Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 11 – crises and contradictions V

paris-communeWhen we consider the role of capitalist economic crises in the creation of a new society we are not short of guidance.  Capitalism has had so many crises that there have been innumerable opportunities to investigate just how such crises prompt or accelerate the socialist alternative.  In Ireland, the economic crash of 2008 destroyed the credibility of the main capitalist Party, Fianna Fail, whose Finance minister had hailed “the cheapest bail-out in the world” before it bankrupted the state and brought in the IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission to determine the state’s response to the crisis.

Yet this enormous crisis and exposure of the credibility of the economic and political system did not lead to any qualitative increase in the power of the Irish working class or of those political forces seeking to replace capitalism with socialism.  Indeed there appears to be a greater chance of more or less the same economic and political crises happening again, with an overheated property market, massive debt, and the working class responding only to the rhythms of the capitalist boom and bust, currently by attempting to make wage gains during the boom but without any perspective for the bust.

In this its short-sightedness is understandable and so is that of the left that claims to be far more far-seeing and which would claim that, like Marx, “in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.”

But only if the left learns that it must properly prepare for such crises and not simply await them, hoping that they push workers into its arms, will it have learnt something.  The experience of previous generations of socialists should be drawn upon to see what lessons must be learned.  It is clear that Marx himself learnt from crises and from the role they could play in ushering in or assisting workers’ revolution.

Even as a young man Marx understood the need for patience and preparation – “we must expose the old world to the full light of day and shape the new one in a positive way. The longer the time that events allow to thinking humanity for taking stock of its position, and to suffering mankind for mobilising its forces, the more perfect on entering the world will be the product that the present time bears in its womb.”

A few years later Engels made a similar observation:

Question 15: Do you intend to replace the existing social order by community of Property at one stroke?

Answer: We have no such intention. The development of the masses cannot he ordered by decree. It is determined by the development of the conditions in which these masses live, and therefore proceeds gradually.

The point is not that both Marx and Engels sought to delay revolution but that they understood its prerequisites.  At this time they believed that not all countries were ripe for social revolution, which would depend mainly on the fate of Britain.

Even in the democratic revolution in Germany in 1848 Marx was clear that revolution could not be decreed, even if certain lines of march could be advanced:

“We do not make the utopian demand that at the outset a united indivisible German republic should be proclaimed, but we ask the so-called Radical-Democratic Party not to confuse the starting-point of the struggle and of the revolutionary movement with the goal. Both German unity and the German constitution can result only from a movement in which the internal conflicts and the war with the East will play an equally decisive role. The final act of constitution cannot be decreed, it coincides with the movement we have to go through. It is therefore not a question of putting into practice this or that view, this or that political idea, but of understanding the course of development. The National Assembly has to take only such steps as are practicable in the first instance.”

Marx also believed that capitalist prosperity could rule out revolution, which could only come from crisis:

“Given this general prosperity, wherein the productive forces of bourgeois society are developing as luxuriantly as it is possible for them to do within bourgeois relationships, a real revolution is out of the question. Such a revolution is possible only in periods when both of these factors – the modern forces of production and the bourgeois forms of production – come into opposition with each other. . . . A new revolution is only a consequence of a new crisis. The one, however, is as sure to come as the other.”

But this does not mean that out of each and every crisis would come revolution and it is apparent that as he got older Marx became less sanguine about the impact of crisis itself as the harbinger of workers’ revolution.  The recent biographer Jonathan Sperber notes that “after the disappointment of his hopes of revolution to follow in the wake of the global recession of 1857, Marx rather downplayed the importance of crises for the end of capitalism.” (Karl Marx, a Nineteenth Century Life)

Marx was aware that revolution was not merely an exercise of will and might need decades for the working class to train itself for the exercise of power.  His attitude to the situation facing French workers in 1870 when the Prussian army had defeated France is instructive of his serious attitude to revolution and his understanding of the conditions for success.  He noted that in relation to the new French republican Government that “any attempt at upsetting the new Government in the present crisis, when the enemy is almost knocking at the doors of Paris, would be desperate folly.  . . . Let them calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of Republican liberty, for the work of their own class organisation.”

Nevertheless, when French workers rose up and created the Paris Commune Marx leapt to its defence, explaining the attitude that all sincere socialists take when workers enter struggle: “World history,” he wrote, “would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances.”  As Engels noted of the events in the 1848 revolutions:

“A well-contested defeat is a fact of as much revolutionary importance as an easily-won victory. The defeats of Paris in June, 1848, and of Vienna in October, certainly did far more in revolutionizing the minds of the people of these two cities than the victories of February and March. The Assembly and the people of Berlin would, probably have shared the fate of the two towns above-named; but they would have fallen gloriously, and would have left behind themselves, in the minds of the survivors, a wish of revenge which in revolutionary times is one of the highest incentives to energetic and passionate action. It is a matter of course that, in every struggle, he who takes up the gauntlet risks being beaten; but is that a reason why he should confess himself beaten, and submit to the yoke without drawing the sword?”

We cannot always pick our battles, but if we can we should, and it is on the basis of what we want that we should plan and prepare, what we should build for and base our politics on.  As Marx said of the First International:

“The political movement of the working class has as its object, of course, the conquest of political power for the working class, and for this it is naturally necessary that a previous organisation of the working class, itself arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to a certain point.”

“On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to force them by pressure from without is a political movement. . . .  On the other hand the movement to force an eight-hour day, etc., law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say a movement of the class, with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion. If these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organisation, they are themselves equally a means of the development of this organisation.”

“Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power, i.e., the political power of the ruling classes, it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes.”

In speaking of the results of the Paris Commune Marx noted that:

“The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistably tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men.”

dead-communards

It would be wrong to see this prognosis as out of date, made archaic and obsolete by almost 150 years of intervening history.  This is obviously not the case.  The working class of today is very different from that of the late 19th century, with the many struggles the latter gained consciousness from a matter of history and not lived experience.  In many ways it has to painfully learn lessons previously acquired through bitter and desperate struggle.  It has also to “pass through long struggles” and “through a series of historic processes” through which it will be transformed and be transforming.

In terms of economic and social development the objective grounds are today much more favourable across the world.  In terms of the social and political power of the working class, in many countries it is no more stronger now than it was 100 years ago or 50 years ago.  This is a glaring contradiction and it is one that requires explanation, although not only that.

As Marx famously said  “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”  So it is not so much explanation as practical solution that is required, which necessitates increased organisation and heightened political consciousness.  Crises throw up the need for this and do not offer solutions but simply opportunities to face the challenges that either success or failure in developing this organisation and consciousness make workers more or less ready for.

In the next post I will look at a couple of Marxist contributions to this problem written in the late 1960s and mid-1970s.

Back to part 10

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 10 – crises and contradictions iV

aaeb3f49f0044521a0b0904c2599b84b_18In 1921 Leon Trotsky argued that “If the further development of productive forces was conceivable within the framework of bourgeois society, then revolution would generally be impossible. But since the further development of the productive forces within the framework of bourgeois society is inconceivable, the basic premise for the revolution is given.”

I will argue against this view but it should not be taken that by this Trotsky believed that any particular country had to have fully developed capitalism before socialist revolution could succeed because obviously his theory of permanent revolution argued precisely that this was not the case. The argument just presented is a view of the world taken as a whole and not any particular country.

In his view capitalism could break at its weakest link but this is not Marx’s theory of the transition to socialism.  For capitalism not only to break but be replaced by socialism it is necessary that capitalism be broken not where it is weakest but where the working class is strongest, and the two are not the same.

The view that the productive forces have to have exhausted themselves has been a default view of much of the Marxist movement since 1938 and the writing of the Transitional Programme, which was called ‘The Death Agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth international’.  Adherence to this view means accepting that we have been living during a period of capitalism’s death agony for the past nearly 80 years.

It is this that justifies the view that objective conditions make the world ripe for socialism and that what faces socialists is a crisis of working class leadership. The task is simply to fight for leadership of the working class as it presents itself; its objective position and situation within society is relevant only in so far as it lends itself to gaining such leadership.  Since capitalist crises cannot be definitively solved by capitalism then such crises provide the opportunity for Marxists to win this leadership.

Those who have read earlier posts in this series will know that I reject the view that the productive forces of capitalism have stagnated.  This view was certainly challenged by the post Second World War economic upturn.  Crisis conditions in the 1970s and 1980s might have revived the view that capitalism was in long term crisis but the period since has seen huge economic growth.

Again the view that capitalism is in crisis might be bolstered by the financial crash in 2008 and the secular stagnation following it that has been posited by some writers but such crises do not amount to the long term crisis of capitalism suggested by Trotsky and secular stagnation has yet to be demonstrated.  If it were, it would still not amount to the long term crisis of capitalism that has been claimed, except that stagnation is not compatible with capitalism and if it existed it would create conditions of crisis.  

In previous posts I noted that capitalism had continued to develop the productive forces over the last century, including the expansion of the working class, its health and education and also its living standards.  Of course this does not mean that the next century will follow the pattern of the last.  This is as unlikely as the twentieth century following the pattern of the 19th, but it is at least necessary to appreciate what has already happened before thinking we are qualified for the much more hazardous task of speculating on what will happen in the future.

Incheon01

A recent article in ‘New Left Review’ notes that:

“Our available economic resources are greater than ever before. Between 1980 and 2011 world GDP per capita (in constant prices and purchasing power parities) increased 1.8 times, the IMF reports. As a comparison, we may remember that between year 1 and 1820 global product per capita is estimated to have increased 1.4 times, and from 1870 to 1913 1.7 times. More reliable are figures for 1950–73, 1.9, and for 1973–2003, 1.6.”

In his book ‘Postcapitalism a Guide to Our Future’ Paul Mason quotes figures that show global GDP per person rising by 162 per cent between 1989 and 2012 and in the developing world by 404 per cent.  It rose by ‘only’ 33 per cent in the 100 years after the ‘discovery’ of the Americas and by 60 per cent in the fifty years after 1820.

Of course, this is not to deny the growth of inequality and ecological threat arising from the capitalist nature of such growth, how could it be otherwise?  Paul Mason notes that while the real incomes of two thirds of the world’s people rose significantly, as did that of the top 1%, the majority of people in America, Japan and Europe had no real increase and some a decline.  As the article in New Left Review notes:

“Furthermore, the conventional norm of progress obscures the unequal distribution of its opportunities. Almost half, 46 per cent, of the world’s income growth between 1988 and 2011 was appropriated by the richest tenth of humanity.  In the US, since the late 1990s, there has been a progressive decoupling of GDP per capita—advancing with short-lived fallbacks—and the family income of four-fifths of the population, which has been stagnating and recently declining, above all from the median and below. The spread of the Anglo-American financial crisis of 2008 has meant a substantial decline in the income share of the bottom 40 per cent in the recession-hit European countries, from Greece and Ireland to the UK and Spain.”

One Marxist[i] makes a persuasive case that the official figures underestimate the growth of specifically capitalist production because they ignore the conversion of the Stalinist states to a new economic system.  These figures treat the production in these states prior to the introduction of capitalism as if it were already capitalist but this ignores the boost to specifically capitalist production of the acquisition of productive forces on the cheap and the availability of huge pools of labour power that can now be exploited to further the accumulation of capital:

“In 1991 the centrally planned economies had a population that was 35 percent of that in the market capitalist economies. The restoration of capitalism in them massively increased the world’s working class that could be exploited by capital, while at the same time the world’s capitalists paid almost nothing to privatize the assets of entire economies. . . .By 2006 China, now the second largest capitalist economy in the world, employed 112 million industrial workers (Bannister 2009), not including millions more in the former USSR and CEE.”

“During the 1990s capitalist production of electricity rose 44 percent, aluminium 45 percent, hydraulic cement 60 percent, steel 39 percent, automobiles 21 percent, and GDP 42 percent, with the rate of increase accelerating the decade after. This is particularly significant as this period extends to 2010 and so includes the period of the credit crunch recession after 2008. The growth of output in the emerging markets has been combined with the accelerated decline of industrial output in the West, but this is a transfer of production, not its disappearance. By 2010 the transition economies as a proportion of total capitalist production produced 29 percent electricity, 52 percent aluminium, 65 percent hydraulic cement, 53 percent steel, 30 percent automobiles, and 26 percent of GDP.”

It is hardly credible that the objective and subjective conditions for socialism could be bifurcated for so long – that the problem is simply one of mis-leadership – while the social and political power of the capitalist class over the working class, effected by the enormous development of capitalism, reflected also in the ideological hold of the former over the latter, can be considered a secondary matter.

That this continuing subordination of workers by capitalism for decades, without challenge in any fundamental respect, could be considered not to have affected the consciousness of new generations of workers, were it true, would prove Marxism false.  The idea that the fundamental problem is simply one of working class leadership is not credible.

Marxists are always keen to assert that they do not seek crises and do not welcome the attacks on workers which large crises inevitably result in, including unemployment, wage cuts and attacks on workers’ democratic rights to organise.  But if crises do provide the opportunity to replace capitalism, and the grounds for socialism already exist, then this would be something of a puzzle.

In part we have already noted the answer – that crises openly express capitalism’s contradictions and posit the need for an alternative.  However, it matters not whether socialists wish or do not wish for crises, capitalism will see to it that they erupt anyway.  It is not workers who create economic crises but the contradictions of the system itself.

Socialists do not welcome crises in themselves because they become opportunities to overthrow capitalism only under certain conditions.  Since capitalism has had many crises and we do not have socialism we can infer that these conditions are rather restrictive, or have been so far.  Is there anything in Marx’s alternative that explains why this has been the case and therefore what might we change to address our failures so far?

An answer to this means going beyond seeing capitalist crises as simply the opportunity to overthrow capitalism without understanding what makes them such an opportunity, as opposed to an opportunity for capitalism to resolve its contradictions at workers’ expense.  The answer does not lie in the illusion that capitalism is a system in permanent crisis or is in an epoch of revolution. Crises there have been and even revolutions but clearly this hasn’t been enough for Marx’s alternative to have flowered.

The last 100 years has witnessed many revolutions.  The most important at the beginning of the last century were carried out under the banner of socialist revolution but they nearly all failed very quickly.  Later revolutions that destroyed capitalism did not usher in socialism or even societies controlled by workers taking decisive steps towards socialism.   The belief was widespread that socialist revolutions would be complemented by national liberation struggles which would lead to democratic revolutions, but again there were numerous democratic revolutions, few overthrew capitalism and none of them brought about socialism.

Since the decline of such struggles the most important revolutions have involved the overthrow of Stalinism and the concomitant reintroduction of capitalism while the Arab Spring has not resulted in any fundamental reordering of society, except in the sense that in some societies it has led to their disordering and collapse.

There have been plenty of revolutions but the changes have been mainly one of political regimes without fundamental changes to class rule, at least in the sense of the working class ruling society.  Such glimpses of a new worker-controlled society have been brief and fleeting.

Marx’s prognostication was that “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.” 

The history of modern revolutions is testimony to this.  The absence of working class revolution is not.  Ironically, if you seek to reduce Marxism to a task of resolving a crisis of leadership you weaken its explanatory power, its guide to political intervention and its appeal.

Marx was aware that sometimes decades of political development are necessary for a working class to make itself capable of ruling society.  This is true now for reasons that Marx could not be fully aware of.  What he did do however was provide analyses of capitalism that may help socialists appreciate why we have failed so far.

[i] On the Alleged Stagnation of Capitalism, William Jefferies, available on the net.

Back to part 9

Forward to part 11

Towards a Revolutionary Party in Ireland?

swpieA friend sent me a link to an article he thought was dreadful saying it might be worth me replying to.  By coincidence I had looked at the site on Sunday to see the latest on what the Socialist Workers Party was saying and thought I would read one of the articles.  I saw this one but thought I wouldn’t waste reading yet another article on the revolutionary party.  Read one you’ve read them all.

Of course being bad isn’t necessarily a good reason to review something but I read it in my lunch break anyway.

Having done so I thought that it really is woeful and although it makes some unremarkable decent points these are put in the service of an argument so flabby it barely evokes disdain.  Lots of questions are raised but only in the question-begging sense and all the real difficulties are avoided.  Like when was the last time a party that could reasonably call itself revolutionary was built in Europe?

The article gives three reasons “why a revolutionary party must be built.”  The first is to “bring together activists from Clondalkin and Ballyfermot, Artane and Dun Laoghaire, Cork and Sligo, Wicklow and Wexford.”  The author has in mind the recent anti-water charges campaign but also recent strikes. “Without a party the tendency would be just to sit back as individuals either cursing at the TV or worse being influenced by it.”

A revolutionary party will tell workers not to trust their trade union leaders.  Their activists will provide workers with good arguments against racism because they have “people who know the facts, the history and the arguments.”

Why you need a party for activists to unite, in the water charges campaign for example, is not explained. In fact pretty obviously you don’t need a party, never mind a revolutionary one, you just need a democratic campaign.  Unfortunately the anti-water charges campaign never became such an organisation, which it should have been the priority of socialists to create.

Why you need a revolutionary party so you don’t sit on the couch and swear at the TV is beyond me.  I recall the SWP standing one of its leading members for leader of Ireland’s biggest trade union SIPTU but his manifesto never mentioned social partnership and the policy of open collaboration of the unions with the bosses and the state.  One part of history with its arguments and facts the author appears to have forgotten.

The second reason for needing a revolutionary party is that “forming a left government is, in itself, not enough.” The working class has to “move towards revolution and smashing of the capitalist state.”  Were I an innocent abroad I would wonder why the SWP, as part of People before Profit, stands in elections with a programme totally devoted to winning governmental office.  Because if it doesn’t the manifesto doesn’t make any sense.  No mention in it of distrusting the capitalist state never mind smashing it.

The final reason is that while revolutions may break out spontaneously they don’t succeed without a revolutionary party.  The author gives the example of the Irish revolutionary process between 1919 and 1923 and “the counter-revolution” that betrayed the 1916 rising.  A perfect example of what is wrong with the whole article.

Between 1919 and 1923 there was no socialist revolution to betray and 1916 was no such a revolution.  More facts and history misunderstood and arguments I take to task here, here, here and here.  To be fair to the SWP I don’t recall reading any left wing group doing anything other than paint the 1916 rising in colours of red that it didn’t display at the time.

The reason a revolutionary party is needed in a time of revolution is apparently because the working class will not have a uniform level of political consciousness.  And this is true.  What we don’t get explained is how the majority of workers will develop revolutionary consciousness.  It is this problem that I have been looking at in my series on Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism.  And this is the real problem, given the total lack of real revolutionary challenge to capitalism for nearly a century.  In some countries, including Ireland, the challenge has never occurred or even looked likely.

The real deficiency with the hastily constructed article is the avoidance of this problem coupled with a view that a revolutionary party will be built by groups like the SWP.

Any movement of the working class capable of building a challenge to capitalism, that at some stage will achieve its overthrow in a political and social revolution, will be created over decades. It will involve political radicalisation that can only be the result of profound and lasting strengthening of the working class not simply in ideological or political terms but through its developing economic and social power – proving that ideas and politics reflect the economic and social development of society.  In short – the working class and its radicalisation will create the mass workers party capable of revolution and not small organisations.

This is what Marx meant by “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”  The alternative conception of the SWP is of a crisis in which workers search for a solution and a revolutionary party becomes big enough to convince them to follow it in overthrowing capitalism.  It is not the result of a long-determined objective of greater numbers of workers based on their prior accumulation of economic, social and political weight in society that culminates in the conquest of political power.  Instead it becomes a question of accumulating, not this power, but the cadres of a small but ever-increasing organisation.  This prognosis becomes ridiculous when the smallness of the organisation reveals itself clearly to be inadequate to this historic task.  And the SWP author cannot help betraying this reality.

He claims that there is substantial radicalisation of the working class in Ireland North and South and that significant progress can be made in building a revolutionary party.  The first slip is to fail to define ‘significant’ and the second is to assume that the SWP is that revolutionary party.  The final one is the conclusion to the article where the task is reduced to recruiting individuals and having regular and interesting meetings.  In between is the attempt to buttress the first claim by pointing to the anti-water charges movement and the marriage equality referendum victory in the South.

As the author says, the anti-water charges movement reflected not only anger at this measure but also at the economic crash, the bank bail-out, wage cuts, the USC, Household Charge, community cuts, health cuts, housing crisis and “everything else”.  However the “water charges were a piece of pain that the working class felt it could do something about.”  However if we were really approaching the creation of a mass revolutionary party then this would simply not be the case.  The working class would feel it could do something about all these other injustices and would reflect its knowledge that it really did have the power to do something about all of them.

The anti-water charges campaign has led to no cumulative mass organisation of workers able to take up the other attacks.  The marriage referendum involved a democratic question that did not question capitalism so why would it lead to mass socialist radicalisation?  In the North the case for radicalisation rests on flimsy evidence that amounts to a few strikes, “small campaigns” and the election of two PbP candidates to the Stormont Assembly.  It therefore has to ignore the failure of the strikes, the smallness of the campaigns and the continued dominance by two sectarian parties one of which has ideological views about gay rights, women’s rights and evolution that might embarrass Donald Trump.

This overestimation of the significance of current facts is testament to a small organisation that thinks it has made it big, which it has in comparison to its previous history and others on the left, but which retains a narrow view of the world that ultimately reflects its still limited position in society.  The small mindedness of its politics is the failure to appreciate just how far away we are from revolution being on the agenda.  A cause for despair only if you fail to appreciate the facts, fail to understand history and have no arguments as to how revolutionary politics would be relevant in a prolonged non-revolutionary situation.

The SWP author is right to note that in Ireland there is no mass social democratic or Stalinist parties.  It is therefore the case that formations like the SWP/PbP and the similar Socialist Party/Anti-Austerity Alliance can potentially play a much more significant role in advancing the political organisation of the working class.  However to do this they will have to discard the narrow sectarian practices of the past, and face up to the more difficult questions that they face.  To do this would mean a truly revolutionary evaluation of their political history, the arguments they have unthinkingly relied upon and the real political facts of Irish society and its place in the world.  This article shows how far they are from carrying out such a task out and ironically how far they are from any sort of revolutionary party.

Remembering the Rising part 4 – revolution and counter-revolution?

NGI 1236

NGI 1236

In the last post I stated the view of the Irish establishment that the 1916 Rising was the foundational act of the formation of the current Irish State.  This is not the view of many on the Left:

“The current Irish state is not a product of the Rising – it owes its existence to the counter-revolution of 1923. . .  . The current Irish state, therefore, has little in common with those who staged an uprising in 1916. . .  and has absolutely no intention of cherishing ‘all of the children equally’.  A new massive popular uprising will be required to establish even this limited ideal.  That should be the real lesson of the centenary.” (Kieran Allen)

There is a historical question whether the revolution that followed the 1916 rising would have occurred without it but that isn’t the real point here.  There is a claim that both the Rising and the War of Independence were not responsible (in any way?) for the current Irish state and those involved in 1916 have little in common with the personification of Irish independence today.

Unfortunately for such a claim the personalities who forged the counter-revolution, as it is called, in 1923 and later leaders of the state were prominently involved in the 1916 Rising and in the first post in this series we named some of them – William Cosgrave, Richard Mulcahy, Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera and his successor as Taoiseach Sean Lemass.  These are among the foremost founders and architects of the current Irish state and they all fought in 1916.

The claim that there was a counter-revolution in 1923 refers to the acceptance of the Treaty that established the Free State with its oath of allegiance to the King, membership of the Commonwealth, the post of Governor General, retention of the Treaty ports by the British and a deal on partition that quickly preserved it.  The Treaty was signed under a British threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’ and was followed by a civil war when the Irish Republican movement split over acceptance of British terms.  For anti-Treaty republicans the new state was illegitimate, as therefore were its police, armed forces and political institutions, including the new Dáil.

As we saw in the first post the new Free State Government was a reactionary one dedicated to policies of low taxation, balanced budgets, free trade and an illiberal social policy that included heavy censorship of films and literature and legislation to outlaw divorce.  It brutally repressed its anti-Treaty opponents with imprisonment, torture and murder.

Its most prominent architect was William Cosgrave, a supporter of the monarchist Sinn Fein from its foundation.  As one historian has put it (John M Regan) “his concept of government prior to independence was essentially theocratic.   In suggesting an upper house for the Dáil in 1921, he advocated a ‘theological board which would decide whether any enactments of the Dáil were contrary to [Roman Catholic] faith and morals or not’.”

By some contrast the inspiration for the new Free State and pro-Treaty icon was Michael Collins, who another historian (Peter Hart) has described as having “a deep dislike of exploitation and poverty.”    “What set Collins apart was his secularism. . . . He was actively anti-clerical for much of his life, and blamed the Catholic Church for many of Ireland’s problems.”

When the pro-Treaty regime fell to the anti-Treaty Fianna Fail, policies of free trade, acceptance of the post of Governor General and oath of allegiance were rejected; the British left the Treaty ports; an ‘economic war’ with Britain was embarked upon and then resolved; and the new Government introduced a new constitution in 1937, which proclaimed the special position of the Catholic Church, the subordinate role of women in society and a constitutional protection of the prerogatives of private property that stands as a barrier to action by the state to this day. It also brutally repressed its republican opponents.   In 1948, under the leadership of the pro-Treaty Fine Gael the Irish State declared itself a Republic.  In effect the anti-Treaty side accepted the legitimacy of the new state and of the Michael Collins’ view that the Treaty provided a stepping stone to freedom.

In the aftermath of the civil war between pro and anti-Treaty republicans the latter had dedicated themselves to a ‘second round’ against the traitorous Free State and its illegitimate institutions.  Today no one in the spectrum of republicanism holds to such a position: I know of no one, and have never heard anyone, say that a renewed armed struggle should make the existing Irish State its primary target.  This is now uncontroversial, reflecting the legitimacy of the State in the eyes of the overwhelming number of its citizens.

The Irish state today is a Republic and the anti-Treaty side in its subsequent development, from Fianna Fail in the 1920s to Clann na Poblachta in the 1940s to Provisional Sinn Fein today, has accepted this and sought to become its governing party.

In other words the vast majority of the revolutionary movement of 1919 to 1921 accepted the Treaty, or the counter-revolution as it has been described above, leaving the question – what exactly was the revolution that was reversed or prevented?

An argument exists that the British proxy-war fought by the pro-Treaty forces succeeded in imposing the British terms demanded for the ending of hostilities.  What the vastly superior forces of the British could have unleashed in a renewed war was instead leveraged in the Treaty negotiations.  This might therefore be characterised as the counter-revolution; except of course that, as we have seen, the new state gradually dispensed with the trappings of Empire and colonial status.  It even eventually got a degree of economic separation from the British when it got itself a new currency – the Euro.  But perhaps this too can be seen as the continuation under a new guise of the counter-revolution, but if it was it was not part of any counter-revolution in 1923 and linking the Troika to the civil war is a bit of a stretch.

In opposition to such a view the historian Diarmaid Ferriter quotes a ‘veteran Irish political correspondent’ James Downey (very recently deceased) in 2012:

“It’s tempting to say that our ancestors won it and that our own generation has thrown it away. Not only tempting, but in important respects true. Undoubtedly we have lost our economic independence and will take a very long time to regain it.

But some of the aspirations of the 1916 Proclamation were never feasible anyway. No country, even the biggest and most powerful, has “unfettered” control of its destinies.

Independent Irish governments did not set out to make Ireland either a Marxist paradise or a dreamy medieval vision on the de Valera model. They set out to make it a normal liberal-democratic, capitalist state.

To a considerable extent they succeeded. They managed the transition from a peasant society to an industrial country reasonably well.

Where they went wrong was not so much in the excesses of the Tiger years — although these have brought us, and will continue to bring us, much suffering — as in the failure, and worse than failure, to curb corruption and what we like to call ‘gombeenism’.

We all know this word and use it constantly, but it is dreadfully hard to define.

It can cover almost anything from dramatic strokes and deals to improper political and business practices to the trading of small favours and abuse of petty power.

It was endemic before independence. It is still endemic. In some ways it is worse than before. Virtually all the measures aimed at putting it down have been insincere or misdirected, ruined by political and official inertia or subverted by the cynical Irish belief that nothing can ever change for the better.

We don’t have to go back 100 years, or 100 days, to watch it in operation. Who believes the Mahon Report will produce any good results? Who thinks the Fine Gael-Labour coalition will eradicate the cronyism that tarnished its predecessors?

We won’t find answers to such sad questions in commemorations. We have to seek them in the here and now.”

In the last two posts we have seen that the revolutionary generation set out to create a separate Irish state, free from British rule, a nationalist objective that they succeeded in achieving – where then is the counter-revolution?  It was from among the survivors of the 1916 Rising that the leadership of the succeeding Irish State arose – so from whom did the counter-revolution arise?

Perhaps it may be claimed that these leaders betrayed their earlier beliefs or at least their earlier declarations of the objectives of the Rising?  But in the second post we explained that the 1916 Proclamation made no grander claims to social and economic revolution upon which it might be possible to condemn the current Irish state as a betrayal of. So again, where is the counter-revolution?

Let us take the politics of the revolutionary nationalist movement during its revolutionary period.

In his recent book ‘A Nation and not a Rabble, the Irish Revolution 1916-1923’ the historian Diarmaid Ferriter, hardly one of the pro-imperialist revisionist historians, records the lack of ideology guiding the political struggle during the revolution.

He states “those looking for evidence of broad, sophisticated ideological debates during the decade may be disappointed”- contrast this with the experience of the Russian revolution!  “Those who propelled the republican revolution were more focussed on the idea of separation from Britain ‘rather than implementing any concrete political programme.’  He quotes one fellow historian that ‘the new nationalist leaders did not see it as necessary to analyse the “self” that was to exercise self-determination’”, and a second historian noting that “the republican leaders ‘do not appear to have debated what may have appeared to be potentially dividing abstractions’.”

Discussing the many statements given by participants to the Bureau of Military History on their motivation and experience of the struggle, Fearghal McGarry states that “there is little discussion of ideology in the statements . . . Volunteering did not popularise republicanism.”  Ferriter quotes from a prominent republican and chronicler of his experience in the revolution: “as Ernie O’Malley saw it ‘fighting was so easy compared with that soul-numbing, uphill fight against one people’s ignorance and prejudice’, his tortured description of politics.”

This does not mean that politics did not exist within the revolutionary movement.  The nationalism of Irish republicanism, as to most nationalists everywhere, seemed uncomplicated and simple, self-evident and pure, nevertheless had a definite political content, even if it was unconscious and sublimated other real societal divisions such as class.  As de Valera and others insisted – patriotism was to rise above all class interests.

The republican paper Irish Freedom put it succinctly in 1911: “The interests of Ireland as a whole are greater than the interests of any class in Ireland, and so long as labour accepts the nation, Labour must subordinate its class interests to the interests of the nation.”

The republican movement was prepared to eject strikers from their place of work while de Valera would say that he felt “confident that the common patriotism of all sections will prove superior to all special class interests.”   Even the radical Constance Markievicz, who became Minister of Labour in the revolutionary government, complained that “the trade unions’ appeal always seems to me to be so very sordid and selfish.  Till something suddenly makes them realise the value of self-sacrifice they will never be much use to humanity.”  And they were not the only ones to suffer disapproval: Cosgrave complained that those unfortunate enough to end up in the workhouse “are no great acquisition to the community . . .  As a rule their highest aim is to live at the expense of the ratepayers.  Consequently it would be a decided gain if they all took it into their heads to emigrate.”

Leading republican Austin Stack “warned of the dangers of agrarian agitation subverting patriotic opinion and pointed to the importance of the republican courts in undermining such revolutionary sentiment.”  In 1921 the republican Irish Bulletin warned that “the mind of the people was being diverted from the struggle for freedom into a class war and there was even a possibility that the IRA, itself largely composed of farmers’ sons, might be affected.”  However it went on to state that this “proved wholly groundless” as “agrarian lawlessness was steadily suppressed, cattle-driving and boundary-breaking punished and ruffianly elements brought to book.”  (Ferriter)

And all this happened before 1923 when the counter-revolution is supposed to have occurred.

But, it might still be claimed, the Irish State is corrupt and its venality exposed by its loss of sovereignty while under the diktats of the Troika of European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.  But when did the Irish revolution ever set itself the tasks of creating conditions that would prevent this?  And if it did not, where was the need for any counter-revolution to reverse or prevent a socially revolutionary regime that would have done so?

At the level of the personalities involved – when and how did the leaders who survived the Rising radically change their political views, that made their participation in the Rising revolutionary but later actions counter-revolutionary?

Perhaps it is claimed that the Irish working class took independent action that threatened not only the contemporary political arrangements that involved direct British rule but also the capitalist economic and social structure of society.  What about the strikes, occupations and events such as the Limerick Soviet?

But when did such actions have an independent dynamic separate from the national struggle, with its own objective, own separate movement and separate leadership?  Not only separate but necessarily counter-posed to the revolutionary nationalist movement (if it were to prevent counter-revolution).

The fear of such a task and appreciation of weakness in even contemplating it has been noted by Ferriter during the Limerick Soviet episode –“ The Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress feared that any escalation in support for Limerick ‘would be entirely on their own heads and lack the enthusiastic national support of Sinn Fein” (even though the Limerick action was against the proclamation of the area as a special military area by the British).

With an agricultural population in the last spasms of land agitation; an industrial sector cut off by partition and its working class divided by sectarianism, the larger part of which was politically reactionary and the remainder industrially weak and politically dominated by nationalism and a soft labourism – how could it be otherwise?

As for the revolutionary nationalists, with their difficulty with politics compared to fighting and their opposition to debating “what may have appeared to be potentially dividing abstractions”, how ironic that this lack of politics led them not only to a debate over abstractions when the Treaty was signed – the oath of allegiance and the existence of an established Republic that was being betrayed  –  but also led them to a vicious civil war over these abstractions.

On only one count is it possible to argue that there was a counter-revolution that betrayed the goals of 1916, even if it was carried out by those who fought in it. And this is the imposition of partition, although this is often the least mentioned and most ignored.

Even a purely nationalist revolution seeks the unity of the country.  Indeed intrinsic to nationalism is the indivisibility of the nation.  So 1916 opposed partition and promised religious equality in the Republic as the alternative to it.  But 1916 could not deliver on its objective and admitted as much.  The Rising that might deliver national freedom was circumscribed by its leaders through their recognition that the Rising could not even carry out a strike against partition.

The organisers of the Rising explicitly prohibited fighting in Ulster, instead planning that Volunteers in the province assemble together in Tyrone and march to Connaught to join the rebellion there.  Even the foolishness of this ill-considered plan revealed the lack of adequacy to addressing the real task of defeating an imperialist-backed mass unionist opposition to the project of a national democracy.

Objectively the 1916 Rising was unable to strike against the coming of partition, which was imposed not during the retreat of the national revolution but at its height of military struggle.  In other words neither 1916 nor the following national revolution could hold out the promise of a defeat of partition and the ‘carnival of reaction’ that would follow it, which was foretold so acutely by Connolly.

So in what respect was there a counter-revolution when that revolution never actually set itself the task of preventing partition in any objective sense?  The revolution could not seriously make the promise of a united nation; that it did not result in one can hardly be put down to the actions of a counter-revolution.

Postscript:

I spoke at a small meeting of socialists in Glasgow just over a week ago and I was asked whether my analysis did not contradict the traditional socialist view that the 1916 Rising was to be defended as a blow against imperialism?

I answered that the Rising was indeed to be defended as a blow against imperialism but that what was important now was to understand its limits, the limits of any politics defined simply  as ‘anti-imperialist’ and any nationalism no matter how ‘left-wing’.

So yes, I agreed with Lenin, 1916 was not a putsch and we should not expect to see a “pure” social revolution, but we should understand that 1916 wasn’t a social revolution of any kind.  In any case if any socialist could be described as seeking the maximum clarity in the struggle for socialism, the maximum ‘purity’ so to speak, it is Lenin, so not expecting to see a pure revolution and doing absolutely everything you can to get one are not in contradiction.

I was also asked the question whether Connolly was correct to take part in the Rising.  I have deliberately avoided this question in my series of posts because I’m not very interested in it.  What I did say was that if Connolly was going to take part he should have had his own Proclamation, his and the Citizen Army’s own declaration of what they were fighting for – a ‘Socialist 1916 Proclamation’.

We might then at the very least have avoided reading into the existing one progressive content that isn’t there and we would have had greater grounds for stating that today’s Irish establishment would be put in a position of some embarrassment in the centenary commemoration.  I would have liked to have seen an Irish Army officer read a declaration of socialist revolution outside the GPO!

Then also we would have had stronger grounds to say that the promise of the 1916 Rising has been betrayed.

Of course the other signatories would not have signed it.  It would have divided the Rising at least politically but then, as we have seen, the republicans divided the revolution to the benefit of certain social classes anyway.

And would Connolly have made the Workers’ Proclamation one of socialist revolution in any case?

What this alternative Proclamation should have said is for socialists the real historical (and contemporary) question not the non-existent promises of a nationalist revolution that socialists are supposed to make good now.

Back to Part 3

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

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

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

Is a Left Government a good idea?

PBPA-header-w814It reminds me of a football club that tries to buy a player from another club but fails because it can’t afford the transfer fee.  It is soon made clear that they didn’t really fancy the player anyway, that the price was too high, they wouldn’t be held to ransom and in any case, they’ve got better players in their own ranks.

So some recent statements by the Left on the question of forming a Left Government appear to throw doubt on this project, state that the political price of signing up to one is too high and anyway, they’d prefer to be in opposition.  In fact it’s maybe not even a good idea in the first place.

This is the impression given by the People before Profit Alliance (PbP) who, in a statement on a left Government, nowhere say that it is a good idea but instead pour cold water on the whole notion. It states that “our willingness to enter or, alternatively, support a left government from outside depends on agreement that our red line issues will be carried through.” So which is it – enter or support, and how might we expect the difference to be arrived at?

In terms of my previous posts, the strategic gap in the perspective of seeking a left Government is made to go away by seemingly orthodox Marxist criticisms of the whole idea.  So the statement quoted from above was preceded by a political article from a Socialist Workers Party (SWP) journal explaining its view of the socialist attitude to a Left Government.

“The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that the logic of parliamentary politics is a reformist politics that sees Cabinet as the place where changes are made, drawing movements into compromises, undermining the mobilising capacity of the working class and leading to the defeat of Left Governments and the wider working class movement . . .  spreading illusions in reforming the State can be fatal.”

Further on we are told that “we can also see in the desire for a ‘left government’ an initial and vague rejection of capitalism on the part of masses of workers. The growth of an ‘authentic’ Social Democratic or left reformist consciousness amongst hundreds of thousands of workers is a vital stepping stone to a revolutionary consciousness.”

And in the next paragraph:

“They [left formations seeking office] appeal to the desire to change things but they do so within the limits of the existing capitalist economy. Capitalists today cannot afford the reforms that they could during the post war boom, which lasted from the 1940s to 1973, and so any left government will very quickly have to decide whether or not to fight or capitulate as the ruling class can use their economic might, control of the banks and also the media to strangle the left or to force a capitulation which demoralises the working class support base of the Government.”

So where we have got to in this analysis is that left governments can result in compromise, which can be fatal, but reflect a vague rejection of capitalism by workers that is a vital stepping stone to revolutionary consciousness.   Since this social-democratic consciousness, which is “vital”, is based on illusions in the state bringing in reforms, and even socialism, we can see the immediate problem expressed in the view that such “illusions in reforming the State can be fatal.”

What makes everything even more difficult is that a left government doesn’t have very much time to turn this consciousness around because “any left government will very quickly have to decide whether or not to fight or capitulate.”

If all this is true then the SWP/PbP is correct to be lukewarm at best about any near-term prospect of a left Government, if this is what it is saying.   The Irish working class is not currently even vaguely rejecting capitalism and, if it did elect a Left Government, it would never develop the revolutionary consciousness or practical power to successfully challenge capitalism in the short period during which a Left Government would exist before it either compromised or was overthrown (according to the SWP).

My own view, expressed before in a series of posts, is that a more or less long period of preparation is needed before the working class can prepare itself (not by a left Government) to take power in society.  I have therefore argued that it is not the perspective of capturing office that is central to socialist strategy but building up the independent power of the working class in society which is fundamental.

The SWP states that:

“For revolutionaries though, the battle to render workers fit to self-govern is connected to the revolution itself- for it is in mass struggle that people throw off ruling class ideas and begin to grow in confidence. For us the foundation of socialism is not about a slow accumulation of reforms that gradually evolve into a new society – for revolutionaries the key foundation of socialism is the throwing off of ruling class ideas, what Marx called the ‘muck of ages’, the pessimistic, sexist and racist filth that flows from the ruling class and is accepted by workers because of oppression and atomisation.”

If we look at this statement firstly from the beginning – the battle to render workers fit to govern is indeed connected to the revolution but what socialism involves is a social revolution, not just a political one of taking over or replacing one form of political rule by another.  It is simply incredible to believe that in a few short months or even years workers will learn to be able, or even want, to take over the running of the economy from the capitalist class (without previous years of making attempts to do so).  Even in the Russian revolution, still held up as some sort of model, the workers looked to state ownership under the Bolsheviks as their saviour.  Mass political struggle is insufficient to generate the revolutionary consciousness or capability necessary for social revolution, and certainly not in the truncated period foreseen by the term of office of an uncompromising left Government supported initially by ‘vague’ ideas about anti-capitalism.

Thus when we approach the statement from its end, the ‘muck of ages’ will not be swept away in a few short years but will require an extended period of workers, not ‘vaguely’ seeking to overthrow  capitalism, but actively hoping for and fighting for socialism.  As Marx put it “they know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men.”

The lack of revolutionary consciousness among workers is not simply due to “oppression” and “atomisation” and is not simply reflected in pessimism, sexism and racism: it arises fundamentally because of the subordinate role the working class plays in capitalist society.  Their social consciousness is determined generally by their social position, the most fundamental aspect of which is their separation from ownership of the means of production and compulsion to sell their labour power to capitalists. Steps to challenge and begin to change this are fundamental to any social revolution and this isn’t the work of a parliamentary term of office, which the SWP appear to think a left government wouldn’t even get.

The problems that face the SWP perspective are actually demonstrated by the article to be worse than this – “clearly any movement that has illusions in the state, and believes that this machinery serves any purpose other than oppression, is blinding the working class to the key task of any revolution – the life-or-death necessity of dismantling these oppressive structures”; but isn’t it PbP which says that one of its red-line issues in determining support for a left Government is that it has a “strategy of using public resources to empower an active workers movement – the way that the state has been used up to now to shore up corporate interests”?

And further, having said that “we can also see in the desire for a ‘left government’ an initial and vague rejection of capitalism on the part of masses of workers”, and that this isn’t revolutionary consciousness, the article then says: “hence the all-important paradox: the advent of a left government will only strengthen the workers’ movement inasmuch as the class, or at least its vanguard, do not have illusions in this government.”

This must then rule out the pursuit of a left Government not only today but for ever in the future according to the analysis presented by the SWP writer.

Of course the get-out is reference to the vanguard, but it is the working class which will create socialism or it won’t be created at all so no devolving of tasks required of the working class to an undefined vanguard will solve this problem.

The conclusions of the article would appear to rule out the perspective of trying to form a left Government – “In the past socialists have dealt with left governments through the tactic of ‘external support’ – that means we would never run the oppressive state machinery but we would explain to workers that we are willing to support a left government as long as it acts in worker’s interests but from the opposition benches.”

This means that all the proposals in the PbP manifesto that require action by the state are a fraud – the PbP never intends to implement them because it will never be in government.  Are the PbP going to tell working class voters this when it knocks on doors?  Saying “we will not be joining any government that includes Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or Labour in its present form” is misleading and should be replaced by “we will not be joining any government.”  What it means by saying that it may talk to Sinn Fein and the left after the election about forming a left Government is anyone’s guess.  Since the Anti-Austerity Alliance is very much in favour of forming a left Government just what is their electoral alliance with it about?

If the left Government would receive PbP support when it acted in workers’ interests why would it not seek to act in their interests itself by joining the government?  In this we are back to the difficulties of trying to remain pure by staying outside government while still having to take political responsibility for keeping it in office (see the previous post).

The SWP is clear that “based on this understanding of the nature of the state machine as a repressive mechanism for holding the working class down, no revolutionary socialist can ever join a government under capitalism.”

It draws the conclusion that “therefore socialists should support a left government but from the opposition benches. We stand in elections for the sole purpose of building the extra-parliamentary struggle.”

So it would appear that it maintains its revolutionary purity, except that it stands in elections promoting reformist policies that could only be implemented by forming a government, not by “extra-parliamentary struggle.”  Its Marxism becomes an article of faith, with quotations from the prophets in special books to be read by members and might-be members, but with no practical programmatic application on this earth, in this world.

It enters an electoral alliance with the Anti-Austerity Alliance saying “we stand for a left government”.

It wants to “abolish austerity taxes and reverse the cuts.”  It wants to “invest in Health” and “build a National Health Service, free at the point of use and paid for through progressive central taxation.”  It similarly wants to “invest in education and childcare” and “reduce the pupil-teacher ratio” and “develop strategic public enterprise and industry and invest in public infrastructure” by making “the corporations pay their taxes”.  It wants to “take Ireland’s oil and gas resources into public ownership” and “recognise the Palestinian state” and much, much more; none of which is possible to implement without being in Government.

It is indeed difficult to make the pursuit of Marxist politics consistent with the current political development of the Irish working class, but Marx himself faced a similar problem.  The review above shows that the current approach by part of the Left is simply incoherent, an incoherence that fortunately for it will not be put to the test as a result of the election about to be called.

Back to part 5