did not, and could not, engulf the South of the country because there was no common force propelling a shared struggle by the whole Irish working class. The effectiveness of partition in dividing the working class is the major reason it has been so bitterly opposed in the first place.  The struggle in the North spilled over episodically, after Bloody Sunday and during the hunger strikes for example, and the sympathy in the South that existed did limit British state repression, but it could not summon up a common struggle, never mind a common movement for socialism.

In other words socialism, a Workers’ Republic, was not on the cards.  This does not mean that there were no grounds for socialists to intervene, or that they should not have fought for socialist objectives or under a socialist banner.  Socialism involves an immense transformation of existing society and the struggle for it will take many years and go through many stages.  Marx said it, and history has conclusively demonstrated it.

That stages exist in the struggle to advance working class interests, that take forward the unity and organisation of the working class and increase its political consciousness, is inevitable and obvious, but does not mean that these stages are predefined in duration or limited in advance.

Mass demonstrations, riots, the downfall of Governments and political crises can all give the illusion that more fundamental social transformation is happening and is possible than the purely political and relatively minor changes that are actually occurring, or are achievable at that time.  Gun battles, bombs and the rhetoric of armed struggle can make this seem even more the case.

Marxists however are interested not simply in political changes in which the basis of capitalist society remains intact, even if reformed and modified in some way. Socialist revolution requires more than political change, but necessitates the working class becoming the rulers of society through control and ownership of the means of production, which determines so much of everything else important in society.  A revolution is therefore primarily about the revolutionising of the working class so that it not only has the potential power to take over society but actively desires and has the capacity developed through struggle to do so.  The working class in Ireland was far from this point.

The period of struggle from civil rights to a challenge to the existence of the Northern State must therefore be viewed from a socialist perspective with an understanding that socialist revolution was not possible, and this should not be controversial.  What we need to learn is what socialists could have done to advance the interests of the working class in conditions which were not at all propitious for socialism but from which lessons can be learned.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

2 thoughts on “From Civil Right to ‘the Troubles’ part 2 – from reform to revolution?

  1. Glad to see you making use of historical knowledge in your studies, they are always better when you refrain from importing too much Marxist theory into the assessment. Marxist theory is all well and good but it habitually gets stuck recycling formulas from a previous historical period, so the Irish Troubles for example must be written up to fit with a class struggle theory, anti-imperialist theory or Trotsky’s permanent revolution theory. History does not conform to dialectical laws per say.

    There are some omissions worth mentioning. The civil rights movement looked to the Black civil rights movement in imitation of action and organisation but it could hardly look to the American civil rights movement when it came to political ideas. The black civil rights did have a nationalist side to it and this had been encouraged by the communists for many years, demanding a black State to be established somewhere in the South. However this was always a fringe idea, the leadership of the Black movement utilised the language of Universal Rights something that was friendly to what America was supposed to be all about.

    The choice of universal rights as the preferred political language of civil rights was problematic from the outset in the north of Ireland, almost from the beginning working class Protestants claimed to not have the Rights the Catholics were demanding. This is true, the Protestants had special privileges but these were for the most part not legal entitlements. As a matter of historical record the language of Universal Rights is a late import into British political culture, British people are ‘subjects of the Crown’ and the political language of the British Establishment deploys prefers to speak about ‘the rule of law’ which covers statute law and common law made by parliament and judges respectively. So there was a built in mismatch between Universal Rights discourse and British political tradition which is by convention also anti-Catholic.

    The big omission so far that ought to be taken up in the next part is the role of the British labour movement in all of what transpired. The overall responsibility for policy and reform in the North of Ireland lay with the British Crown in Parliament. The British working class in the form of the Labour Party was represented in the Parliament. The political party of British workers was not only present in Parliament it constituted the Government of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the crucial years of formation of a civil rights movement ie 1964-1970 and held sway again from 1974-1979. The republican movement simply referred to the British Labour Party as the Brits or the British without much distinction. A socialist could have objected to Republican political rhetoric but the actions of the Britain Labour party when in Government gave them little reason to do so. My late father thought that a British Labour party would ‘sort things out for us’ in 1969, but he became disillusioned very early on. It is worth saying that the British labour movement has never provided an explanation for what it did and what it did not do in the north of Ireland in those crucial years, what happened to workers solidarity? There was more workers solidarity shown by British workers in 1913 during the great Dublin lockout than was on display even after Bloody Sunday.

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