4 Supporting the democratic content of nationalism

In ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ Lenin stated that 

‘The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support, At the same time we strictly distinguish it from the tendency towards national exclusiveness; we fight against the tendency of the Polish bourgeois to oppress the Jews, etc., etc.’

We have already explained in the previous posts the limits to such support but there are others that we have not addressed and that have further relevance when considering the situation in Ukraine today.  We should obviously be wary of claims of a democratic content to a nationalism that has already shown its reactionary character.

The recent history of Ukraine has demonstrated that the growth of nationalism in that country has been the product of the cynical strategy and policies of certain oligarchic factions in struggle with rivals.  It has been advanced not as the flag under which democratisation of Ukrainian society has advanced but as a cover for austerity and repression, and as a substitute for the failure of a number of bourgeois leaderships to carry out promises to rid Ukraine of corruption and systematic abuses of democracy.

As this nationalism has advanced it has not broadened the scope of democracy through inclusion of different ethic, linguistic and cultural groups but acted as a weapon to restrict the rights of minorities and impose a single ethno-nationalism.  This has included restrictions on freedom of speech through crack-downs on rival media organisations; the banning of political parties and silencing of particular political views; promotion of an ideology of anti-communism, and attacks on workers’ rights.

This nationalism has celebrated and legitimised fascist figures from its history (see above picture) and current political slogans from far-right organisations, going so far as to integrate their armed organisations into the state, and at times place significant figures in positions of power within the Government.  The significance of the far right has advanced under the banner of, and in lock-step with, wider Ukrainian nationalism.  It is not that mainstream Ukrainian nationalism and the state that promotes it have become fascist but that the mainstream has seen no need or want to separate itself from the far-right movement, which it has celebrated as its ‘best fighters’.

The Ukrainian state has faced a number of secessionist movements but the policy advocated by Lenin in dealing with such movements by offering the right of secession in order to forge democratic unity, as the best grounds for uniting its working class, has been rejected. When Ukrainian nationalism has demanded self-determination it has ignored its own responsibility to defend consistent democracy within the territory it claims.  Instead, it has moved further and further into alliance with the world’s greatest enemy of equality between nations – US imperialism and its NATO alliance.

In sum, there is no democratic content to Ukrainian nationalism and it cannot be defended.  If it currently wields hegemony, this is not only the responsibility of the far-right in the country, or the oligarchic and political factions who solidify their position with its support, but also due to the reactionary policy of the Russian state. This state can offer no democratic alternative because it too is headed by a corrupt and reactionary nationalist regime.  Between two such regimes the ‘instinctive and automatic rush to reach for the policy of self-determination of nations in order to justify the decision to support one side’, as explained in a previous post, is a betrayal of the working class of both nations.

The liberation of the Ukrainian working class will not be achieved in alliance with US imperialism, which is forging the strongest chains for this class through its superior economic and military power.  The utter dependency of Ukraine and its nationalists on US policy has now been firmly entrenched by the massive armed and associated financial support of the US.  Through this war Ukrainian nationalism has definitively made its country a client of the United States; so much for the promise of nationalism. 

Only by a struggle against this can the freedom of the Ukrainian working class be achieved, including in the East and South of the country, and only in conjunction with neighbouring countries including Russia.  This cannot be achieved by the US and NATO which seeks the permanent submission of Ukraine through radical diminution and debasement of Russia.

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Unfortunately, some on the Ukrainian left acknowledge the reactionary character of US imperialism – ‘In this conflict, Russia can in no way be considered a different project than the US and the rest of the capitalist powers’ – but go on to frame the war as a purely anti-colonial struggle, with Russia as the imperial power.  ‘Ukraine needs to decolonize and de-Russify’, which neglects to explain how unity of the Ukrainian working class, including ethnic Russian workers with divided political loyalties, can be advanced.

Lip service is paid to ‘the centrality of Ukraine’s fight for independence from both Russian and Western Imperial domination’, and the war is presented as an ‘existential’ one for Ukrainians’ ‘very existence’, with war aims including the incorporation of Crimea and the Russian controlled Donbas republics under Kyiv rule.  Lenin’s policy of seeking unity through the right to secession isn’t on the table and the Ukrainian right to self-determination has simply become an example of the ‘refined nationalism’ that he warned against.

The article is therefore full of references to historic Russian oppression while defending Ukrainian ‘agency’ and ‘subjectivity’, all the while forgetting that it is now an independent state with its own capitalist structure and dynamics.  The war is framed as a national struggle, just as it is presented in the West; the war aims supported are those of the most rabid US neocon, and the current means of struggle by its capitalist state are endorsed.  How the war is understood, the appropriate war aims and means of struggle supported by Yuliya Yurchenko are the same as that of Western imperialism. 

What we have then is not a policy that will combat the most rabid forms of Ukrainian nationalism, which Yurchenko accepts is a real problem, even admitting the ‘risk [of] confirming Putin’s obscene lie that we are a nation of bigots and fascists.’  What it proposes is an idea that Ukrainian nationalism can be made progressive.  The problem with this is threefold.

First, Ukrainian nationalism is already presented as progressive in a very objective sense, although by no means only that, through the ‘spirit of collective solidarity’ that the war has inspired.  This is despite her acknowledgement that previous democratic protests and mobilisations have only led to the strengthening of different oligarchic factions and the far-right. She claims that ‘Russia’s invasion has stirred up a healthy degree of Ukrainian nationalism.’

Second, the view that a healthy nationalism can arise from the war understood in existential national terms is simply beyond any credible belief.  This is especially the case since Yurchenko’s war policy, being the same as the most reactionary nationalist, promises a ‘long fight’, one that can therefore be guaranteed to build up massive bitterness and resentment. The policy of reliance on imperialism and domestic austerity necessary to finance it, coupled with opposition to the right of minorities to secede, means that nothing progressive could emerge from such a war, unless it provoked a revolt against it and the policy behind it.  But Yurchenko is not proposing that.

Lastly, the idea that any sort of nationalism, however ‘healthy’, could be the cause that would carry the Ukrainian working class forward is simply absurd for the reasons enumerated in the previous paragraph.  Nothing in the answers given in Yurchenko’s interview indicates any strategy to expose the role of US imperialism or that of domestic capitalist and bourgeois political forces in bringing this war to the Ukrainian working class.  The war, she says, was ‘a completely unprovoked attack.’ Nothing about the moves towards joining NATO or the repeated attacks on the break-away regions in the Donbas. Nothing to indicate that the Ukrainian working class has separate interests in the war from its rulers.

‘Compromise’ is rejected and the Minsk peace process merely ‘so-called’ and also rejected.  There is no acknowledgement of any Ukrainian state responsibility for the failure.  Instead ‘we will not settle for anything less than the reunification and independence of Ukraine.’  How this can happen through subordination to the US and NATO is something she is no more able to explain that the rest of the Ukrainian nationalist spectrum.

Capitulation to nationalism means avoiding assignment of any responsibility, and hence any opposition, to domestic capitalism and its rotten state.

Ukrainian nationalism does not find any democratic content that justifies any defence of it just because some on the left support it, portray it as democratic, or think they can make it so.

Yurchenko declares that ‘the international left must put its decolonial hat on in thinking about Ukraine’; in other words, put on its blinkers and accept the progressiveness of a war backed by US imperialism, the corrupt Ukrainian capitalist state, and the ‘best fighters’ of the ‘Ukrainian resistance’–the fascists of the Azov regiment.

Whoever thinks there is any democratic content in this nationalist melange is irretrievably lost to the struggle for socialism.

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

3 Lenin Against Nationalism

In the previous post we noted that capitalism extends itself across the globe, leading to both bigger capitals and bigger states and then to international economic and political organisation.  Inevitably small capitals and small nations suffer.  This does not mean that socialists seek to halt or reverse such processes.

Within the Great Russian Empire, with its prison house of peoples, Lenin advocated the closest relations between its nations and the united organisation of the working class movement.  In his article ‘Corrupting the Workers with Refined Nationalism’ he states that:

‘Marxists, stand, not only for the most complete, consistent and fully applied equality of nations and languages, but also for the amalgamation of the workers of the different nationalities in united proletarian organisations of every kind.’

How far this is from some of today’s ‘Marxists’ can be seen in their championing of the likes of Scottish nationalism or Catalan nationalism.  Where Lenin argued that socialists should demonstrate their proletarian internationalism through membership of united organisations, these left nationalists have demonstrated their nationalism by leading the way in splitting their own organisations along nationalist lines.

Lenin emphasises the need for unity in ‘On the National Pride of the Great Russians’:

“No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations,” said Marx and Engels, the greatest representatives of consistent nineteenth century democracy, who became the teachers of the revolutionary proletariat. And, full of a sense of national pride, we Great-Russian workers want, come what may, a free and independent, a democratic, republican and proud Great Russia, one that will base its relations with its neighbours on the human principle of equality, and not on the feudalist principle of privilege, which is so degrading to a great nation.’

‘Just because we want that, we say: it is impossible, in the twentieth century and in Europe (even in the far east of Europe), to “defend the fatherland” otherwise than by using every revolutionary means to combat the monarchy, the landowners and the capitalists of one’s own fatherland, i.e., the worst enemies of our country.’ 

‘We say that the Great Russians cannot “defend the fatherland” otherwise than by desiring the defeat of tsarism in any war, this as the lesser evil to nine-tenths of the inhabitants of Great Russia. For tsarism not only oppresses those nine-tenths economically and politically, but also demoralises, degrades, dishonours and prostitutes them by teaching them to oppress other nations and to cover up this shame with hypocritical and quasi-patriotic phrases.’

It is not necessary to endorse Lenin’s remarks about ‘desiring defeat’ or ‘lesser evil’ to appreciate the motivation of absolute opposition to the nationalism of Great Russia; the nationalism that lives on today in the pronouncements of Vladimir Putin but which is ideological garb draped over the body of the Russian state and oligarchic capitals that it is designed to protect.

Just as Marx supported the development of united nation states such as Germany and Italy, because this involved the internal overthrow of reactionary feudal privileges and restrictions, so he opposed national oppression within nations and looked to the progressive social forces within the oppressed and oppressor nations to achieve this free unity and benefit from it.  Lenin in this article mentions the ‘freedom and national independence for Ireland in the interests of the socialist movement of the British workers.’

The idea that in Ukraine any positive nationalist programme could issue from a corrupt capitalist state, one more and more the supplicant of US imperialism, and this spearheaded by its ‘best fighters’ who are fascists, shows the drastic illusions consuming many on the left. 

In relation to his opposition to Great Russian chauvinism, Lenin said that:

‘The objection may be advanced that, besides tsarism and under its wing, another historical force has arisen and become strong, viz., Great-Russian capitalism, which is carrying on progressive work by economically centralising and welding together vast regions. This objection, however, does not excuse, but on the contrary still more condemns our socialist-chauvinists . . .’

‘Let us even assume that history will decide in favour of Great-Russian dominant-nation capitalism, and against the hundred and one small nations. That is not impossible, for the entire history of capital is one of violence and plunder, blood and corruption. We do not advocate preserving small nations at all costs; other conditions being equal, we are decidedly for centralisation and are opposed to the petty-bourgeois ideal of federal relationships.’

He goes on to say that this does not mean supporting the capitalist political forces that promote this economic development.  However, it also means we do not seek to reverse it either.

In ‘The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ Lenin states that:

‘The Russian proletariat cannot march at the head of the people towards a victorious democratic revolution (which is its immediate task), or fight alongside its brothers, the proletarians of Europe, for a socialist revolution, without immediately demanding, fully and unreservedly, for all nations oppressed by tsarism, the freedom to secede from Russia. This we demand, not independently of our revolutionary struggle for socialism, but because this struggle will remain a hollow phrase if it is not linked up with a revolutionary approach to all questions of democracy, including the national question.’

‘We demand freedom of self-determination, i.e., independence, i.e., freedom of secession for the oppressed nations, not because we have dreamt of splitting up the country economically, or of the ideal of small states, but, on the contrary, because we want large states and the closer unity and even fusion of nations, only on a truly democratic, truly internationalist basis, which is inconceivable without the freedom to secede.’

Many of today’s ‘Marxists’ see in self-determination only separation and not the objective of unity.  They see the creation of new states where Lenin saw the unification of nationalities.  They think the right to secede mean support for secession when it is the means to provide guarantees to unification.  They think self-determination is only expressed by separation and creation of a new capitalist state when for Lenin it was the means for ensuring voluntary unity and the avoidance of such an outcome. Lenin advocated this policy even in the case of colonies.

In A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism Lenin writes that:

‘We demand from our governments that they quit the colonies, or, to put it in precise political terms rather than in agitational outcries—that they grant the colonies full freedom of secession, the genuine right to self-determination, and we ourselves are sure to implement this right, and grant this freedom, as soon as we capture power.’

‘We demand this from existing governments, and will do this when we are the government, not in order to “recommend” secession, but, on the contrary, in order to facilitate and accelerate the democratic association and merging of nations. We shall exert every effort to foster association and merger with the Mongolians, Persians, Indians, Egyptians. We believe it is our duty and in our interest to do this, for otherwise socialism in Europe will not be secure.’ 

‘We shall endeavour to render these nations, more backward and oppressed than we are, “disinterested cultural assistance”, to borrow the happy expression of the Polish Social-Democrats. In other words, we will help them pass to the use of machinery, to the lightening of labour, to democracy, to socialism.’

‘If we demand freedom of secession for the Mongolians, Persians, Egyptians and all other oppressed and unequal nations without exception, we do so not because we favour secession, but only because we stand for free, voluntary association and merging as distinct from forcible association. That is the only reason!’

The failure of Russia to offer a powerful and attractive example to Ukraine lies behind its turn towards invasion to substitute for this failure.  Undoubtedly this has divided the Ukrainian people themselves whose attempts to clean their own stables have been frustrated time and time again by oligarchic factions.

Through some of these factions the country has been turned towards the EU and NATO, membership of which its oligarchs and bourgeois political parties have attempted to impose even when the majority of the people have opposed it.  So, an unconstitutional Government signed an EU Association agreement and IMF loans, with their consequent massive implications for austerity, without any elections following the Maidan overthrow of the previous Yanukovych Government. The prime minister responsible, Yatsenyuk, admitted that “I will be the most unpopular prime minister in the history of my country . . .’

Three weeks before the ouster of Yanukovych the most popular opposition figure was Klitschko with a poll rating of 28.7% while Yatsenyuk didn’t even reach 3%.  Yatsenyuk however had the support of the United States, whose plans to put him in place were famously discussed in the leaked phone-call between US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt days before formation of the post-Maidan regime. 

The current divisions within Ukraine are not simply externally imposed but prove the failure and hypocrisy of nationalist claims to further national unity and oppose foreign interference.  In February 2017 a Gallop opinion poll recorded that more Ukrainians considered NATO a threat than a protection.  Nevertheless, the Ukrainian Government changed the constitution in 2019 to add a stipulation on “the strategic course” of Ukraine toward NATO membership.

This course has played no small part in causing the current massive escalation of war and making Ukraine utterly dependent on US imperialism, exposing all calls for defence of this state and its regime on the grounds of self-determination to be deceitful lies.

It is ironic that this subordination to the United States has been accompanied by, and is the product of, the growth of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism, proving that Lenin was right to warn that bourgeois nationalism will happily ally with external imperialism while demanding sacrifice from its own people.  This nationalism disguised as ‘self-determination’ has inevitably infected its left supporters in exactly the same way; we noted at the end of the previous post the absurdity of some on the left declaring that self-determination requires the ability of Ukraine to decide its own international alliances, including subordination within NATO.

The result of such subordination makes all talk of self-determination by the left while welcoming weapons from ‘anywhere’ – read NATO – not so much utter delusion, or even mistaken, but treacherous betrayal.  Having invited the US to determine the outcome of the war does this left really pretend the US will not determine the outcome of the peace? 

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

2 What Lenin did not mean by self-determination of nations

In Ireland it has been common to hear left-wing nationalists claim that Marxists support the nationalism of oppressed nations.

In ‘Critical Remarks on the National Question’, quoted in the previous post Lenin writes:

‘The principle of nationality is historically inevitable in bourgeois society and, taking this society into due account, the Marxist fully recognises the historical legitimacy of national movements. But to prevent this recognition from becoming an apologia of nationalism, it must be strictly limited to what is progressive in such movements, in order that this recognition may not lead to bourgeois ideology obscuring proletarian consciousness.’

‘The awakening of the masses from feudal lethargy, and their struggle against all national oppression, for the sovereignty of the people, of the nation, are progressive. Hence, it is the Marxist’s bounden duty to stand for the most resolute and consistent democratism on all aspects of the national question. This task is largely a negative one. But this is the limit the proletariat can go to in supporting nationalism, for beyond that begins the “positive” activity of the bourgeoisie striving to fortify nationalism.’

‘To throw off the feudal yoke, all national oppression, and all privileges enjoyed by any particular nation or language, is the imperative duty of the proletariat as a democratic force, and is certainly in the interests of the proletarian class struggle, which is obscured and retarded by bickering on the national question. But to go beyond these strictly limited and definite historical limits in helping bourgeois nationalism means betraying the proletariat and siding with the bourgeoisie. There is a border-line here, which is often very slight and which the Bundists and Ukrainian nationalist-socialists completely lose sight of.’

‘Combat all national oppression? Yes, of course! Fight for any kind of national development, for “national culture” in general? — Of course not. The economic development of capitalist society presents us with examples of immature national movements all over the world, examples of the formation of big nations out of a number of small ones, or to the detriment of some of the small ones, and also examples of the assimilation of nations.’

‘The development of nationality in general is the principle of bourgeois nationalism; hence the exclusiveness of bourgeois nationalism, hence the endless national bickering. The proletariat, however, far from undertaking to uphold the national development of every nation, on the contrary, warns the masses against such illusions, stands for the fullest freedom of capitalist intercourse and welcomes every kind of assimilation of nations, except that which is founded on force or privilege.’

So we see the progressiveness of nationalism, as the political framework for the development of capitalism against feudal restrictions, but not as support for capitalist states or their various nationalisms that develop thereafter.  Thereafter, the development of capitalism creates a working class with the interests of this class the same across national borders and therefore opposed to the division of the class that nationalism entails.

Support for nationalism beyond the negative sense of opposition to national oppression is to capitulate to bourgeois nationalism.  Support against national oppression is limited to what is progressive in any nationalist movement and although there may be a border-line between this and betraying the working class to bourgeois nationalism, what we have in the approach of much of the left today is an instinctive and automatic rush to reach for the policy of self-determination of nations in order to justify the decision to support one state in any particular conflict.

Lenin’s ‘formula’ of self-determination of nations has been carried forward as the key to unlocking any national issue without regard to its historical limitation and by ignoring Lenin’s explicit subordination of this justification to the determining interests of the working class.  

Instead of the unity of the working class coming first, the demand for self-determination for a particular nation is placed beforehand, with the assumption that this leads to the former.  Since the demand for self-determination is a bourgeois democratic demand it cannot even on its own terms be seen to lead to the unity of the working class.  We have countless historical examples of self-determination being enacted through creation of new nation states with capitalist social relations and no progressive working class unity established.

Supporters of ‘Ukraine’ have, for example, said that ‘the people of Ukraine must be allowed to exercise freely their right to democratic self-determination, without any military or economic pressure’.  This has been accompanied with calls to cancel Ukraine’s foreign debt – ‘it is important in ensuring that, when they have reconquered their independence, Ukrainians won’t be even more dependent on creditors or domestic oligarchs over whom they have no control.’

But we have demonstrated that the demand for self-determination is not only not applicable to an independent country like Ukraine in this war, but is a capitulation to bourgeois nationalism, with the long quote above demonstrating why.

As Lenin says – self-determination is not support for anything other than the right to secede and form an independent state, and in doing so to reject feudal or dynastic chains such as were forged by the Tsarist, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires.  This will allow for the free development of capitalism by that particular state.  It is no job of socialists to uphold that state’s capitalist economic development that is built on the exploitation of workers, except in so far as we welcome this development by its creation of a working class that will overthrow it, and which more and more removes national differences.  It is therefore, not our job to seek to constrain such development through reactionary political projects such as Brexit or splitting already established states, such as Britain.

When left nationalists welcome that ‘Ukrainians’ have ‘reconquered their independence’ but complain that foreign debt must be also be cancelled, so that they won’t be dependent on foreign creditors or domestic oligarchs, they fall exactly into the camp of bourgeois nationalism.

Firstly, the cancellation of past debt will without doubt be followed by incurring new debts, debts that will be paid from the surplus produced by Ukrainian workers who will not be free and independent of either this debt or the domestic oligarchs, who can only be disposed of through socialist revolution and not mitigation of foreign loans.  It is no job of socialists to defend the capitalist development of smaller or weaker capitalist states as if they are somehow oppressed and exploited when the real exploitation involved is class exploitation.

While, on its own, socialists will not object to the cancellation of foreign debt (but why just foreign? what would these socialists demand if the debt was gifted to domestic creditors? ) this cannot be as part of support for a programme of capitalist economic development.  To repeat, for us the development of capitalism is of benefit because it creates the working class, and its greater development objectively prepares this class for its historic task of becoming the new ruling class and undertaking the task of abolishing class altogether. 

The capitalist development of new nations inevitably involves insertion into a world system that will rob the innocent of any illusion that their nation is really independent of the forces that determine its future.  Overwhelmingly these forces are based on the interests of the most powerful states and the largest capitals.  Just as big capitals destroy small ones within the framework of their own state, these capitals get too big for the nation state and seek existence across states, creating multinational capitals and multinational para-state bodies, which determine the fortune of smaller states and smaller capitals. 

In attempting to counter such forces Lenin goes on to say that ‘Consolidating nationalism within a certain “justly” delimited sphere, “constitutionalising” nationalism, and securing the separation of all nations from one another by means of a special state institution—such is the ideological foundation and content of cultural-national autonomy. This idea is thoroughly bourgeois and thoroughly false.’

‘The proletariat cannot support any consecration of nationalism; on the contrary, it supports everything that helps to obliterate national distinctions and remove national barriers; it supports everything that makes the ties between nationalities closer and closer, or tends to merge nations. To act differently means siding with reactionary nationalist philistinism.’  This is the ground on which socialists oppose all varieties of nationalism and oppose reactionary national movements.  

In one Facebook discussion a supporter of the Ukrainian state argued that self-determination required the ability of Ukraine to decide its own international alliances.  When someone tries to argue that socialists should fight for the right of a capitalist state to join an imperialist alliance such as NATO you know you aren’t dealing with any sort of socialist, and certainly not arguing with support from Lenin’s formulation of self-determination of nations.

to be continued

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Opinion polls and a United Ireland (4) – Support in the South for unity

Large majority of voters favour a united Ireland, poll finds

The Irish Times

It stands to reason that for a united Ireland to happen both North and South would have to agree to it.  The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll in December last year recorded the results of an opinion poll on support for a united Ireland in the South.

An Irish Times columnist summed it up right from the start – ‘So, you want a united Ireland?  Of course.  Soon? Eh, not really.  Want to pay for it? Nope. Want unionists involved? Sure. Want to change the anthem or the flag? Not a chance.  How much do you really care about it? Let me get back to you on that.’

One thing really gets me about this type of thing, but I’ll get to this in a minute, after I briefly set out the results of the poll.

Support for Irish unity is broad – 62% support it, 16% say Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, 13% are undecided and 8% won’t bother themselves to vote.

Asked when they would like to see a referendum, 15% said now and 13% said never, while a further 16% said they would like to see it more than 10 years in the future.  Since the most popular response was ‘in the next ten years’, at 42%, it means that support for a referendum within this timescale is almost the same as that supporting a united Ireland at 57%.

It might be thought then that those supporting a united Ireland are rather keener on it than the spin placed on it by political commentary such as that just quoted.  Unfortunately for such a view the question was asked ‘how important is a United Ireland to you?’ and the most popular answer was ‘not very important, but I would like to see it someday.’  (For some reason this makes me think of this less well-known Irish rebel song).

This was the response of a majority of 52%, with only 20% saying it was ‘very important, it is a priority for me.’ More people than this, at 24%, said it was ‘not at all important’ with 4% saying they didn’t know.  Even among Sinn Fein supporters this was the most popular answer at 47%, with 16% saying ‘not at all’.

If I might seem flippant about this question it is because how important something is very much depends on the context and one might reasonably expect that an actual referendum would make the question have greater importance.  Whether this would increase or reduce support for a United Ireland again depends on context.

To determine the importance of it, or rather to emphasise its unimportance, the poll asked a number of questions about what compromises people in the South were prepared to make in order to make a united Ireland happen. Hence the comment above – ‘How much do you really care about it? Let me get back to you on that.’

So, asked if they would agree to a new flag, a new national anthem, paying higher taxes, having less money to spend on public services or re-joining the Commonwealth, support was 16%, 21%, 15%,13% and 14% respectively.  Or, to put it another way, 77%, 72%, 79%, 79% and 71% said no.  On the other hand, 47% agreed to ‘having closer ties to the UK’, whatever that meant – perhaps visiting their cousins more often? – and 44% agreed to ‘having unionist politicians as part of the Government in Dublin’, which is a hell of a lot more important than a flag or a song.  Yet another reason to doubt the value of these particular questions.

Which brings me to the one thing that really gets me about this type of thing.  These ‘compromises’ are paraded by liberals and the great and the good as if they are in the least bit important to unionists.  These people continually parrot that the concerns of unionists have to be listened to, yet their proposals show that they are the last to listen to them.  Unionism frankly doesn’t give a shit about what flag is flown in the South of Ireland and doesn’t care what the national anthem is either etc. etc.  As far as they are concerned, or rather proclaim loudly, it’s a foreign country and you can stand to whatever flag and sing whatever song you want.

In such circumstances, refusal to countenance such ‘compromises’, where only one side might agree, is perfectly rational.

This, however, is not very important.  What matters is the question that wasn’t asked, which reveals much about the blindness of those behind the opinion poll.

In the North, Lord Ashcroft’s poll asked ‘what would change in a united Ireland?’, in other words, what would be the benefit or cost of a united Ireland to unionists, nationalists and ‘neutrals’.  In the The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll only costs are considered to exist and only questions on this were asked.

Behind the poll is the view that partition has brought the Irish state freedom and is an unquestionable success, how could it be improved?  How could incorporation of the North involve anything but potential costs or uncomfortable compromises?

For the liberal political classes and their cultural and diluted political nationalism, what might be acceptable to their comfortable existence – which they deftly weave into working class concerns about standard of living and welfare services – is the only relevant issue.

There is therefore a complete absence of the question ‘what problem is a united Ireland meant to solve?’

As far as the Southern establishment is concerned the only headaches reside in the North while a potential united Ireland itself raises problems.

But before we pour scorn on the bourgeois political classes in the South, socialists also have to ask themselves – what problems do we see being solved (at least even partially – as a step forward) by a united Ireland?

Since the answer is the unity of the working class this can only register in political consciousness in the South if there is a struggle for the independence of the working class for which such unity is required – and where is that struggle?

It hardly exists.  The trade unions are bureaucratised and are welded to social partnership in whatever form it takes, or appears not to take.  There is no mass working class party asserting the separate interests of the working class, and the left organisations with elected representatives are wedded to an electoral strategy fundamentally based on the institutions of the Southern State, with implications that they don’t understand and an effect on their state-socialism they are equally only dimly aware of.

Of course, they want a united Ireland, or some of them do, but since their conception of advancing socialism is through the current Irish State their whole approach involves promises of the potential benefits from this state and not the gains from an existing mass working class movement that has already delivered.

We can point to the gains made by the women’s and gay movement, in contraception, divorce, abortion and gay marriage but where is the recent experience of a mass workers’ movement achieving more or less comparable permanent advances?

A booming economy with higher living standards and lower unemployment is the result of multinationals and this is now sold as the same route to prosperity in the North, through its unity with the South.  The left wants the fruits of the relative success of capitalism in the South spread more widely with particular market/state failures addressed (such as health and housing), which rely on this growing economy, in turn reliant on US multinationals.

On the same day that The Irish Times reported its opinion poll results it also reported on some other statistics.  These were from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which showed that almost double the number of Catholics as Protestants were arrested and charged over a five-year period from the beginning of 2016.  This is the sort of material reality that drives Irish nationalism in the North.

The absence of such a reality in the South explains a lot.

Marxists are always regaled with the charge that they don’t understand and can’t cope with nationalism.  The experience of Ireland shows that nationalism doesn’t understand itself and can’t cope without material reality, understood by Marxists, giving it substance.  It is the power of the state that gives nationalism an objective and in the South of Ireland they’ve already got one.

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Opinion polls and a United Ireland 2 – unionist pessimism, nationalist optimism and Brexit

The pessimism of unionism revealed again in the Lord Ashcroft poll is based on their uncomfortable reliance on perfidious Albion – ‘more voters thought the Westminster government would rather see Northern Ireland leave the UK than thought it would rather keep the province as part of the Union. Only 11% of voters, and only 21% of Unionists, said they thought Westminster very much wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK. A further 22% of all voters thought it would prefer to keep the province as part of the Union.’ 

If the Northern state were really as British as Finchley this would be inexplicable.

‘In our focus groups, voters on all sides said they thought Northern Ireland was an “inconvenience” or an “afterthought” for the rest of the UK. The “levelling up” agenda seemed to apply to the north of England, rather than anywhere further afield.’

Nationalist voters are more convinced that Britain wants to get out, with 68% believing this.  Given the determination of the British State to defeat the struggle against its rule by some of them this is somewhat surprising, but is only one element of their view of the world, and in part reflects their view of the patent illegitimacy of partition and the palpable failure of the Northern state to be what is considered ‘normal’.

Another element is that one third of nationalists think the Southern state is indifferent or opposed to a united Ireland.  While almost 95% think there should be a referendum on Irish unity within 10 years and 86% think there will be, there is apprehension at how it might occur.  Commentary to the poll states that ‘Many were also nervous about the prospect, including some who favoured a united Ireland in principle. They tended to think that a referendum would be divisive, re-awakening tensions rather than resolving them, and that a return to violence would be more than likely.’

This view can hardly be dismissed, since every change to the Northern State, including the demand for civil rights, has been met with protest and violence by unionism.  The view that a referendum in the South should follow one in the North is an additional incentive for unionist aggression and to make any threats credible.

The latest change is the Protocol to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the British government and EU following Brexit.  Unionist leaders claim it has constitutional implications, that their agreement to it is therefore required, and that they’re not giving it.  Since the argued direct constitutional effect is mistaken, although not its implications, unionism is arguing – as it always does – that no change can be made to the arrangements within the Northern State without its agreement.  Since its politics are overwhelmingly sectarian and wholly reactionary this is one reason why partition should be ended and a united Ireland is progressive.

The main reason for nationalist optimism is demographic, that the share of the Catholic population is growing and Protestant Unionist one is declining; Ashcroft states that ‘one Catholic voter told us cheerfully and candidly in nationalist Strabane, “we breed better than they do. They have big TVs; we have big families.” More than seven in ten voters aged under 25 said they would vote for a united Ireland.’

The poll states that ‘Support for a united Ireland declined sharply with age: 71% of those aged 18-24 said they would vote for unification, with 24% opting to stay in the UK; among those aged 65 or over, only 25% backed a united Ireland, with 55% choosing the status quo.’

It also reports the finding that ‘More than a quarter (27%) of voters said they had changed their mind as to whether Northern Ireland should stay in the UK . . . Among neutrals, 62% thought voters would choose the status quo tomorrow, but 66% thought they would back a united Ireland in ten years’ time.’  Nationalists anticipate that people will change their minds and change them in only one direction.

One reason for this belief is the claimed effect of Brexit. According to the poll 95% of nationalists/republicans opposed Brexit while 66% of unionists supported it.  The 30% of unionists who opposed Brexit and the 92% of those defined as ‘neutral’ (those who described themselves as neutral on the constitution) who also opposed it are expected to, or at least it is hoped will, change their views on the constitutional question because of the UK leaving the EU.

The poll makes much of its effects – ‘Participants in all our focus groups spoke about rising prices and shortages of goods, including food, clothes, household items and building materials. Several noted that ordering items from overseas had become more expensive or in some cases impossible; several had experienced Amazon being unable to ship certain items to Northern Ireland. Such problems were attributed to Brexit, the Protocol, covid, the Suez Canal blockage, or various combinations of all four.’

It finds that ‘Nearly 9 in 10 voters (88%) said they thought Brexit had been a cause of shortages of food and other goods in Northern Ireland, including 62% who said it had been a major factor. This was especially true of Nationalist/Republicans, with 73% of 2017 SDLP voters and 90% of Sinn Féin voters saying they believed Brexit had been a major factor.’

‘Three quarters of 2016 Leave voters said Brexit had had a part to play in shortages, including 29% thinking it had been a major factor.’

‘Unionists, however, were more likely to blame the pandemic and (especially) the Northern Ireland Protocol. Nearly 8 in 10 (78%) of them, including 89% of 2017 DUP voters, said they thought the Protocol had been a major factor, compared to 38% who said the same of Brexit more generally.’

The poll asked ‘whether Brexit had affected people’s views as to whether Northern Ireland should be part of the UK. For three quarters, it had made no difference: 43% said they had thought the province should be part of the UK before Brexit and still did; 32% said they had favoured a united Ireland before Brexit and they still did.’

However, ‘13% said they had thought Northern Ireland should stay in the UK before Brexit, but now favoured a united Ireland. This included 40% of 2017 SDLP voters, 34% of those who had backed the Alliance party, and 36% of those who described themselves as neutral on the constitution.

A further 9% (including 36% of 2017 Alliance voters, 29% of constitutional neutrals and 9% of self-described Unionists) said Brexit had made them less sure that Northern Ireland should be part of the UK.’

Again, its perceived effects reflect previous dispositions, with 34% of unionists believing Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely, 99% of nationalists thinking it does, and 89% of ‘neutrals’ believing the same. Nationalist optimism and unionist pessimism are long standing but have not changed the existing political division.  It is therefore an open question whether Brexit will have the effect of persuading some unionists or ‘neutrals’ to support a united Ireland.  It will certainly not strengthen opposition to it and its longer term economic effects may be more powerful in shifting views than relatively minor shortages.

to be continued

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The basis of socialist internationalism

Karl Marx’s Alternative to Capitalism – part 34

The previous post argued that capitalism continues to develop the forces of production while at the same time, in a contradictory process, continuing to fetter their development. This process opens the road to a new society of completely socialised productive forces, or socialism.  In order to reach it a certain level of development of the productive forces is necessary, which requires that this transformation take place internationally.

This is so because capitalism has long ago developed not only a world market but also, through the continuing socialisation of production, developed an international division of labour.  It therefore follows that the development of socialism in any single country cannot be achieved from an inferior level of development and cannot do so on its own.  While the overthrow of capitalism may first occur in a single country, the creation of socialism will face insuperable barriers and without further international development will fail.

Many analyses treat the development of the forces of production as a technological question or from a purely economic perspective, separate from consideration of class struggle or politics, divorced from the latter to the extent that they form a purely background enabling condition long since achieved.  This arises partly from the influence of Stalinism, for which purely national roads to socialism are already part of the ‘theory’, and partly from those Trotskyists for whom this constraint is no longer strictly binding because of a one-sided application of the theory of permanent revolution, positing that the tasks of capitalist development may and can, rather unproblematically, be taken forward by a working class regime due to the weakness of native capitalism.

The theory of permanent revolution is taken to have relaxed somewhat the constraint on possible socialist progress at a purely national level, while the decades of capitalist development since its first elaboration have actually tightened the constraint on the potential evolution of a country separated from the capitalist international division of labour.

In this theory the development of productive forces must be considered as a whole, at the level of the world, and at this level capitalism is ripe for socialism.  It is correctly recognised that for any revolution in a single country to survive it must spread.  However, because this revolution is considered mainly in political terms the grounds for socialist revolution as a social transformation engendered by the social power of the international working class is not fully appreciated.  The social power of the working class includes its role in the international division of labour, which provides the grounds for its political as well as economic unity, and is the basis for overcoming the much more uneven and volatile development of political struggles across the world that might otherwise leave working class political revolution isolated in a single country.

For many, socialist revolution is wrongly considered as implying that the task is simply one of destroying a system that is already historically decaying without consideration of the implications of its continuing development for a working class that is far from being able to impose its own solution.  This approach believes that capitalism is declining in a historic sense, evidenced by economic crises and general stagnation, along with other pathological conditions that are all held to be derived from decline.

Such conceptions become a dogma that is a given, and within which every malignant social and political phenomenon is interpreted and becomes an example thereof and not as more or less endemic expressions of the system.  While the laws of motion of the capitalist system discovered by Marx have produced results, ironically they are treated as if they no longer operate, which means his analysis in effect no longer applies.  So capitalism is no longer considered to revolutionise society by developing the forces of production and, despite all evidence to the contrary, is conceived as being in stagnation or perpetual crisis.  What we are left with is a dogmatic Marxism that ironically facilitates a political practice seemingly at odds with such an approach.

The effect is to reduce analysis to the level of immediate political struggle with an empirical approach to events.  As all the fundamental factors for socialism are considered to already be in place it encourages short-termism and an opportunist approach.  This does not necessarily mean that the wrong position is taken on any immediate political question but it does mean that even when the right one is taken it is not securely grounded.

If we consider the reality of the continued development of the international forces of production, we are forced to reject the nationalist perspectives of earlier left conceptions and their more recent expressions and inspirations.

For example, in this corner of the world there is no ‘British road to socialism’ and no way forward through attempts to constrain the dynamic of class struggle within national limits through a ‘left’ Brexit.  There is nothing progressive about some sort of Scotland of a ‘common weal’ that is common only to a select nationality and which believes social equality can be created within the boundaries of this small European country.  There can be no emancipation and liberation of the Irish working class – through pursuit of some mythical ‘real’ independence of the Irish nation in a Workers’ Republic – that is not part of a successful international revolution.

What all these have in common is that the international development of the forces of production makes all their struggles for national separation on supposedly progressive grounds utopian, and if they are utopian they will fail.  Whether they apparently achieve short term political success or not doesn’t matter in the end, fundamental economic and social forces will crush their promises, although these promises will long be abandoned by its sponsors before this happens.  The apparent victory of nationalism in the twentieth century and its defeat of its great ideological rival socialism hasn’t prevented the continuing International development of capitalism against which nationalist measures are impotent.  Only an international political arrangement can adequately address the governance of an international economy as capitalism already acknowledges (through the IMF, WTO, UN, NAFTA, G10, EU, ASEAN, BIS, OECD etc.)  and the only consistent International ideology and political programme is socialism.

If the Soviet Union could not develop a superior society to capitalism despite its size and resources, and if Britain cannot develop a superior capitalism to the EU, today bleeding from a thousand cuts that are barely reported, then the idea, for example, of Ireland or Scotland creating oases of social equality are fanciful.

The conditions for social equality cannot exist because the forces of production necessary for them, for socialism, must exceed the development of these forces under capitalism.  The productivity of labour and the most advanced techniques of production must go beyond that currently achieved by capitalism through its particular socialisation of production at the international level.  It is not a question of resisting and turning back what is now called globalisation but transforming the relations of production and the political determinations of these globalised productive forces.

The productiveness of any single country can no longer encompass all the goods and services considered as necessary consumption in the most advanced capitalist countries, in fact in all countries.  Inferior productivity than the most developed capitalism will see workers in any isolated regime buy goods and services from capitalist countries, so undermining their own economy and empowering capitalist industry to out-compete it.  It will see workers seek higher levels of living standards in capitalist countries, which their higher productivity delivers, by moving to these countries.

Only increased productivity can undermine the requirement for differential reward as an incentive to work, while this incentive will meanwhile exacerbate inequality.  Whatever the intentions, or the more democratic relations of production in any progressive departure from capitalism, superior capitalist forces of production will destroy such a departure if based on a narrow nationalist basis.  This is but a negative formulation of the earlier posts in this series emphasising the role of the forces of production determining – by bringing about, or in this case preventing – the development of new relations of production.

Of course, attempts at preventing all this can be made by administrative measures.  By curbing the entry into the country of cheaper goods produced by the more advanced capitalist countries and by reducing the supply of their new products and services.  By preventing investment in the country by capitalist firms and by restricting freedom to move to these countries of workers seeking a better life.  But how would this be possible if this society is ruled by the workers themselves?  How could they restrict their own freedoms if they are in charge?

These administrative measures would have to be imposed from without, and the mechanism for doing so is the state.  Since some workers would already have partially bought into this – if the project they supported was to create a new and separate ‘progressive’ state – they might at least initially support sacrifices and restrictions on freedoms, while others would not.  Those who would support them would seek reward for supporting the new state. Either by compulsion or reward the new ‘progressive state’ would generate its own inequality and its own restrictions of freedoms required to support this inequality – all in the name of progress and equality!  We have seen this film before and we know how it ends.

It is more than unfortunate that this understanding of the grounds for socialism elaborated by Marx and Engels have to be argued for again today, rather than having been forgotten, ignored of wilfully distorted or rejected by many of their so-called adherents.  The importance of internationalism and of embracing the interests of the working class as a whole was set out over 170 years ago:

“The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”  (The Communist Manifesto)

Forward  to part 35

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From Civil Right to ‘the Troubles’ part 3 – nationalist failures

As we argued in the previous post, the civil rights movement grew out of the failure of the traditional alternatives which Catholics in the North of Ireland looked to in order to address their grievances.  These had sought to address the problem at source – through removing partition and ending the Northern State itself.

The first of these was through the Nationalist Party, whose various participation and absence from Stormont were equally ineffective.  Belfast Catholics also voted for various Labour parties and individuals and some radicals joined the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the 1960s, especially in Derry where they later played an important part in the civil rights movement. The Nationalist Party however was hardly a party at all, with no party structure, only holding its first annual conference in 1966, and was dominated by small businessmen, farmers, professionals and the clergy.

As the Anti-Partition League (APL) the Party had sought in 1945 to unite all those in the North opposed to partition and, like a couple of decades later, hoped that the new Labour government in London would be more sympathetic to its cause. The Party also appeared attuned to the times when Fianna Fail in the South ramped up its nationalist rhetoric when faced with a greener competitor on its flanks: Clann na Poblachta as part of a coalition Government in the South declared the Irish state a Republic in 1949.

The League tried to build a real organisation with offices and branches and to create a campaign with meetings and rallies across the North, also looking to the Irish in Britain and US, as well as in the Irish state.  Hopes of progress faced an intransigent Unionist government that banned nationalist demonstrations, while the Unionist Party increased its grip on Protestant workers assisted by Labour politics in the North splitting over partition.

The inevitable failure of the APL and lack of organisation of its successor signaled that Catholic disadvantage would not be reduced through constitutional campaigning. Relying significantly on local Catholic notables and the Church, the latter was more interested in its own temporal power than that of its flock, and this entailed funding from the Stormont regime and an amicable relationship with it.

The strongest Irish nationalist movements were the political parties in the South, but they too were more interested in the security and strength of their own partitioned state, which also came to be seen as linked to an amicable relationship with the Unionist State.

The second force within the Catholic population was nationalism in its more militant guise of republicanism. After the defeat of the Anti-Treaty forces in the civil war the defeated IRA sought a ‘second round’ of struggle against the Free State, the traitors who had split the movement and betrayed the true Republic.

Despite strenuous claims by republicans as to the continuity of their movement it is the discontinuities which are most remarkable, and the greatest break in the continuity of the movement in the 20th century was its attitude to the Irish State.  Today the idea that the main goal of the IRA should be to overthrow the Irish State would seem incredible, but this only illustrates how much the movement has changed.

A further split in the Anti-Treaty movement and the creation of Fianna Fail in 1926 exposed the weakness of militant republicanism and its nationalist politics. With Fianna Fail in government the lack of any principles based on class left it with no political rationale for prioritising overthrow of the new Irish State.  Popular opposition to any such project made ditching this objective easier, while also simpler to pass over the change in programme without anything being learned.  It was however now saddled with a policy that sought to abolish partition but without fundamental opposition to one of the partitioned states, the one previously considered to be the immediate and principal enemy.

Robbed of the perspective of a ‘second round’ against the Free Staters, the IRA embarked on a bombing campaign directly against Britain in 1939, which exposed the strategic weakness of the movement.  It was however saved from even greater humiliation by bigger concerns created by the much larger conflict.

The remaining target was the Northern State itself, which had witnessed isolated IRA action in the 1930s and 1940s, but which became the central target of a border campaign launched in 1956.  This however spluttered out long before it was brought to a formal close in 1962, when the IRA was forced to dump arms while blaming the people for lack of support.

In fact, elections in 1955 had shown that there was significant support in the areas where the campaign was expected to operate, so it appeared again that no real lessons were learnt, although it should have been clear what these were.   The restriction of IRA activity in Belfast already indicated some appreciation of weakness, but without any apparent consideration about what this might have meant for the effectiveness of its strategy as a whole and republican politics more generally.

There were now no more strategic targets left, with all three states in opposition to it having easily crushed attempts at armed rebellion.

At this point some in the republican movement did begin to learn lessons, which if fully comprehended and absorbed would have radically transformed the movement.  Unfortunately, the new emphasis in the 1960s on economic and social agitation was not in itself an alternative to belief in the power of armed struggle, and when this radical reconsideration was later completed by the Official republican movement it was not to lead to the embrace of socialism, but to the stultifying and corrupting grip of Stalinism.

Since Irish Republicanism had long become a militant form of nationalism, and Stalinism had long become a nationalist form of socialism, the difference between militant nationalism and nationalist socialism was both easy to cross over and easy to erase. Nationalism was common to both, as was the understanding of socialism as primarily amounting to state intervention by the existing state, with the cherry of a left governing party at the top of a capitalist cake.  Today some left-wing republicans have attempted to come to terms with the defeat of Provisional republicanism through embracing the current incarnation of Stalinism, although in doing so they have simply repeated the experience of the 1960s.

Nevertheless, the identification by some republicans of the need for attention to be given to economic and social agitation did provide an important thread that led to the creation of the civil rights movement. In this they were joined by concerned members of the Catholic middle class and radicals and leftists in the Northern Ireland Labour Party. In doing so these various currents would come together to identify a radical approach to the growing concern of many, a concern with what might seem to be a programme of limited reform, but which contained within it much more explosive potential.

That diverse movements came separately to this point indicates that forces more fundamental than themselves were working, and we will look at these in the next post.

Of course, in the end, the nationalist consciousness of the vast majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland was not broken by the civil rights movement despite the earlier failures of such politics.  As a result of this, more radical socialist and even left republican politics were not so much defeated as marginalised by the dynamics of developments as these ran into the ‘troubles’.  But before we get to that we will look at the progenitors of the civil rights movement.

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Forward to part 4

 

Should socialists support a border poll? 2 – is a majority enough?

For some people, getting a simple majority in the North of Ireland is not sufficient to justify a united Ireland, and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is not the first leading southern politician to question whether it would be enough.  The unionist leader Peter Robinson has also said that any border poll on Northern Ireland’s future in the UK could not be conducted on the basis of a simple majority.  Varadkar has said that an Irish unity poll would be divisive and “a bad idea”, that the idea of a “majority of one” would lead to chaos, and questioned whether it would be a “good thing”.

The Irish establishment, the classes it is based on, and the politicians who represent it are quite happy with partition, and are more or less at one on this with unionists.  As former Taoiseach Jack Lynch put it some decades ago, “if we were given a gift of Northern Ireland tomorrow, we could not accept it.”

In the North a recent opinion poll recorded that more than half of unionists rejected the idea of a referendum completely, while 90 per cent of nationalists wanted one within five years.  A slight majority of all respondents supported the idea of ’50 per cent plus one’, while almost 20 per cent said a two-thirds majority should be required.  A majority of unionists advocated a 70 per cent threshold while nearly 90 per cent of nationalists favoured 50 per cent plus one.

Behind the numbers however is the question of what the purpose of unity is and what it would be for. The SDLP leader John Hume used to repeat, seemingly endlessly, that it wasn’t territory that needed to be united but people.  And for socialists this is indeed the case, with perhaps a further three vital considerations.

The first is that the unity to be achieved is not just unity between North and South but within the North as well; secondly that it is the unity of the working class that is decisive for real progressive change and thirdly, that unity of territory really means a united State, and states and their practices have been decisive in the past in dividing the working class.  So, it isn’t simply a question of uniting two pieces of land or of territory, but of the political arrangements upon which they sit.

It might thus seem that the Socialist Party is correct for example to emphasise workers unity, and in tune with unionism and the southern establishment, to state that a border poll would be ‘very divisive’; could be seen as “a dangerous development”, is not a “democratic” solution”, would amount to “coercion”, and would be similar in effect to such things as the Anglo-Irish Agreement and flag protests in 2012/2013, which “will inflame opinion in Protestant working class areas . . . and will cause harm to the cause of working class unity.”

It is not necessary to agree with the strong formulations of the Socialist Party in order to start from the question of working class unity, because that is indeed the objective. But in doing so it is necessary to appreciate that at the present time there is an absence of such unity, between Irish workers in the North and those in the South, and within the North.  Such things as common membership of a trade union does not constitute such unity.

For a Marxist workers unity means some sort of political unity, based on material circumstances that includes union membership, but which must also take into account political consciousness and the existing profound political division of the working class.  Opposing a border poll on the grounds of protecting the status quo because it contains some sort of working class unity is not therefore an option, except in so far as we do not want to make the disunity that exists worse.

Unfortunately, given the economism of the SP, which routinely identifies purely economic issues with class issues and struggles around employment and wages etc. as precursors of socialism, it means that the Party consistently overstates the extent to which workers unity already exists.  This tends to lead to the view that any change to the current arrangements must entail some sort of promise of ‘socialism’.

So while the leaders of the Party state that “we are clear that we do not in any way ignore the rights of Catholics. It has always been the case that we take into consideration the intense desire for change of working- class Catholics and we recognise the positive side of this intense desire for change”, such a claim always struggles to find expression in their programme.

So while they oppose a border poll for not being democratic because it will “inflame Protestant opinion”, cause “widespread anger in the Protestant community”, “mass protests” and “street violence”, they seem not to comprehend the message thereby sent to Catholic workers.

For these workers, the Northern Ireland State is a single gerrymandered sectarian constituency that has routinely discriminated against them and used repression in every decade of its existence to enforce their subordination.  In the 1960s some campaigned for civil rights to overturn the most flagrant gerrymandering within the state, but they are now being told to accept the gerrymandering of the state, even if they are in a majority!

Having fought for ”one man one vote”, many unionists (and analogously the SP) are now saying to Catholic workers that they should either not be able to vote in a poll, or they can vote, but they will have to gain a two-thirds or 70 per cent majority; in other words they will still not be able to have ‘one person, one vote’.  A Catholic vote will not be equal to a Protestant vote and they will still in effect be denied their civil rights.

And for what reason? Because of opposition within the Protestant population to the denial of their ‘identity’ as British?  In the name of opposing sectarian division the Socialist Party has thus found itself opposing civil rights on the grounds of sectarian identity.  And this from a Party that claims to oppose ‘identity’ politics and base itself on class politics.

The position of the Party actually makes its position one of the most reactionary of those opposed to a border poll.  Like its position on Brexit its economism, and the general limitations of its politics, finds it planted in the most reactionary camp.  How bad this is is clear from its employment of the flags protest as a case justifying its opposition to the minor political border arising from customs and regulatory checks in any East-West border that might arise from Brexit.

There is no attempt by it to define or defend some arbitrary majority that should be respected in a border poll, should it be 50%+1 or 2/3 or 70%, but simply that a poll cannot be entertained because it will inflame Protestant opinion.  In effect what we have is a sectarian veto and a defence of the continued existence of the Northern State as a sectarian one, justified only by its sectarian composition, by the opposition of some part of the Protestant working class through its identification with Britishness, an identification defined by loyalty to the monarchy, the Protestant religion, and British imperialist conquest. The logic of such sectarian privilege could easily be extended to all political practices within the state  because no limits are placed on the salience of this Protestant opinion.

In such circumstances no amount of explanation that this represents legitimate opposition by Protestant workers to Catholic sectarian claims would be the least convincing.  Nor would any claim that there was anything progressive about it, such as Protestant opposition to a ‘capitalist’ united Ireland as if – given their wholly reactionary politics – unionists would not express even more opposition to a socialist united Ireland.

Such a political position would not be defensible by claiming that a non-sectarian workers unity might be built within the North around economic issue.  If there was a majority for a united Ireland, any attempt to deny this majority could not possibly be defended from a socialist perspective, although this does not exhaust questions that arise about implementation.

Whether such a poll should be supported now is not quite the same question, although similar issues arise, and with the same consequences.  Outright denial of a border poll in principle is a denial of democratic rights and, if expressed on the grounds put forward by the Socialist Party, is a capitulation to sectarianism.

This does not mean that the question of increased sectarian division should not be taken into account but it does mean outright opposition to a border poll for the reasons given by the Socialist Party is not the answer.

The flags protest is a good example of Protestant workers’ opposition to changes which should definitely not be accommodated or accepted.  Even a cursory examination of it illustrates that to do otherwise is actually to capitulate to sectarian demands.  In the next part I will briefly review this episode.

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Forward to part 3

Socialist Strategy – reply to a critic 3

In a 1 June article Socialist Democracy (SD) wrote that “a popular slogan by People before Profit (PbP) candidates – “we are neither Orange or Green, but Socialist!” – is a form of neutrality that draws an equals sign between Irish republicanism, with its revolutionary and what Lenin called “generally democratic” content and the utterly reactionary and counter-revolutionary politics of Unionism.”

In another post SD say that “This neutrality ignores socialist support for democratic rights and the frequent alliances between republicanism and socialism that are part of our history. It can blind workers to the very real mechanisms employed by loyalism and the state to combat radicalism amongst Protestant workers and prevent working class unity.”

First some basic points.  Saying you are neither Orange or Green, unionist or nationalist, is not to equate the two, no matter how SD convinces itself it does.  It is a matter of fact, and a matter of principle that socialists are not unionists or nationalists.

It is similarly the case that socialists do not believe that workers should be led by either unionists or nationalists.  We do not believe nationalism can deliver the equality that socialists support never mind the fundamental reorganisation of society we seek, and which makes us socialists.

It is therefore not only permitted, but absolutely required, that socialists state that they are socialist!  At a very basic level it is as simple as that.  It is also the case that they need to do so to distinguish themselves from Irish unionism and Irish nationalism.  In the SD version of democratic alliances with republicanism it would seem that we cannot say that we are not unionist or nationalist, which amounts to politically surrendering your flag.

Does SD believe that Irish nationalism, in whatever form, can unite the Irish working class?  If so, it should reconsider its independent existence.  If not, it should drop this ridiculous line of criticism, and in doing so the comrades should consider how they ended up defending such a position.

I will venture that they did so because of their understanding of nationalism. As quoted above, SD states that “Irish republicanism . . (has a) revolutionary and what Lenin called “generally democratic” content”, forgetting the fact that Sinn Fein is no longer standing by the traditional republican programme. The Provisional republicans, as SD say (in their article of 10 March) have moved from “armed struggle to constitutional nationalism.”

Their failure to register this when condemning PbP must have something to do with their declared opposition to the slogan of the PbP and their claim that this disregards “the generally democratic programme of Irish nationalism.” (1 June 2017)

SD state in their response to my original posts that “all theories have to deal with real life”.  So how does the theory that the programme of Irish nationalism is “generally democratic” stand up to real life?

Let’s examine the concrete, real life expressions of Irish nationalism, and not the theoretical one clearly envisaged by SD.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, the ‘United Ireland Party’ and ‘Soldiers of Destiny’, are both reactionary Irish nationalist parties of the capitalist class.  Sinn Fein, by SD’s own admission, is a “constitutional nationalist” party and cannot be considered as either a party of working class interests or even of revolutionary nationalism.  The role of the real republicans is actually obstructive of working class unity, since they convince everyone including themselves that the only alternative to the peace process and the current sectarian arrangements is militarist violence.  In doing so they don’t threaten British rule but bolster it.

So, in the real world, just what nationalist movement does SD defend and support, so much so that it wishes not to declare socialist independence from it?

Socialist Democracy do advance correct criticisms of PbP, but they are lost in an avalanche of the good and the simply atrocious, which will convince no one who is not already convinced.  Its articles are written in such a way that it is not clear that they are designed to convince anyone not already on-side, but simply to declare a position.

This reaches the point that even when PbP make clear that it is not neutral on the question of democratic rights and the issue of the border this isn’t welcomed, but dismissed – “ A key slogan of the new [People before Profit] election campaign is for a socialist united Ireland.  Is this anything but a re-branding following fierce criticism of their previous position of neutrality between the reactionary ideology of loyalism and the generally democratic programme of Irish nationalism? (Emphasis added by Sráid Marx).

In summary, my original posts were designed to raise the problem of strategy that socialists face in the North of Ireland.  The response from Socialist Democracy does not take us any step forward.  My initial overall impression when coming to draft this reply to their criticism was that the comrades are wrong in several serious respects in relation to socialist strategy.  In drafting the response my final overall impression is now one of their more or less complete confusion arising from misunderstanding the reactionary role of Irish nationalism.

On this there is obviously much more to say (see this post and ensuing discussion for example). The demand for an end to partition and national self-determination has historically been reflected through Irish nationalism (and still is today by the real republicans), but the utter inadequacy of nationalist politics in maintaining any democratic content in these demands in its real world political manifestations, in its political parties and programmes, is something that must be understood.  Otherwise the essential role of socialist organisation and a socialist programme, based on the self-activity of the working class itself, and not on organisation and a political programme divorced from it, is not understood.

Irish nationalism must be combatted North and South because (among other important reasons) it cannot uphold the democratic impulses that are contained, and have erupted periodically, within the Irish working class.  This much should be obvious in the South of the country.  It should certainly not be defended because at some times and in some places it has taken leadership of struggles that have had such a democratic content.  Not least because it will fail and end up strangling such democratic dynamics while sidelining and opposing socialism.

This is what happened over the period following the rise of the civil rights movement, where Irish nationalism, in the shape of republicanism, substituted itself, its methods and its programme for this mass democratic struggle, and then helped bury it in the sectarian deal brokered by imperialism.

This is the underlying political analysis that answers a question that might be posed by my posts – does any of this matter?  The SD response states that “perhaps criticism of Socialist Democracy and its politics is simply commonplace”, but the author will know that it is, in fact, much more commonly ignored.

Socialist Democracy wants to resist the rightward drift of the socialist movement in Ireland, and its arguments would ideally be as powerful as pure argumentation can be in countering this drift. Unfortunately, its arguments cannot play such a role, and if the comrades seek that they should they will have to be seriously revised.

concluded

Back to part 2

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.