Remembering the Rising part 3 – Who’s afraid of 1916?

easter 1There is a view of the world and its history that what matters most is not what it is or what it has been but how it is perceived and understood; first having recognised that the two are not the same.  There is a different view that the world may be misconceived and misunderstood but its true reality matters more and ‘will out’.  The misconceptions are themselves part of the real world and are themselves a reflection of it and often contain a grain or more of truth, while still being wrong.

We can thus learn and appreciate the Easter Rising in 1916 by looking at how it is variously understood.

In the January 15 copy of ‘The Irish News’ the Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness states:

“The Rising wasn’t simply a rebellion against British rule.  It was an insurrection against injustice, oppression and inequality.  It was a social as well as a political and national revolution.”

We have seen in the previous post that the Proclamation did not rail against imperial oppression and injustice but condemned British rule as illegitimate.  Its claims for equality were limited and were made in relation to the particular context of foreign fostered religious division.  The Proclamation does indeed talk of welfare and freedom and of the common good but it is the nation’s welfare and national freedom that is extoled and the common good is for the people to sacrifice themselves for. And even if these clear meanings are ignored there is no statement as to how any different sort of freedom, welfare or the common good can be defined and its promise made good.

The Proclamation is a nationalist declaration and did not and could not explain how it could deliver any promises that its readers may mistakenly or otherwise have read into it.  A century of national liberation struggles across the world against British and other colonial powers, often inspired by the Easter Rising, have failed to demonstrate how the most radical understandings of such promises, such as those stated by McGuinness,  can be made good by any sort of nationalism.

But perhaps McGuinness is claiming that the words of the Proclamation do not matter, it is the reality of the Rising that is important, although I doubt he would make such a claim.  So perhaps he is saying that there is more to the Rising than the Proclamation that the Proclamation did not announce.

So the Rising was indeed a political revolution and a national one in so far as its aims were concerned although, by deliberate design, not national in scope – there was to be no Rising in Ulster.   However it was not a social revolution; it certainly didn’t pretend to be a socialist revolution.  We know what one of them might look like because we saw one the year after in 1917. And it wasn’t a social revolution of the land question.  If anyone deserves credit for the revolution in the transfer of land ownership from largely alien landlords to native tenant farmers it is the British who must stand first in line.  It must be said that in this they were helped by the massive loss caused by the famine for which they should also stand first in line, and were subject to agrarian agitation to force them.

So even in three very short sentences that are easily passed over as received wisdom the understanding of Martin McGuinness is inaccurate, just as 100 years ago the British and many others were wrong to see the Easter Rising as a Sinn Fein rebellion.  Sinn Fein had nothing to do with it and the party was led by a man who was not in favour of a Republic.

Does it matter that McGuinness’s understanding is so wrong?  Such misconceptions have been legion. The embers of the Rising were still warm before it was widely condemned as a ‘German plot’, all the better to damn it as a disloyal stab in the back in the middle of a real war.  The fiftieth anniversary celebrations have been blamed by Unionists for sparking ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, absolving the demands of Ian Paisley that the Tricolour be removed from the Falls Road for the trouble that erupted there in 1966, and later unionist attempts to attack demonstrations for civil rights for the eruption of violence in 1968 and 1969.

So yes, getting history wrong does matter because it will not explain why the Troubles broke out in the North of Ireland and it doesn’t explain why the 1916 Rising failed to achieve a truly national revolution never mind a social revolution.  If we dispense with incorrect explanations of the world and its history we are much better placed to seek better ones and in doing so better able to understand what is happening today.

For many what has happened during the centenary celebrations today is an “Irish capitalist class .  . overcome with embarrassment and revulsion, forced to commemorate something they despise”, according to one left wing leaflet handed out at a meeting in Belfast a few weeks ago.

For another left wing author “the notion that Enda Kenny owes his position as Taoiseach to republican guerrillas who stormed the GPO is, to put it mildly, deeply unsettling.  The political elite is therefore  approaching the centenary commemorations of the rising with profoundly ambivalent feelings and not a little trepidation”.

Two other authors have written a short book, ‘Who’s afraid of the Easter Rising? 1919 – 2016’.  They note the opposition to the Rising from those who think Ireland could have won its independence without the violence unleashed in 1916 and who therefore condemn it for the example it set to later generations of violent republicans.  They also characterise the attitude of the Irish Government to the commemoration of the Rising as one of “bad faith.  They talk in doublespeak  and clichés. Their energy is not directed at genuinely exploring or celebrating the legacy of the Rising but rather in controlling it.” In this desire for control however they are hardly alone.

“This political class is embarrassed by 1916 but most are afraid to say so publically, hence they practice the politics of ambiguity and dishonest historical revisionism as a way of avoiding the truth and real debate.”

But if the Irish establishment has been variously “uncomfortable”, embarrassed”, “afraid” and “nervous” they hid it well during the commemoration and scored a significant success, all the more significant depending on how much they were exposed to the emotions attributed to them by some left wing authors.

Far from ambiguity they presented a coherent narrative – we commemorate those gallant men and women who gave us our freedom today, a freedom expressed by the existence and independence of the Irish State which put its back bone on display through the military parade of its armed forces.  This is the State to which we owe loyalty and we celebrate the foundational act of that state – the Easter 1916 Rising. No one among the broadest ranks of Irish nationalism seeks to attack the institutions of this State, not even ‘dissident’ republicanism centred the North.

Easter 3

The celebrations were therefore a celebration not only of the Rising but of the legitimacy of the State and its institutions.  The highlighting of descendants of the 1916 rebels and later revolutionary heroes in the parade of today’s Armed Forces on Easter Sunday and the reading out of the Proclamation by an officer of the Irish Army was a coherent message that there is only one legitimate Óglaigh na hÉireann.  Loyalty to the state is mandated by the sacrifice of the men and women of 1916 whose creation it is.

And is this not at least partly true?  And if it is not by any means the whole story are we not then into more ambiguous territory and far from a simple story of misappropriation of a risen people by an elite?  Or, recalling our first post on remembering 1916; were Cosgrave, Collins and de Valera etc. not part of this risen people or, recalling the second post, did the Proclamation not address itself to national freedom and not any wider set of promises?

It is not that the Irish establishment finds nothing in the history of the Rising that it finds objectionable.  Who does not?  But among the emotions listed above there has also been indifference in the past, in commemorating the Rising and, for example, in maintaining and giving access to the historical records upon which its story can more truthfully be told.  In 1971 Garrett Fitzgerald stated that “this country will look very odd indeed in international eyes if Britain continues to release information about Irish matters before we do – as has already happened.  We will have to stop being afraid of our own history.”  His view reversed the previous Fianna Fail view of the late 1960s that access to state papers could result in “injury . . . to national unity and harmony.”  Taoiseach Jack Lynch said that even if the British opened papers the Irish Government would not because it “might well stir domestic controversies that best lie buried.”

In any case attempts to emulate the rebellious attitude of 1916 will not depend on seeking to emulate the Volunteers of 1916 but will come from the nature of the oppression and exploitation faced today and more importantly by the goals and strategies that channel this rebelliousness.  This is what makes the release of historical state papers possible – the historical controversies they relate to are relevant but  will not of themselves stir struggle today and are not amenable to a simple repetition of rebellion – what for, by whom, with what objectives and for what alternative?

We are called upon to commemorate those who fought in 1916 and to remember the Proclamation of the Republic they fought for, but on what grounds are we called upon to remember?  Who is asking us to commemorate and do we celebrate the same thing if we do?  Does this now matter, for will there now be any future anniversary with such resonance?

Easter 2

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Forward to part 4

Remembering the Rising part 2 – the 1916 Proclamation

1916-ProclamationThe central reference point of the Easter Rising, of its commemoration and for understanding its meaning is the Proclamation read outside the GPO by Patrick Pearse.  Copies of the Proclamation and the national flag have been distributed to schools by the Irish Army and it was read out by an officer of the Army at the celebrations in Dublin on Easter Sunday.

Acres of newsprint over the years and in this centenary have been devoted to the relevance of the Proclamation to contemporary society, usually framed around the question of whether its promises have been realised and usually answered in the negative.  This is almost universally the case among liberal commentators and by many on the Left.

The purpose is to damn the failures of the existing Irish State by the imprimatur of its venerated foundational certificate, restated and ratified by the first independent Dail (parliament) established by the revolutionary movement in January 1919.  What is invited is the completion of an original process more or less universally honoured and exalted by nationalist Ireland.

Examples abound so let’s take a fairly typical illustration from last week’s Northern nationalist newspaper ‘The Irish News’ in a column entitled “Those who came after Rising have failed Ireland’.

It starts off “The Rising did not fail. It was failed by those who came after it. For 100 years, the Irish people including up to two million who emigrated) have watched as governments, political parties and armed groups paid homage to 1916, while abandoning the Rising’s social, economic and political principles. . . we can only marvel at the widening gap between the Proclamation’s ideals and the sad state of modern Ireland”

“The Rising aimed to achieve independence, social and economic equality and cultural maturity for the Irish nation.  Selected events exemplify how these aims were washed away.”  The author then recalls such events as the failure to create a welfare state, the strong role in society of a censorious Catholic Church, state repression and the evils of sectarianism associated with partition.

The following week the President of Ireland spoke at a commemorative event at the trade union headquarters at Liberty Hall on the Republic James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army fought for:

“Their vision of a people free from want, free from impoverishment and free from exploitation remains the wellspring of inspiration for us as we seek to respond to the situation of too many  workers who, in Ireland today, earn a wage that guarantees neither a life free from poverty, nor access to decent housing, adequate childcare and health services.”

“Land and private property, a restrictive religiosity and a repressive pursuit of respectability, affecting women in particular” followed the Rising while “their objective was to transform Ireland’s social, economic and cultural hierarchies.  But their radical ideas of redistribution were staunchly opposed by many nationalists . . .”

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The Proclamation was written by the radical nationalist Patrick Pearse with additions by James Connolly and Thomas MacDonagh and approved by the seven signatories made up of advanced nationalists and James Connolly, all of whom were to be shot by firing squad after the Rising.  It proclaimed an Irish Republic that was eventually to be recognised by its foe Great Britain over 30 years later in 1949.

It is short, exhortary, was not the subject of long deliberation by its writers or by those who signed it and is today held in regard in almost inverse proportion to its detailed examination, except perhaps by today’s Irish schoolchildren, for whom it has become a subject of study and updating.

The Proclamation is well entitled for this is what it is: a declaration of an independent Irish State – a Republic.  It is not a manifesto, not a political programme to any extent and hardly a strategy.  It is a certificate of a birth already taken place so that unlike the American Declaration of Independence, there is no date of Ireland’s independence because Ireland is already an ancient nation that itself, through its Provisional Government, “strikes for her freedom.”  It is therefore a declaration of war, symbolised in the centenary celebrations by the biggest public demonstration by the armed forces of the Irish State in its history, while sanctified in the normal hypocritical fashion by a sermon from the forces’ chaplain.

The thunderbolt that was the 1916 Rising gained its impact partly because there had been no substantial national rebellion for over 100 years, and while the proclamation speaks of an “old tradition of nationhood”, it is the newness of the events that was most striking but which is now, not unnaturally, largely unnoticed.  This novelty translated, or rather did not readily translate, into the language of the Proclamation.  The word for Republic chosen in Irish – ‘poblacht’ – was not in any of its variants current in the Irish language before 1916 – there was no direct translation for the word Republic.

When Eamon de Valera travelled to London in 1919 to negotiate a truce with the British he handed Lloyd George a document in Irish, which had an English translation, headed ‘Saorstat Eireann’ and Lloyd George asked for a literal translation, saying that ‘Saorstat’ did not strike the ear as Irish.   Eamon de Valera replied ‘Free State’. ‘Yes’ retorted Lloyd George ‘but what is the Irish word for Republic?’  While the Irish pondered the reply with some discomfort Lloyd George talked to his colleagues in Welsh and when de Valera could get no further than Saorstat and Free State, Lloyd George remarked that ‘Must we not admit that the Celts never were Republicans and have no native word for such an idea’.

The beginning of the Proclamation is modelled on the similar proclamation of Robert Emmet in 1803, in that other failed rebellion.  It is the nation itself which appeals to God’s authority and its people to declare its freedom while the Proclamation appeals to both ‘Irishmen and Irishwomen’ in pointing to an equality of gender but only to the Irish – there is no wider international appeal for recognition or solidarity, although it thanks it “gallant allies”, Germany, and its American diaspora.

The nation’s independence is required because British rule is illegitimate not because it is oppressive; Ireland was therefore not being disloyal to the Empire because it had never been loyal, there were no grounds for loyalty in the first place.

The national freedom of the Irish people has been asserted ‘six times in the last three hundred years . . . in arms’, referring to 1641, 1689, 1798, 1803, 1848 and 1867, although only the last four can really be said to involve claims to national freedom and on the last two occasions rebellion was effectively aborted.

In this strike for freedom the Proclamation ends by placing its faith in God and demanding that the people be ready to sacrifice themselves so that the Irish nation prove itself worthy of its destiny.  The people must prove themselves to the nation.

The fourth paragraph of the Proclamation is in effect the nationalist response to the threat to the unity of this nation posed by Unionism, particularly that centred in the North-East of the country. ‘The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman.’ Just as the Irish Volunteers were a response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers, just as the gunrunning at Larne was emulated by the gun running at Howth and the failure to acquire German guns at Easter 1916, so the Proclamation here is the nationalist reply to the Ulster Covenant that signalled Ulster Unionist opposition to Home Rule.

This opposition rested on the view that “Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire.”  The Unionists pledged “to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom.”

The Proclamation stated that “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

The authors and signatories to the Proclamation had, and could not have had, any expectation that their appeal would have any material impact on Unionist opposition to Irish independence.  By 1916 the British had agreed partition with the Northern Unionists and the ‘Ulster Solemn League and Covenant’ signed in blood to oppose Home Rule for all of Ireland became a badge of honour for Unionism in six counties and a piece of hypocrisy for those Unionists in the rest of the island.  Soon the Northern unionists, or some of them, would not even be Irish.

In testament to the division created by partition and in unconscious repudiation of its centrality to the Proclamation’s signatories, the promise to ‘cherish all of the children of the nation equally’ has come to be understood as a commitment to some sort of social and economic equality  or even a commitment to children as such; the latter a response to the independent  Irish State’s history of privileging defence of the Catholic Church despite its abominable physical and sexual abuse of children.

The Proclamation states that the principle on which independence is based is ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’ which itself is based on Pearse’s ‘The Sovereign People’ in which he states that:

“The right and privilege to make laws or to administer laws does not reside in any class within the nation; it resides in the whole nation, that is, in the whole people, and can be lawfully exercised only by those to whom it is delegated by the whole people.  The right to the control of the material resources of the nation does not reside in any individual or in any class of individuals; it resides in the whole people and in the manner in which the whole people ordains.”  For Pearse this is based on the teachings of the founder of Irish Republicanism, Wolfe Tone, who led the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen.

“To insist upon the sovereign control of the nation over all the property within the nation is not to disallow the right to private property.  It is for the nation to determine to what extent private property may be held by its members, and in what items of the nation’s material resources private property may be allowed.”

In the history of the Irish working class movement it is a Workers Republic that is the goal; power derives from the nature of the contending classes within society and all talk of the nation obscures the power of the capitalist class to determine the nature of society.  Private property, what the socialist tradition calls bourgeois property, is the basis of exploitation of the working class, and contrary to the implicit assumption of the President of Ireland, the Proclamation and the Rising made no claims to end exploitation and no claims to upset the hierarchies of class rule.

As a nationalist document the Proclamation upheld the view that the nation stands above classes, a view that always upholds private bourgeois property.  For socialists the material resources that are the content of property must be owned by that class which collectively through its cooperative labour creates and recreates these material resources. The Proclamation upheld the priority of the nation, where socialists uphold the priority of the working class to determine the nature of property relations.

Today, in fact since it was first written, the Proclamation has been interpreted for its meaning for the struggles of today.  This is as it should be.  What is not as it should be is to interpret the words of the Proclamation anachronistically and give of them a meaning that they did not have.  In trying thus to demonstrate the relevance of the Proclamation those doing so inadvertently subvert its true relevance.

When we remember those who fought in the Rising we should remember all who fought.  When we evoke the words of their Proclamation we should recall what those words meant to those who led down their lives fighting that they be given effect.

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Forward to part 3

Remembering the Rising part 1- the men of 1916

brendanrebels1916

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When British Army reinforcements arrived in Kingstown to put down the Easter Rising in 1916 many of the soldiers thought they had been sent to France and one Cockney soldier ‘wondered how everyone he met spoke such good English.’  On Wednesday morning, on day three of the Rising, hundreds of these soldiers marched into South Dublin along Northumberland Road where Eamon De Valera, who was commandant of the 3rd Battalion of the Irish Volunteers, had anticipated this approach and had placed two outposts along the Road approaching Mount Street Bridge.

The Volunteers here waited until the advance detachment of the British had passed before opening fire: ‘those who came in our direction were completely wiped out’, said one Volunteer.  “Isn’t this a great day for Ireland” said Volunteer Paddy Doyle.  The engagement that followed at Mount Street Bridge accounted for almost half British Army casualties in the Rising and only sheer weight of numbers and superior firepower allowed the British forces to eventually push through.  Volunteer James Doyle, who had been knocked unconscious during the fighting, woke up to find that his outpost had been ripped apart by bullets and explosions and that his comrade Paddy Doyle was dead.

The 4th Battalion, ordered to take over the South Dublin Union -, the largest poorhouse in the country with three thousand inmates – included William Cosgrave who was quartermaster to Eamonn Ceannt, a signatory to the Proclamation of the Republic.  Cosgrave later took over command from Cathal Brugha after Brugha was so badly wounded by a grenade that he was not expected to survive.

Brugha “was a hard hater of everything British” and “knew nothing of fear and had little sympathy for anyone who did.”  When the Volunteers were forced to vacate their position in the nurse’s home  one asked Cosgrave if they would take Brugha with them even though Brugha, thinking he was done for, had told the volunteers to leave.  Cosgrave replied that “a soldier’s duty was to obey and pointed the way with a .45 revolver swinging on his finger.”  Nevertheless Brugha was later to say that he remembered Cosgrave’s “extreme kindness” when he was wounded and would not forget it.

Cosgrave had been at the inaugural meeting of the Volunteers at the Rotunda in Dublin and took part in the gun running at Howth. His brother also participated in the Rising and was shot dead by a British sniper during the fighting.  Though his garrison was complimented by one of the British commanders for having fought against great odds his court martial, lasting only ten to fifteen minutes, declared a sentence of “guilty, death by being shot.”  However, like many others receiving the same verdict he escaped the death penalty.

Commandant De Valera, who was responsible for the Volunteers at Mount Street Bridge and for the extent of the British losses inflicted there, also escaped execution by the British, the only commandant not to be shot by a British firing squad.

Cosgrave later became a leader of the pro-Treaty faction of the republican movement and became head of the Free State after the death of Michael Collins.  The split in the movement over the Treaty led to civil war, amongst the first casualties of which was Cathal Brugha.

In pursuit of this civil war Cosgrave introduced military courts, saying that “we are not going to treat rebels as prisoners of war.” This included the execution of four prominent members of the anti-Treaty movement in retaliation for the killing of a pro-Treaty TD, Cosgrave stating that “terror meets terror.”  One of the four was Rory O’Connor, who was wounded in the Rising, and another the radical republican Liam Mellows who in 1916 had led the biggest mobilisation of Volunteers outside Dublin in attacks in County Galway.

‘The Irish Times’ noted that this action “eclipses in sudden and tragic severity the sternest measures of the British Crown” and even Catholic Archbishop Byrne expressed dismay.  Seventy more anti-Treaty republicans were executed in the next five months, including Erskine Childers who had been on board the Asgard when it landed guns in Howth.

As later head of the new Free State Government Cosgrave introduced a conservative policy of low taxation, balanced budgets and free trade, leading for example to a cut in the pension for the blind and a particularly unpopular cut in the old age pension of 10 per cent in 1924.  Social policy included heavy censorship of films and literature, including a Committee on Evil Literature, plus legislation to outlaw divorce and “the unnatural prevention of conception”.

In 1932 the Cosgrave led Cumann na nGaedheal party failed to convince the electorate that the Fianna Fail party was communist, beginning decades of domination of that party led by De Valera before the reins of Taoiseach passed to fellow 1916 veteran Sean Lemass in 1959.  His economic policy was less centred on agriculture and during the protectionist 1930s he was willing to promote national industrial development behind tariffs.  His new constitution of the Irish State in 1937 recognised the special position of the Catholic Church and the position of women in the home.

He kept the Irish State out of and officially neutral during the Second World War and also used hated Cumann na nGaedheal laws to drag members of the remaining IRA before military tribunals, introducing internment of republicans and letting prisoners die on hunger strike. He also, like the Free State forces during the civil war and indeed the British, carried out executions of IRA members by firing squad.  These included Patrick McGrath, another veteran of 1916.

While Liam Mellows had led the largest mobilisation of Volunteers outside Dublin in 1916 it was the Volunteers of the 5th Battalion led by Thomas Ashe in North Dublin and Meath that inflicted the most casualties.  These forces led by Ashe were joined by another smaller group of Volunteers led by Richard Mulcahy, a future chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army.

Mulcahy’s plans for Easter originally involved a three-day religious retreat and a holiday with his family and while he got away on the first the second had to wait.  Suffering from the same confusion of many volunteers who had seen the countermanding order against mobilisation by the leader of the Volunteers, Eoin Mac Neill, he went out uniformed ready to take part in the Rising if one was to take place.

After bumping into James Connolly, who didn’t confirm any plans to him, he later met Thomas MacDonagh, who told him to be ready to “strike at twelve”.  This involved destruction of cables at Howth railway junction and with two other Volunteers he set off to carry out his orders, only to find out that one of his comrades had left his gun at home!  Having got the errant revolutionary to go home and get his weapon the group came across two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), who fortunately were so used to Volunteers marching about that they passed them by with hardly a glance.  The Volunteers then carried out their orders and cut the Howth communication cables.

Having met up with Ashe, Mulcahy was made second-in-command, together leading the attack on two RIC barracks at Swords and Donabate.  It was the attack on the barracks at Ashbourne however that was to be most dramatic and testified to the leadership qualities of Mulcahy.

Realising that the Rising had not gone to plan a number of the 5th Battalion Volunteers questioned the legitimacy of their actions and continuation of their attacks.  In response Mulcahy gave a lecture on their duty to their country and after calling a vote only a handful failed to take the step forward that indicated their willingness to continue the fight.

The next day the Battalion attacked the Ashbourne barracks, defended by only ten RIC men.  Just as the RIC inside were about to surrender a seventeen –strong column of cars containing at least fifty-four police appeared, threatening to reverse the outcome of the engagement and provoke a panicked rout.

Mulcahy prevented the panic and led the outnumbered Volunteers in holding their ground against the new RIC column, surrounding it and subjecting it to relentless fire from all angles – one volunteer Bernard McAllister recalled that “we had a clear view and decimated them with our fire. Some took cover under the cars but were visible to us there. . . our fellows were making bets as to who would shoot the most.”

Pressing home the advantage in an engagement that lasted over five hours the Volunteers led by Mulcahy pushed forward, resulting in fierce close-quarters fighting:

“John Crinigan of Swords looked through a gap in the ditch to locate any police, he was seen by D.I. Smith [Smyth] who fired at and shot him through the head with a revolver.  Vice-Commandant Frank Lawless who was immediately behind joined fire on the D.I. with a Howth Mauser rifle at a distance of about 6 yards and shot him through the head.”

Richard Mulcahy then led a bayonet charge against the RIC who surrendered by throwing their rifles out on the road.

The victory was possible for a number of reasons, including that Mulcahy was able to convince Ashe not to retreat when the RIC column stumbled on the original attack.  In many ways this action was significant because it prefigured republican military tactics during the later War of Independence in which Mulcahy was to play a major role.  One of Mulcahy’s colleagues was to remark that he was the only one to come out of 1916 with a military reputation.

In the history of the later struggle however Mulcahy was very much overshadowed by the figure of Michael Collins, Minister of Finance in the Republican Government, Adjutant-General of the War of Independence Volunteers and Director of Intelligence, often portrayed as the tragic hero of the war against the British, comparable to those who were to be executed at the end of the Rising.

Collins too had taken part in the 1916 rebellion and though not then the renowned figure he was to become it has been noted that he stood out in a number of atypical ways.  Before and during the Rising Volunteers showed remarkable piety and religious observance.  This was a reflection of the strength of Catholicism in Irish society at the time, a strength which captured many later popular perceptions of the Rising as enshrining a Catholic ethos, leading to portrayal of the Rising in quasi-religious terms.

There are many reports of the Volunteers praying, holding rosary beads along with their guns, attending confession and receiving Holy Communion before and during the Rising.  But this was not true everyone.  Near the end of the week’s fighting as the morale of some began to falter Collins rounded on a fellow Volunteer for neglecting to focus on fighting by saying “Are you fucking praying too?”

Collins and Mulcahy were to become leading figures in the guerrilla war against Britain and then in the pro-Treaty regime that arose from acceptance of the peace terms dictated by the British.   During the war Collins became the celebrated organiser of a special assassination unit called ‘The Squad’ formed to kill British agents and informers.  Although criticised for his apparently ruthless approach he cited the universal war-time practise of executing enemy spies who were, in his words, “hunting victims for execution.”

In 1920 a bounty of £10,000 (equivalent in 2010 to £300,000/€360,000) was offered for information leading to his capture or death.   One of his operatives in the Squad was Vinnie Byrne who had also ‘fought’ in the Rising as a fifteen year old, although he later admitted he never fired a shot and was released when the Rising was over after a stern lecture by a British officer.

Collins shared the leadership of the military campaign against the British with Mulcahy who also supported the Treaty, serving as Defence Minister in the new Free State Government from January 1922 until March 1924.  During the civil war that followed the signing of the Treaty Mulcahy earned notoriety through his order that anti-Treaty activists captured carrying arms were liable for execution and a total of 77 anti-Treaty prisoners suffered this fate.

Another of Collins’ associates in the War against the British was Joseph McGrath who had taken part in fierce fighting in Marrowbone Lane in 1916 under the command of Eamonn Ceantt.   He also supported the Treaty and as head of the Criminal Investigation Unit was responsible for abducting and killing Anti-Treaty republicans during the civil war.  A policy of repression was also used against the regime’s first striking workers in September 1922 when the Free State Government opposed the right of postal workers to withdraw their labour.  One of the workers’ pickets was shot, surviving only because the bullet deflected off her suspender buckle.

Collins had fought in the Rising as Joseph Plunkett’s aide-de-camp at the GPO alongside Patrick Pearse and James Connolly.  Despite Pearse being commander-in-chief it was Connolly who was made Commandant-General of the Dublin Division, in effect leading the forces in the GPO, which was the headquarters of the Rising.  One Volunteer remembered that “his physical energy and strength were amazing.  He was always on the move”.  His principal weakness as a leader according to Oscar Traynor was his indifference to his own safety, which was characterised by other Volunteers as “remarkable coolness.”

William Whelan noted that when some of his number were shaken by crowds looting shops and began firing wildly “Connolly came out of the Post Office and marched up and down in front of it.  He said “Steady, we are going to have a good fight”.  He quelled the panic”.

Connolly was wounded twice, the second more seriously, ending his effective leadership of the Rising.  This also resulted in one of the most poignant episodes in the Rising – Connolly being carried on a stretcher to his execution as two members of the firing squad were ordered to aim at his head.  He died without any movement, the bullets shattering the back of his chair.

In his last meeting with his daughter Nora she recalled her Mother’s lament “But your beautiful life, James’.  “Hasn’t it been a full life?  Isn’t this a good end?” he said.  ‘Then they took us away.’

This full and beautiful life included founding the Irish Socialist Republican Party and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union; membership and organisation of socialist parties and the militant ‘Wobblies’ union in the United States; numerous Marxist writings on socialism, politics and Irish history and leadership of the Irish Citizens Army, which fought in the Rising.

In the centenary anniversary of the Rising we are called upon to remember those who fought.  Let us remember them all.

Forward to part 2

What to do about the European referendum?

DExpressNow that David Cameron has got his deal we will have a referendum on whether the UK remains in the European Union.  The decision is described as the biggest to be taken for decades, yet when we look at the narrow grounds of Cameron’s renegotiation it scarcely seems to measure up to these assertions.  They also look puny beside the strongest criticisms of membership and the confusion this creates feeds into the deeper ignorance, which most people, especially in the UK, have of the EU.  Given the reactionary terrain of the argument over renegotiation it would appear that the left is isolated from the debate.

What do we have to say and what do we face in the referendum?  One set of reactionary proposals from Cameron versus an even greater collection of reactionary interests expressed by his Tory and xenophobic critics?  Or an important decision which should also have significance for those on the left?  If it’s the latter, then what are the issues that need to be taken into account, and if they are important shouldn’t the left be campaigning on them already?

The history of the Irish and British lefts’ position on the EU is one of opposition.  In 1975 the British left in general voted to leave the European Economic Community.  In Ireland, the left in the Irish State has opposed the various EU Treaties, which the written constitution has compelled the Irish State to put to a vote in referenda, on the grounds that they impose reactionary duties on members, such as the criteria for a common currency or imposition of austerity policies.  When the Irish people have voted the ‘wrong’ way, as in the Nice and Lisbon Treaties, they have been compelled to vote again the next year, so they get it right.

In Britain the previous default position of opposition to the EU is under strain because this implies voting to leave the EU and this position is now dominated by the most right wing forces in British society.  As a recent article states – “the shape of the main ‘official’ No campaign is already clear.  Its central components will be UKIP and the Tory right.”

The left therefore seems isolated from the debate, with a history of opposition to the EU that appears to promise it only a subordinate role in campaigning and voting alongside reactionary forces for the UK to leave.  The article quoted seeks to avoid this position by noting that while previous left campaigns have included nationalistic motivations a different stream of past opposition has had a more progressive approach.  It notes that the British left has become more pro-EU over the years partly, it says, because politics in Britain has moved so much to the right that some aspects of EU policy are progressive in relation to it.

To sum up, the article calls for a vote to stay in the EU mainly because “any No vote is going to be seen as lining up with the racist elements that will be demanding this (a No vote). It will be very difficult to avoid (this)”; and “the conditions for a progressive and credible No campaign (i.e. on the basis of socialist and working class politics and significant forces) do not exist in Britain today.”  In addition there is “the rather important matter of the consequences of a vote for exit at this time and under these conditions—and this is clear. It would strengthen both the Tory right and UKIP.”

While these are no doubt important issues to be taken into account they are also second order factors.  When it comes to the actual question, the article has no strong arguments to justify its view that socialists should vote to stay in the EU.  The isolation of the left which weighs so heavily in this articles’ analysis would in no way be addressed by calling for a vote on such slender political grounds.  In fact the redundancy of socialist argument would be confirmed because it would be accepted that the socialist view had to be abandoned because it could not be distinguished from that of the right.  It can be guaranteed that with such a weak basis there could never be any grounds on which to build a successful campaign.

Yet if this referendum is deciding such an important question should the left not be trying to put together as strong a campaign as it can muster?  And how could we do that?

A first step would be to debate the issue openly because the first task is to determine what position to take.  If this can’t be distinguished from xenophobic nationalists there’s obviously something wrong.

The second issue, of making this distinction in practice, is firstly a matter of having a separate campaign from the right, which should not be a problem, and arguing along very different lines.  Unfortunately the article noted above presents contingent and not principled grounds for opposing exit from the EU and the idea that such grounds exist appear to be dismissed.

This failure arises from the core argument advanced, which is not so different from then left-nationalist argument about ‘national sovereignty’ that the author claims to reject.  This view is that advances by the working class will take place on a national basis, resulting in a left-led nation state having to face the opposition of an overarching capitalist EU.  Implicitly it is argued that while the nation state can be a vehicle for working class struggle and advance the framework and structures of the EU cannot. While the capitalist nation state can in some ways be reformed the EU cannot.

So we are informed that “If Britain elected a government that broke from austerity to any degree (or failed to implement it effectively) it would be a very different matter, the EU would be down on it like a ton of bricks.” So what we have is a defence of ‘left national sovereignty’, as opposed to the more obvious xenophobic and reactionary variety.

It is not that the idea of a left government is something to be dismissed (see my posts on this matter starting here).  The idea that a number of left wing members of the EU would make it harder for other states to isolate a British left wing Government; or that membership of the EU would give such a Government an arena to spread its struggle; or that the logical demand would be to seek to fight for a left wing EU do not appear as potential perspectives.

Yet if getting a left Government is so central to perspectives and it is also necessary to fight on an international basis, as the article argues, why would this perspective not also include fighting for a left Government across Europe? If such a task is possible in one state then it must be possible in others and why then should they not unite?  Why is the EU unreformable when its real power still lies in the collaboration of the separate nation states?

For those who see the advancement of socialism coming not from the actions of the capitalist state, a left government sitting on top of it or not, the benefit for the conditions of struggle provided by the EU is that it much more quickly puts the question of international workers unity to the fore and in doing so pushes against the nationalist poison that has so hobbled and disabled the working class of every country.

In this respect we are in favour of more, not less, European integration and in favour of fighting for reforms within this process of integration that strengthen the working class: such as levelling up the terms and conditions of workers and undermining the race to the bottom.  How else could measures to do this be taken and secured (insofar as they can under capitalism) except on an international basis?  How else are we to teach workers the necessity of international unity, and not just sympathy or temporary solidarity, if they are not bound together internationally more and more by the same conditions defined by the same laws?

How much easier would it be to organise workers unity across nationalities if they faced attacks from the same state?  How much less divided would they be if they could no longer be told that they must make sacrifices for their country in the face of foreign competition or aggression when they face the same state imposing these demands?  How less likely are they to agree to welfare cuts for others if it means exactly the same cuts for themselves?  Every step to such conditions should be welcomed on the basis that all workers in whatever part of the EU should partake of the gains achieved by the most advanced.

Such a programme seeks to reduce the barriers between workers from the start and not after some necessary stage of nationally based left advance having been taken first.  It is one thing to understand that workers’ struggles will develop at different rates in different countries, causing problems of potential isolation of the most advanced, and actually adopting a strategy that not only makes this inevitable but is actually its objective.

It is not a question of seeking to reform the EU into a workers paradise, which is no more possible than it is to achieve this in one or more isolated countries.  It is a question of advancing workers conditions, their organisations and their consciousness on an international basis as capitalism itself advances it organisation at an increasingly international level.  The answer to the latter is not to create hopeless socialist redoubts in the capitalist sea but to benefit from the internationalisation of capitalism by developing a parallel development of working class organisation. In much the same way as the development of national markets and national industry led to national trade unions, national working class parties and national workers’ cooperatives so must this now be accomplished at an international level.

It is possible to oppose the demands of the xenophobic right, and nationalist reformism inside the left, which wants out of the EU while also refusing to endorse the drive to strengthen capitalism at a European level through the current programme of the EU.

Those who think it is not possible to seek reforms at an international level that provide better circumstances within which workers can struggle to advance their interests will have a hard  job explaining how on the other hand an international socialist revolution is possible.

Socialists in Ireland, especially in the North, should be debating the coming referendum and how they can take the opportunity provided to advance a consistently internationalist case to a working class whose horizons have for too long been limited by nationalism.  Ironically the North provides an opportunity for the working classes of two member states to unite to put forward a different view of European unity than that peddled by the officialdom in Brussels, Berlin, Whitehall and every other European state bureaucracy.

Scottish socialists debate independence 2

scottish_independence_sol-471450Neil Davidson argues that Scottish independence and separation would weaken British imperialism.  For Davidson, loss of nuclear weapons that might occur if they were no longer allowed to be sited in Scotland, might mean, for example, that (1) its permanent seat at the UN Security Council might go to India (also armed with nuclear weapons); (2) might weaken its usefulness to US imperialism and (3) presumably weaken the ideological hold of imperialist (i.e. nationalist) ideas on British workers.

Let’s look at these in turn.  Davidson refers to an excellent article in the ‘London Review of Books’ on the British experience in Afghanistan, which actually shows, not the usefulness of the British to the United States military but rather how bloody useless they really were, with overblown pretensions to ‘punch above their weight’ being demolished in the deserts of Helmand.

He fails to explain how replacing the declining imperialism of Britain with the rising capitalist power of India would be progressive, unless he thinks giving more legitimacy to the thieves’ kitchen that is the UN Security Council is some sort of advance. If removal from the Security Council would be a blow to the prestige of British imperialism and weaken its nationalist ideological hold over its people (approx. 63 million) does he not think that this might be balanced by an increase in the legitimacy of reactionary Indian nationalism and its reactionary ideological hold over a population of over 1.25 billion?

As pointed out before, British imperialism has been in decline for some time even with Scotland’s contribution, and will decline further with or without it:  “The strength of British imperialism has already declined by much more than Scottish separation could possibly achieve. Has the prospect for socialism increased during this time?  Has the strength of the working class increased as a result?  The answer is no and rips apart this ‘non-nationalist’ argument for Scottish independence.”

Davidson advances a number of arguments I have taken up before but it would appear that this bogus ‘anti-imperialist’ argument, that really defends a nationalism that has been knee-deep in imperialist blood-letting, is one he comes back to.

Davidson makes it clear in this debate that there is a range of arguments that others on the Scottish left advance in backing independence that he cannot support, including “claims that the Scottish are more democratic or radical than the English”, which he describes as “nonsense”.   This however is contradicted by his second major theme in support of independence, which is the supposed radically progressive character of the movement for independence, even though it’s pretty hard to ignore or deny its dominance by the right-wing SNP, a dominance rammed home after the referendum by the large numbers joining it.  If Davidson were correct we would have seen large numbers of the SNP leaving it to join the left, not traffic the other way (as Sandy McBurney points out).

Davidson, no doubt drawing on his role as a historian, also describes as “idiotic” the view that Scottish national identity existed in the 13th century, at Bannockburn and declaration of Arbroath, and he similarly describes the idea that Scotland is oppressed as also “historical nonsense”.

In fact, it would appear that Davidson finds it hard to swallow much of the nationalist case but that in spitting some of it out he is left with not very much to chew on.

He responds to Sandy McBurney’s analysis of the SNP by saying that it “is assumed that if independence happens, it will be all about the SNP.  But a yes vote on the basis of a mass, collective insurgency which is doing this for left-wing reasons would change the actual context in which the SNP come to power.  It’s not as if they could sail in and just do what they like, in that kind of context.”

But then, having invented an SNP led separate Scottish State that is beholden to a radical insurgent population (why would it still be led by the SNP then?) – an invented fantasy radical Scotland – he says about McBurney’s prognosis of a SNP led Scottish State that it is abstract: “This is a totally abstract argument, it wouldn’t face the actual situation we’d be in if Yes won.”

In other words if Yes had won it would inevitably have been a radical insurgent movement that achieved it so we should continue to make this our goal ignoring the very real unabstracted truth that the neoliberal SNP led and dominated the Yes campaign and, had it won, would have had masses of political credibility to do what it wanted.  Don’t believe me?

Well just look at it now.  It’s implementing austerity, as Sandy McBurney noted, yet tens of thousands of people opposed to austerity are not only voting for it but joining it!

Such is the nature of ideology that can blind people to what is happening in front of their eyes, because what is happening in front of their eyes has to be interpreted.  In a situation of a ‘charismatic’ leader, constant phrases about opposing austerity, constant declarations of the necessity for such austerity by the Tories, and lots of verbiage about the ‘Red Tories’ from left nationalist supporters, it is not altogether surprising that the SNP gets away with rank hypocrisy.  Nationalism is good at this sort of thing in quite a lot of places, including where I live.

So, while accusing McBurney of being abstract, it is actually Davidson who abstracts from the real world to build a political perspective that is not grounded in reality.  So he says that “neoliberalism has to be fought and we have to begin that fight somewhere.” But you always begin from where you are, i.e. with the working class and its organisations as they are.  Not by trying first to create a new capitalist state that for some unknown reason will make the job of opposing austerity easier.

And in fact while Davidson says that “you have to start from the situation you’re actually in”  he doesn’t actually do that.  While hundreds of thousands are joining the Labour Party to support Jeremy Corbyn, Davidson supports a new Scottish Left Project on the basis of a view that the fight for Scottish separation is left wing, when its advance has proved the opposite.  It is the SNP which has mushroomed as a result of the independence referendum despite previous claims that it was being led from the left.

Davidson appears to regret this and describes it as a problem but unfortunately the left nationalism he has hitched up to, albeit comparatively belatedly, bears some responsibility for this.  So when he asks whether it would have been better for the Scottish left to have “just sat around waiting”, “just sit back” and “fold our arms”, the answer is, in the absence of their doing something better like fighting nationalism, Yes.

To take up one last argument.  Davidson and others note that the British establishment, the US President and big business all support the unitary UK state while Sandy McBurney and others, like this blogger, accept the UK state and oppose Scottish separation.

We do so because, as Sandy McBurney states, this provides better conditions to defend and deepen working class unity.   Davidson’s challenge is that “they can’t both be right.”

The bigger sections of the capitalist class support the UK state, and also the European Union, because it provides the widest area within which they can advance their interests of accumulating capital with minimum obstacles to this process.

Marxists accept the UK state because it is the widest area within which the working class can currently organise relatively freely without the divisions caused by national borders and the attendant nationalist politics and ideology which divides it and its organisations.

While capitalism needs the state to defend its interests, and small capital might favour small capitalist states because they appear to better fit its narrower horizon (represented politically for example by the SNP or UKIP), it also seeks to internationalise its activities and have international state bodies that can support it in a way that a small nation state is less able to do.

The interests of the working class however lie in international unity of the class irrespective of nationality.  While those who wish to reform capitalism seek to get their hands on governmental office through operating the levers of the capitalist state, and sometimes see opportunities to achieve this more easily by making the state smaller – by having a separate Scottish state for example – this is not socialism.

Socialism by definition is international and Davidson knows that there is no such thing as socialism in one country – so why create new capitalist states to make the process of breaking out of nation states more difficult?

Marxists therefore have no allegiance to any capitalist state formation and wouldn’t shed any tears if a UK state was replaced by a European one that made the political and organisational unity of British, Irish, German, French and Polish workers etc. easier.

So, when both most of the capitalist establishment opposes Scottish nationalism and socialists do so as well and Davidson says “they can’t both be right”, the answer is – yes they can.

Just as the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend so it is that the political position of the enemy does not require me to take up an equal and opposite position.  The simple minded propaganda of ‘Scotland more radical’ or ‘Scotland oppressed’ or the fanciful claims of the Radical Independence Campaign that Sandy McBurney points to, and Davidson makes no pretence to defend, are no guide for Scottish workers and neither is the attempt at apparently more sophisticated arguments in favour of independence advanced by Neil Davidson.

Political propagandists and political murder in Belfast

Feeney 1imagesAs the political crisis generated by the killing of Gerard McGuigan by IRA members threatens to spiral out of control the politically weary population is invited to pick sides on what is to happen next, with seemingly everyone in favour of keeping Stormont while everyone knows it’s rotten.

This appears to put the onus on being able to blame someone else in order to defend a sectarian corner and the particular rights assumed inside the settlement.

The ‘right’ attitude to the killing has therefore to be asserted first, although it is of the least concern to the parties involved in yet another round of talks.

As a result a notable feature of reaction to the murder of Gerard McGuigan has been the propensity of nationalist commentators to ventilate on the synthetic character of unionist outrage at the murder.  In other words the outrage is fake – they don’t care about dead ex IRA men.

If that were the only point being made the response should be one of agreement.  Yes, unionists have ignored state and loyalist violence and have collaborated openly with paramilitary groups so their condemnation of republican violence is hollow.  They don’t care about dead IRA men and their actions since the latest killing is guided by purely party political calculations.

But that isn’t all there is to it.  The point being made by these nationalist commentators is that what has happened shouldn’t be allowed to upset the current political arrangements because the outrage is phoney.  Just as I pointed out in the previous post on this (that the new peace institutions are now the justification for ignoring the killing of others) so expressing outrage at the killing is also to be discounted because the main unionist complainants are insincere.

And the fact that this outrage is insincere means that this is a purely manufactured crisis that originates in unionist bad faith.  This bad faith is therefore the problem.  The perfidious British however have turned this around, as they usually do, in order to appease unionism.

So nationalists are invited by these commentators to believe that what must be discussed now is not what the danger is to those who fall foul of the Provisional IRA but how the institutions can be saved.  The British are happy to go along with this but add that this involves giving the unionists confidence.  But since this a purely subjective thing we are in the world of Humpty Dumpty – confidence means just what unionists choose it to mean, neither more nor less.

So yes, nationalists have a point about pandering to unionist hypocrisy but they have a problem when they allow this hypocrisy to become their moral compass by replying to unionist hypocrisy with their own.

They have a problem when they excoriate British pandering to unionist violence while turning a blind eye to Provisional murder.  So the outrage at the latter is fake – let’s ignore both it and the event that occasioned it.  Then we can have our equal and opposite hypocrisy.  Unionists complain about Provo violence but we will turn a blind eye to it and complain about loyalist violence.

In this way the sectarian perfect circle of hell attempts to trap everyone within it, everything and everyone is to be defined by sectarian division.

A prime example of this capture by sectarian division, involving capitulation to acceptance of reactionary political violence, can be seen in the regular political columnist in the largest nationalist paper in the North, Brian Feeney in yesterday’s ‘Irish News’.

So the police fingering of Provisional IRA members for the murder of Kevin McGuigan was “ill-considered”.  As I also pointed out before – I wonder would he therefore have considered well-judged the previous failure to finger the loyalist UVF for the attempted murder of a young woman in the same area.

Feeney had a previous column on the unionist invention of the 1960s civil rights campaign as an IRA plot, a fiction of course, but what had this to do with the real IRA plot to kill McGuigan, unless he wanted to claim it too was another unionist fiction?

Instead he goes along with the Sinn Fein line that what this is all about is unionist refusal to live in equality with nationalists: “This refusal to accept mere equality prevents them seeing themselves in the same light as nationalists and republicans.”

He appears totally oblivious to the fact that with this attitude of Nelsonian ignorance of IRA responsibility in murder he should really be writing that nationalists should now see themselves in the same light as unionists, united equally in the same light of sectarian blindness.

By such a descent into sectarianism are nationalist claims for equality to become nationalist equality in sectarianism, which is indeed the political project of Sinn Fein.

He then makes hay with silly and insensitive remarks about “the futile and fatuous attempt to abolish the IRA.”  How would anyone know “if someone has left the IRA? . . how would anyone prove they’d left?”

So does Feeney not want to see the end of the UDA and UVF?  Would Feeney be questioning as futile and fatuous calls for an end to loyalist paramilitaries if they had just killed someone?

Sure how would you know whether they or the Provisional IRA had gone away or not?

Well here’s a start.  You might have a chance of convincing someone they had disappeared if they didn’t kill those who fall foul of them.

Feeney complains that the leader of the DUP Peter Robinson needs to feel that he is “not bound by any constraints that apply to normal relationships.”  Leaving aside what counts for normal in the North of Ireland, does he not think such a remark might also be pointed in another direction?

It was bad enough when the British so openly overlooked and colluded in political murder by loyalists but their shameless excuses for the Provisional IRA and its supposed peaceful intentions complete the circle that working people in the North have to break from.  In this case nationalist workers should see through the muck apparently thrown at the British and unionists because it’s really being thrown in their eyes.  Who else is expected to listen to Feeney?

 

Scottish socialists debate independence 1

RCSO_I_43_02_COVER.Qxp_RCSO_I_43_02In this post and the next one I review the arguments employed in a debate carried out by two socialists in Scotland on Scottish independence carried in the latest issue of the journal ‘Critique’.  The debate between Sandy McBurney and Neil Davidson is entitled ‘Marxism and the national question in Scotland’ and can be found, with a bit of looking, for free on the net.

The Scottish question remains important and will gain in importance if Jeremy Corbyn wins the leadership of the British Labour Party.  It is one thing to reject a right wing Labour party for the fools’ gold of Scottish nationalism (although Miliband was to the left of the SNP) and quite another to reject a groundswell of radicalism in favour of division.

If Corbyn wins it will not be the end of that particular struggle but only the beginning. If the left in Scotland rejects this movement in favour of continued division and alignment with the SNP in prioritising independence they will have to deepen their capitulation to nationalism in order to insulate themselves from the reality of a radical movement made up of those whose passivity has been the purported reason for seeking a separate state.

This review of the arguments therefore doesn’t make any pretence to impartiality with regard to the competing claims and differences.

*                     *                       *

Sandy McBurney starts his argument from the need to deepen and defend the unity of the British working class in order that it to move forward and he obviously sees Scottish nationalism as an impediment to that unity.

This nationalism is dominated by the Scottish National Party, which he recalls being labelled ‘Tartan Tories’ in the 1970s and 1980s.  He notes its record in office as one of enforcing austerity and notes that it opposes a 50p tax on the rich; opposes rent controls (although there is a promised change on this) and an energy freeze; voted against a motion by the Labour Party in the Scottish parliament that a living wage be paid to those working on Scottish government contracts and did not support the view that blacklisting of union militants should be outlawed.

He therefore points to the disparity between nationalist rhetoric and actual practice.  He says that the working class was split in the referendum but that its most organised sections were right to reject the independence con-job.

He rejects as ridiculous the idea that the SNP is in any sense anti-imperialist and therefore rejects the left nationalist argument that the pro-independence movement is by virtue of this left wing and progressive.

He sees no upsurge in radical and socialist politics in Scotland as a result of the referendum campaign but has seen a big growth of tens of thousands joining the SNP. The recent Scottish Socialist Party conference, he says, had 140 people at it and quite a few leftists have left their organisations to join the SNP. “I’ve been on recent anti-war and anti-austerity demonstrations in Glasgow and to recent left meetings and they’re smaller than they were 10 years ago.”

Instead the effect of nationalism on much of the Scottish left is that “many erstwhile socialists in Scotland now oppose a British-wide socialist party on principle and do all they can to stop one developing.” Some of this nationalist left now call for support for the SNP and Sandy McBurney notes that Tariq Ali called for this at a Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) conference.

[It may be noted here, as I mentioned in the introduction, that the development of the campaign around Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Party leader thus exposes the real divisive politics of nationalism.  Instead of being part of this reawakening of mass leftist mobilisation across Britain the pro-nationalist left will be forced to explain their hatred of the ‘Red Tories’ after having written off workers joining these ‘Tories’.  A Labour Party led from the left, even a quite moderate left, would undercut all their arguments and every purported justification for Scottish separatism from English and Welsh workers.]

Despite the illusions of Ali and the RIC the plans of the SNP would not lead to an end to austerity but massively more austerity as the gaping hole in its budget plans has demonstrated.  The SNP is not therefore a Scottish Syriza or Podemos, which were products of the workers’ movement, but is more like the nationalist movements in Northern Italy, Catalonia or the Flemish movement in Belgium, which claim they are being held back by the poor – not a very socialist argument.

Left nationalists in the RIC on the other hand have claimed that ‘thousands of jobs’ in a ‘re-industrialised economy’ would be guaranteed by a Yes vote in the referendum. This, McBurney says, is lying to working class people that even the SNP refrained from, including the claim that the minimum wage would be a living wage, which the SNP had not promised, notwithstanding the invention of the RIC.

Neil Davidson in response starts off by stating that his conception of the working class internationally doesn’t stop at the English Channel.  His claim is that his support for Scottish independence is therefore more internationalist in outlook than those like McBurney who support unity of the British working class.  His conception of internationalism “also extends to Basra, Gaza and places Britain has bombed in its imperialist alliance with the US over the last 20-30 years.”

The impression given is thus of a more internationalist orientation.  But this is only an impression, because what Davidson actually says is not that he is in favour of greater international working class unity but that his conception of this unity is determined by who Britain has bombed in the last 20-30 years.  As I shall show, what this is meant to do is not explain how workers unity internationally can be better created by taking a wider view of it, within which a separate Scottish state would play a role, but to provide some internationalist gloss for support for Scottish nationalism and Scottish separation.

Of course, as said and commented on before, Davidson is at pains to claim that his is not actually support for nationalism – supporting Scottish independence does not mean supporting Scottish nationalism.  As also noted before, he attempts to turn the tables on such a claim by saying that if this were so then supporting a unitary UK state would equally be nationalism.  However since he believes that supporting Scottish independence is not nationalism he must therefore himself believe that supporting, or at least accepting, a continuing UK state is also not nationalism.  As I have said before I agree with the latter point but not the former:

“He (Davidson) complains that supporters of Scottish independence are marked as nationalists but those supporting the status quo are not.  Why are those who want to maintain the current British state not British nationalists?  If they can detach their support for the British state from British nationalism why can’t supporters of Scottish independence divorce their support for an independent Scotland from Scottish nationalism?”

“There are two reasons.  Firstly Marxists can advocate a No vote, not by supporting the British state but simply accepting that it is a better framework to advance what they really value, which is the unity of the working class across nations.  On the other hand supporters of Scottish separation are compelled to defend the claim that Scottish independence, by itself, is progressive. . . supporters of independence are reduced to calling for creation of a new border and a new capitalist state.  What is this if not nationalism?”

“The second reason is to do with the consequences of separation.  The argument presented on this blog before is that these would be wholly negative.  A new capitalist state would increase division where uncoerced union existed before.  It would strengthen the forces of nationalism by giving them a stunning victory that they would be stupid not to exploit.  A new state would engender competition, for example on reducing corporate taxes, and give nationalists many opportunities to demand support for ‘our’ new Scottish state and ‘our’ Scottish government.  A Yes vote would strengthen nationalism.  That’s why supporters of Scottish independence are accused of nationalism.”

Davidson argues however that Scottish independence would be a blow against British imperialism by weakening it.  It should be noted that if this argument were true it would be true even if the new Scottish state was led by the SNP, which is why Sandy McBurney rejects the argument that the SNP are in any way anti-imperialist – only the British working class are such a force.

As we have seen, Davidson frames internationalism in terms of who British imperialism has bombed – “maybe we should be thinking about them when we consider these arguments about imperialism.”  So even internationalism becomes part of a Scottish nationalist narrative, in which a rather simplistic anti-British rhetoric allows its speaker to elide the Scottish contribution.  Maybe we should also be thinking of this Scottish contribution to the bombing when we consider the arguments and whether a Scotland with NATO membership, as the SNP plan, would be any different.

irqdownload (1)So, along with a number of left nationalists he places great emphasis on the difficulties that would be involved in the British state retaining nuclear weapons if they were forced to move them from Scotland.

It’s hard to resist pointing out the illusions involved in this approach.  Davidson notes the contradiction between SNP support for NATO and opposition to nuclear weapons on the Clyde.  But why on earth does he think a right wing neoliberal party would resolve such a contradiction by retreating on the right wing policy and not on the left one?  Perhaps he discounts the possibility that the SNP would use up political capital gained from achievement of independence to do a U-turn on nuclear weapons, rather like they have already done on membership of NATO itself.

Likewise it’s relevant to point out that this nationalist talisman is not that progressive.  While opposition to nuclear weapons at the British level is a demand for their scraping and if successful would involve this; the demand of the nationalist left is that they be moved, presumably to England.  In other words it isn’t a demand to scrap them but simply shift them to those who should be allies in getting rid of them.  Even if successful this nationalist demand far from guarantees their abolition while in the meantime it can only divide on nationalist lines any pan-British opposition.

Visiting Avignon

DSC_0373This year I went to Southern France for my holidays, including Avignon, famous for its song ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon.’ I was there just at the end of its annual arts festival so it was buzzing with life, hosting some fantastic busking musicians who could keep you entertained for hours while licking ice cream.  At least that’s what I did quite a lot of the time.

It’s also famous as the site of exile from Rome of the Popes, from 1309 to 1376, and has a very impressive Palais des Papes, which was their residence and is now a major tourist attraction.  As the audio guide to a visit explains, the palace demonstrated the secular as well as the spiritual (ideological) power of the papacy but the history untold is not one of the rise in the secular power of the papacy but of its decline from its zenith a century earlier.

DSC_0378

Boniface VIII, pope from 1294 to 1303, who liked to wear a crown, declared papal authority over the clergy and threatened France and England with excommunication. In 1300 he also pompously staged a Holy year, selling indulgences to finance his worldly domain. Overreaching himself however he planned the excommunication of the French king, who promptly arrested and imprisoned him in his castle in Anagni.  Even though subsequently freed by the people of the town he was a broken man and died a few months later in Rome.  The second next pope was enthroned in France and eventually establishing his seat of power in Avignon, the start of a series of French popes all largely dependent on the French monarch.

The Catholic theologian Hans Küng remarks that though such events might lead one to assume a tempering of papal claims, this was not the case.  Indeed the guide to the Palais deals a good deal with its vast system of financial management, required to finance building of the Palais and development of the papal bureaucracy:

“In the late Middle Ages, the Roman papacy increasingly lost its religious and moral leadership and instead became the first great financial power of Europe.  The popes claimed a spiritual basis for their worldly demands, of course, but they collected revenues with every means at their disposal, including excommunication and bans” (The Catholic Church)

It was in this period also that saw creation of the doctrine of papal infallibility, originally propagated by an eccentric Franciscan previously accused of heresy.  Apparently this early claim was not taken particularly seriously and was eventually condemned as the work of the devil and the ‘father of all lies’, only to be resurrected later in the nineteenth century.

For political reason the papacy moved back to Rome in 1377 but the next pope showed “such an excess of incompetence, megalomania and outright mental disturbance that there was reason for an automatic dismissal.” (Küng) So another pope, Clement VII was chosen except that the incompetent, megalomaniacal and mentally disturbed pope – Urban VI – didn’t accept this result and so they had a fight over it.  Upon defeat of his troops Clement VII took up residence in Avignon again.

Now we had two popes who excommunicated each other.  You can’t have too much of a good thing; so you had two colleges of cardinals, two Curias and two financial systems.  Clement was supported by France, Aragon, Sardinia, Sicily, Naples and Scotland plus some Germans while Urban was supported by the German Empire, parts of Italy, Flanders, England and some others.

In order to sort this mess out the cardinals met at a general council in Pisa in 1409, deposed the two popes and elected a new one.  Except neither of the existing popes accepted this result either, so the Catholic Church now had three popes! You really can’t have too much of a good thing and we now had a new holy Trinity.

Of course this couldn’t last and eventually the Church managed to get itself just the one pope.

I’d forgotten all this history while doing the tour of the Palais and it would really make for a ripping yarn if it was included in the audio guide to the tour.  But unfortunately some people don’t like the story history tells us.

Another thing I didn’t know was that the area of Avignon continued to be owned and governed by the papacy until the French revolution, only joining the rest of France in 1791.  In the meantime (the Michelin ‘Green’ Guide explains) Jews were confined to a ghetto, locked in at night, compelled to wear a yellow cap, pay dues to their Christian rulers and listen to sermons designed to convert them.

The incorporation of Avignon into a unified French state reminded me of another book I had read some years ago, ‘The Discovery of France’ by Graham Robb.  He noted that at the time of the revolution there were hundreds of small towns, suburbs and villages all more or less independent of any national state.  France was a name often reserved for the small ‘mushroom-shaped’ province centred on Paris.

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There was little common French national identity and no common language among ‘the French.’   As late as 1863 a quarter of recruits to the army spoke ‘patois,’ a ‘corrupt language’.  French seemed to be declining in some areas so that children forgot it when they left school.  Even half a century later some recruits to the French army in the First World War couldn’t speak French and there were reports of Breton soldiers being shot by their comrades because they were mistaken for Germans or because they failed to obey incomprehensible orders.

Most people in the 18th century didn’t travel far and their identity was a local one.  Robb quotes records of 679 couples from 1700 to 1759 showing that almost two thirds of the brides came from within shouting distance of their bridegroom: – “In Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, all but four of the fifty-seven women had married less than five miles from home. Only two of the six hundred and seventy-nine were described as ‘foreign’. This was not a reference to another land.  It meant simply, ‘not from the region.’”

Some of these towns and villages were “flourishing democracies” when France was an absolutist monarchy.  In one village, Salency, the children were never sent away to become servants, all were considered equal, and everyone worked the land. The village was conspicuously clean and tidy, harvests were abundant and crime was unknown.  Of course horizons were limited and no one was allowed to marry outside the village, which had only three surnames.

In another set of villages covering many square miles a clan called Pignou occupied an area in the northern Auvergne. All men over twenty elected a leader, there was no private property and all children in one village were brought up by a woman who ran the communal dairy.  Again people were forbidden to marry outside the clan and those who did were banished forever, “although they all eventually begged to be readmitted.”

So while the destruction of papal control over the mini-state of Avignon was obviously a progressive outcome of the French revolution the destruction of the much loved independence of many small communities by a remote, centralised state with its demands for standardisation, inevitable destruction of local customs (including language) and imposition of oppressive requirements, such as conscription into massive bloody wars, was not.

But such is capitalist progress.  Marxists understand its positive and negative aspects.  In fact understand that capitalist progress is a function of the contradictions and antagonisms within society that does not allow for real separation of good and bad.

Should it be rejected by seeking to go back to the past?  Obviously we can’t now go back to isolated village communities with no private property in the means of production in France or anywhere else but that is not how the question is posed today.

Today it is posed in terms of rejecting capitalist progress at the international level, also characterised by standardisation, centralisation and lack of democracy in favour of a return to more local, nation-state democratic forms.

Unfortunately much of the Left today is no longer confident about the future so seeks solace in the past.  But as we see, this past in the form of nation states was built upon its own brutality and disregard for peoples’ choices.

But just as the development of the nation state also heralded undoubted progress for humanity so also does the internationalisation of capitalism promise the grounds for a new and better society, a socialist one.  This is the ground upon which we must fight and seek to build an alternative.

Nationalist answers 2 – Greece

Greece imagesIn the last post I noted that one view on the Left in Scotland was that it was not possible to call for a vote or support for a reformist SNP because, through being reformist, it could not face down the intransigence of international capitalism when it tried to introduce reforms.

This would seem to be confirmed by the experience in Greece in which a reformist formation Syriza has just performed a humiliating U-turn and supported a third bailout that will impose greater austerity than that which it had previously opposed.

One of the many evaluations of this experience is here, which is also written by someone from the SWP tradition and which is based on the same political assumptions.  Unlike Davidson, who claims that the distinctions between reformists, revolutionaries and centrists are only understood by a relatively few revolutionaries, Kieran Allan argues that understanding such distinctions is vital:

“Ever since the crash of 2008, there has been an increasing call among activists to forget ‘old’ debates about reform or revolution. Yet the betrayal of Syriza re-opens this very question.”

One line of argument in response might be that Kieran Allen doesn’t actually advance a revolutionary programme himself – the SWP in Ireland doesn’t stand candidates in elections under a revolutionary banner but consistently stands as part of alliances that exclude it.  His definition of reformism applies equally to the various electoral projects of the left in Ireland over the past number of years:

“Despite opposing neoliberalism, Syriza embraced a reformist strategy. The term ‘reformism’ is not meant as one of abuse but it describes a strategy of using the mechanisms of the state to effect substantial changes on behalf of working people. It operates within the framework of capitalism and uses Keynesian economics to increase demand – rather than proposing the outright expropriation of capital.”

His criticism of Syriza can be made just as cogently against the United Left Alliance, People before Profit or Anti-Austerity Alliance:

“Some object to describing Syriza as a reformist because a) it leaders used a rhetoric about moving beyond capitalism and b) because there were avowed anti-capitalists elements within its coalition. However, this objection is somewhat facile as it was only in Bad Gotesberg programme in 1959 that the German SDP dropped their formal adherence to Marxism. In the early twentieth century many reformist parties combined a rhetoric about moving beyond capitalism as their maximum programme with a practice of seeking social reforms as their minimum programme.”

While he criticises the view “of democratising the apparatus of the capitalist state, transforming it into a valid tool for constructing a socialist society, without needing to destroy it radically by force’,” this is the alternative put forward by all these left alliances in Ireland.

This is certainly a problem but not the one I want to address here.  The latter is the problem of the strategy Allen puts forward as the alternative to Syriza’s reformism, not the similarity of this reformism to the SWP’s actual political practice.

Allen criticises “Syriza’s strategy of working exclusively through the state and through negotiations with the EU [which] could not match the courage of the Greek electorate.  This historic defeat, therefore, arose from a belief that control of the Greek state apparatus and appeals to EU solidarity was the method for bringing change. It never entered their heads to think about how the NO vote could be mobilised within Greece to physically face down EU efforts at blackmail. The sole agency was the Greek cabinet and its ability to negotiate with the EU bullies.”

Allen says that “they [Syriza] placed little emphasis on the role of Greek workers themselves taking action to break from capitalist control. . .  The mobilisation of workers in every area of society can stop the power of money and market forces.  Against the economic terrorism of the EU, people power and workers action is the only way to achieve change.”

When discussing lessons for Ireland he says that “In recent months there have been discussions about the need for a ‘progressive government’ in Ireland and interesting debates have occurred about policies. But there has been little talk about the methods by which such aspirations might be achieved.”

Unfortunately in reality neither does Allen, although this is the centre of his critique.  There are plenty of evocations of the need to mobilise workers to “face down the EU” but what does this mean?  What methods does he propose by which the aspirations of progressive change could be turned into reality?

What we have are calls to take action but total lack of clarity as to what action should be taken.

The first question is to identify the problem. And it’s not Syriza’s reformism.  Why is there a crisis in Greece in the first place?  Why not in Italy or Belgium – both have large debts?

The answer is well known.  Greece is relatively poor with a weak and not very productive capitalism. This makes not only Greek capitalism weak but its working class also weak, in a manner for which an increase in class struggle cannot compensate, or at least not very quickly.  This doesn’t enter Allen’s analysis.

The second question concerns the EU: “After the Greek crisis, the Irish left needs to drop any idea about the progressive nature of a social EU. It should note that Syriza was wrong to believe that it could combine an anti-austerity programme with support for the EU.  The reality is that the EU combines a soft rhetoric about ‘inclusion’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘respect for human right’ with a hard core neoliberalism that is embedded into its institutions.”

“The Irish left should, therefore, fully break with a ‘we will stick to the EU at any cost’ mentality because it was precisely this approach that gave the EU leaders a stick to beat Tsipras. Instead the left should advance its demands for a write down of debt, for nationalisation of natural resources, and a reversal of privatisation regardless of whether or not this is acceptable to the EU. It should indicate that it will not be bound by the rules of the Fiscal compact and that electoral support for the left means a mandate to defy such rules. It should make it clear that it favours the break-up of the EU in its current form and will seek its replacement by a federation of peoples based on democracy and control of capital.”

The EU is unreformable but if Allen has pretentions to Marxism he will also agree that the Greek State is also just as capitalist as the EU and also just as unreformable, yet he sees it as part of the solution through “a write down of debt, for nationalisation of natural resources, and a reversal of privatisation.”  Why would a capitalist Greece do this?  Is this not precisely the reformist approach that Allen excoriated earlier in his article? Or if an unreformable Greek state could do it why not a similarly unreformable EU?

He says that “Most modern European states are embedded in a network of EU institutions and so a strategy of working through the state also means working within those institutions. Syriza leaders correctly assumed that in an era of globalisation, there could be no purely national solutions to the crisis within capitalism.”

Yet in the proposals he advocates where is the recognition and incorporation of this impossibility of a “purely national solution”?

What we have in fact is the very opposite.  He proposes “A break from the euro [which] would have to be accompanied by a major programme to re-distribute wealth so that the costs of the change fall on those who can most afford it.”  But this is just the reformist programme he criticises while acknowledging that a new national currency cannot by itself be a solution. Yet a new national currency plus redistribution of wealth wouldn’t do it either.

Allen is right that any left Government “should [not] pretend that a different currency –such as the punt- can in itself solve problems. . . .  the key issue is not the currency but control of the economy.”  The problem, as we have seen above, is first that this economy is weak and second that the answer provided by Allen is always action by the state or rather by the national state, not internationally by the EU.

The nationalism that infects all inherently reformist projects appears explicitly in Allen’s perspective not just in rejection of the Euro or in rejection of the EU but in his support for “the break-up of the EU in its current form and . . . its replacement by a federation of peoples based on democracy and control of capital.”

This is something he “will seek” but as a policy it has no practical worth or educational propagandist value.  It simply states that a return to nation states and an end to capitalism is the answer and while the second is right and the first is wrong neither amounts to even the start of a strategy and adds nothing to any discussion of it.

This national road to socialism is made explicit in his statement that “it is possible to organise an advanced economy without a permanent need for substantial credit transfers. Ireland already has a high level of wealth but, unfortunately, its control lies in a few hands. Re-distribution of that wealth provides an alternative avenue to seeking ‘support’ from foreign creditors. Such a strategy does not preclude individual arrangements to access credit . Rather it suggests that a transitional economy that goes beyond capitalism would have to overwhelmingly rely on its own resources – rather than the type of EU ‘support’ that hung Greece.”

This in effect denies the international character of production from which there can be no going back and repudiates his statement that “in an era of globalisation, there could be no purely national solutions to the crisis within capitalism.” It asserts the opposite of everything that Allen professes to stand for.

He ends up arguing that “a transitional economy that goes beyond capitalism would have to overwhelmingly rely on its own resources” because the Greek crisis has not only tested and found wanting the reformism of Syriza but also exposed and found wanting the reformism within his own political conceptions based on action by the nation state.  In fact if anything, in its lack of any international perspective, it is worse than Syriza’s.

Nationalisation, redistribution of wealth and left governments astride capitalist states are not socialist solutions, even if in certain circumstances their effects can be welcomed and supported.  The example of Greece shows how one variant of such a solution can fail but the weakness of Greek capitalism placed major constraints on what could be done even if more could and still can be achieved.

Neither is nationalisation and redistribution by the state after a workers’ revolution socialism unless this state is the creation of workers themselves and not some minority party or group within it.  Freedom, as they say, is taken not given.

Socialism is the action of the immense majority of society, those who work and those rely on the wages of those who do so.  It is the actions of the working class that involve socialism.  It is not state ownership of production that is socialist but working class ownership that is socialist.  Before the political overthrow of the capitalist system and its state this must take the form of workers’ cooperatives.

The strategy of a purely political revolution, only after which comes social revolution; that is the strategy of seizing state power in advance of major gains in the economic and social power of workers achieved through workers ownership, leaves open the problem illustrated by the isolation faced by workers in the Russian revolution.

The alternative of more or less simultaneous revolutions in a number of economically advanced countries could only be conceived on the basis of a prior development of the economic and social strength and power of the working class on an international level.

This problem of isolation was and is faced by Greece but the socialism in one county approach of Kieran Allen is the wrong answer.

Seeking solutions at the level of the state in advance of the development of working class organisation at an international level provides the rationale for a programme which seeks not to advance beyond capitalist internationalism, which is what the EU is, but to regress from it mouthing fatuous phrases about international federations of peoples based on democracy and control of capital.

Nationalist answers 1 – Scotland

scoty images (11)A common analysis on much of the left is that the EU is a capitalist club that pursues an imperialist agenda, just confirmed by its brutal treatment of Greece.  The socialist answer is therefore to be in favour of leaving it.

Many of these same people argue that the UK is a capitalist state that has just re-elected a Tory Government committed to further austerity.  The election has shown that it too, just like the EU, is unreformable and should be split up; so for example Scotland should separate from it.

The answer to both is therefore a nationalist one.  Let’s not be distracted by the bells and whistles attached.  The objective is a change in the nature of the state but in both cases this means a return to the nation state, a smaller state, is the answer.

Ironically, as a recent post I read noted, while the treatment of Greece by the EU in the name of austerity has been acknowledged by more or less everyone to be brutal, the reaction of some nationalists has been much more muted.

Thus the SNP who are portrayed as opponents of austerity have rallied much of the British left around its nationalist argument for separation on the basis of its opposition to UK austerity.  It argues that any move to get out of the EU will see it demand a new indy referendum so Scotland can stay in.  Yet the austerity inflicted by the EU on Greece is of a magnitude many times greater than that directed from London.

From a socialist point of view it gets worse.  Their answer to this exposure to the contradictions of nationalism is to be even more nationalist than the nationalists.  Many of them demand that the UK (or the Irish State for that matter) leave the EU.  Of course it is claimed all the new states created will not be like their old incarnations  but progressive, if not socialist, but if they were there would be no need for them to be separate and if they are separate they will be in the position all nation states are in, which is in competition with each other.

We see such competition in the proposals of the various nationalists and left nationalists to reduce corporation tax.  Sinn Fein and the left in Ireland want to keep the low 12.5% rate but want it to be the effective rate while the SNP want a lower rate than the rest of the UK, whatever it is, and the Tories have just cut it to 18 per cent, so it now has to be lower than this.  When the Tories took office with the Liberal Democrats it was 28 per cent.  If my sums are right I think this makes Sinn Fein, the Irish Left and the SNP softer on the big corporations than Tony Blair.  But this doesn’t fit the narrative so let’s stick with it.

In an earlier post I promised I would look at an article notified to me by a friend, on the Left’s attitude to the SNP, just before the UK General Election so I’ll do that here.  I’ll also look in a second part at one of the many responses on the Left seeking to learn the lessons from the Syriza U-turn in Greece.  What they have in common is an accommodation to nationalism.

What they also have in common is being written from the Socialist Workers Party tradition.  As I noted before, this tradition, through their forerunner of the International Socialists, used to have much better positions on both the EU and Scottish nationalism.  However the two articles show that accommodation has not yet become capitulation.

The article in ‘Jacobin’ is in the form of an interview and it is revelatory that the first question doesn’t ask the interviewee why he supported Yes in the independence referendum but “what did you see in the movement that made it worthy of support?”

As I noted during the campaign, many on the left voted yes because they liked the campaign for it rather than any very compelling reasons for having a campaign for such an objective in the first place.

In this sense they were guilty of what Marx warned against – “Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life. . “  Instead the Left supported a nationalist campaign, driven by social and economic concerns and desire for an alternative, and having done so declared it left wing.  It looked at itself in the mirror and liked what it saw.

Just like Sinn Fein in Ireland it does a grand job at telling itself and anyone else who will listen how great it is.  It might be something about nationalism.

I am also reminded by another less glorious figure in the history of the socialist movement who once declared “the movement means everything for me and . . . what is usually called “the final aim of socialism” is nothing.”

I exaggerate?  Well let’s look at the interview.  Davidson gives three reasons for changing his view to now supporting independence and, in his own words, he says that “the most important change was simply the nature of the campaign itself”

He says that “for many people it wasn’t about nationalism of any sort”. .  “It was about how to realise various social goals: an end to austerity, the removal of nuclear weapons, defence of the National Health Service”.  The fact that the answer to each of these problems is nationalism seems not to make the movement for it nationalist.

That the problems are not nationalist ones appears to mean that when the solution is national separation (“independence will improve their [workers’} situation immediately”) we don’t have to call it a nationalist solution.   Ironically if the problems were nationalist ones (like national oppression for example) a nationalist response might make more sense.

This self-regard leads to an exaggerated view of the role of the Left in the independence campaign, which, he says, dramatically changed its dynamic and drove the entire discussion of independence to the left.

In fact the landslide for the SNP in Scotland in the General election showed just who drove the campaign, who put independence on the agenda for decades before and who then benefited.

That the campaign for independence won the support of many working class people for a party Davidson admits is “on the extreme left of what I call “social neoliberalism” and “which broadly supports the neoliberal economic settlement”, i.e. austerity, is such an admission that it is simply staggering.

He supported separation because of the independence referendum campaign that led a neoliberal party to a landslide on the basis of that party claiming to lead opposition to austerity!

Davidson goes on to say that the SNP has moved to the left in economic terms “above all in rejection of austerity” and “is offering reforms” but also says they took up their “social democratic” position “in order to win votes” because “it would have been difficult to compete with New labour from the right”.

He accepts as good coin SNP claims of opposing austerity but fails utterly to examine its actual record in the Scottish Government, which would blow such claims out of the water.  Such an examination doesn’t fit the narrative.

In fact this narrative clashes obviously with reality.

He claims that the SNP sought an alliance with the Labour Party against the Tories, when in reality their strategy depended on destroying Labour in Scotland and keeping it to their right everywhere else.  Does he think the SNP would welcome a Jeremy Corbyn victory in the Labour leadership contest?

Why would it, since this would immediately demonstrate the efficacy of fighting together, that the Labour Party was not quite a dead loss and that there did actually exist a labour movement undivided by nationality.

He congratulates the SNP on their honesty, they’ll  never do a deal with the Tories he says, which means we can forget the one it had with them when in a minority administration in 2007 reliant on Tory support.

By supporting separation the pro-nationalist left has already separated itself from wider struggles.  In so far as there is a fight about austerity and its alternative in Britain today it is centred around the Corbyn campaign for leadership of the Labour Party.  I wondered on this blog whether the British Left would be part of it.  Were the unthinkable to happen and Corbyn actually win it could hardly be ignored.  Would an all-British movement against austerity in such circumstances be better than a purely Scottish one or would the Left insist on introducing national divisions where none were necessary?

It would appear that Davidson would answer the latter in the negative. “We must not give up the question of independence.  Unless a revolutionary situation emerges in England . . .”.  And of course Corbyn is far from being a revolutionary.

So it looks like English workers will have to deliver a revolutionary situation in England before the Scottish Left will be interested in political unity within one state.  (Talk about playing hard to get!) Not, mind you, that they are steaming ahead in the creation of a revolutionary party themselves because, Davidson says, “we are not in a position in Scotland to immediately set up a revolutionary party.”

Of course there are the ritualistic claims of wanting “solidarity” with English workers against the British State but not solidarity with English workers against a Scottish capitalist state which would replace the British one lording it over them come separation.  Joining with English workers to overthrow the Scottish state?  Now that really doesn’t fit the narrative.

Instead solidarity with English workers will mean we’ll demand the removal of Trident, which means moving these weapons to . . . err, England maybe?

And if the English follow this example and say that we’ll take the same position as you in Scotland and demand they’re not sited in our country, they can stay. . .err, in Scotland maybe?

What a splendid recipe for solidarity!

I mentioned that Davidson has accommodated to nationalism but not capitulated.  This is because although the article asks the question how the Left should relate to the SNP in advance of the General election he nowhere calls for a vote for the SNP.  The problem is, given what he says, I can’t see the reason for him not to.  Why not? given that he claims it opposes austerity, wants to introduce reforms, has moved to the Left and is now full of left-wing working class people who are ‘consolidating’ its position there.

It would be some slight comfort if it could be hoped that the reason for this is that, as a relatively recent convert to Scottish nationalism, at some level he just doesn’t quite believe his own argument.

Unfortunately the real reason may well be political sectarianism.  His reason appears to be that an SNP Government bent on reforms would face pressure and intransigence from capitalism when it would try to introduce its reforms.

He doesn’t say how this would not be the case in any other circumstance.  He doesn’t say how, what he might call a revolutionary party, would not face the same if not greater pressure.  He doesn’t say how it should be dealt with.  He doesn’t say why nationalist division prepares workers for such international capitalist intransigence and he does not say why this means that denial of support to the SNP now is justified by a future need for a revolutionary break, especially when he says the alternative party to be built now must not be revolutionary.  So how does he prepare all those inside and outside the SNP who must be prepared for this revolutionary break?

But what’s wrong with all this is not that Davidson should follow through on the implications of his analysis of the SNP and join it, but that his view of what is required of revolutionary politics now leads to a nationalist blind alley of supporting nationalist separatism now and being just as exposed to nationalist limitations when the grand day of revolutionary rupture might break out in the future.

His argument for national separation and endorsement of the SNP demand for independence falls apart because he refuses to support that party on the grounds that when it will be faced with international capitalist pressure it will be in no position to resist, most importantly because the working class will be divided by nationality whilst the capitalists won’t.

A convincing narrative or what?