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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to part 1

From Civil Rights to ‘the Troubles’ part 1

Last year marked fifty years since the civil rights movement hit the headlines.  This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the troubles in 1969.  If the first was remembered as the harbinger of hope the second will be recalled for dashing these hopes.

It is important to recall these events in order to inform those too young to have been there of just exactly what happened and what the political significance of the events was; and to remind everyone of events that occurred that have not only been forgotten but deliberately no longer recounted because they do not fit the now standard narrative of how the troubles started.  This is true also for socialists because there are lessons that can be learned, or at least discussed, which challenge many elements of today’s received wisdom.

Reading about the period again puts into place certain personal episodes which I have remembered imperfectly as isolated events but which can be located within the broader narrative.

Since I was only a child when these events happened impressions are all that I have.  The most dramatic is of hunkering under the table with the lights out and internal doors placed over the front windows of the house to protect us from stray bullets that were exchanged up and down the street in a gun battle between the British Army at one end and the IRA at the other.

Earlier in the year I recall wondering where my two friends in the street had gone when I returned from my annual summer holiday spent with my granny in Glasgow. It turns out that the two girls had, with their family, been forced to leave their house because they were Catholics in a predominantly Protestant area, one that pretty soon was to become a centre of loyalist paramilitary organisation.

That year my sister can remember being caught up with my mother in a riot at the bottom of the Shankill Road as loyalists attacked the predominantly Catholic Unity Flats at the bottom of the road. Only the kindness of an unknown man meant that they were shepherded away through the backstreets of the Shankill Road up to our home in Woodvale.

It was not until a couple of years later that I became aware that I was not really in sympathy with the wider unionist ‘culture’, as it is now called.  My parents were socialists, and whatever limits there were to their politics, it didn’t include belief in the compatibility of socialism with monarchy and anti-Catholic sectarianism.  They had attended meetings in support of civil rights and voted for the Northern Ireland Labour Party.

I later learned that at a house party in our street at around this time, when everyone had been asked to sing a favourite song, my mother sang ‘We shall Overcome’, the anthem of the civil rights campaign.  God knows how that went down.  I also later learned that my Father would get drunk and sing the ‘Red Flag’ in pubs on the Road, which would normally lead to getting a severe hiding were it not for his friends and his lifelong residence confirming his provenance as really ‘one of ours’ – a Prod from the Road.

None of this makes for an understanding of the political dynamics of the period and how they should be judged by socialists, which is what I want to write about.  It does however allow me to make two important points.

First, that the civil rights movement had some, if limited, sympathy within the Protestant working class. And two, that this sympathy expresses progressive impulses which should not be besmirched by later attempts to pretend that working class loyalism is in any way progressive, when it is this loyalism that is an immediate obstacle and threat to the development of socialism in the Protestant working class.

One of the worst experiences of the last 40 years of my political activity in Ireland was sitting at a Socialist Party meeting in a Dublin trade union hall listening to an SP leader praise the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force – the Progressive Unionist Party – for introducing socialism into Protestant working class areas. This included parading Billy Hutchinson as the embodiment of this, despite him being a sectarian killer who declared in an interview that he had no regrets, since his actions had prevented a united Ireland.  According to his Wikipedia page he also participated in the riots at Unity Flats.

This does not mean that I subscribe to the view that there is a relatively straight-forward political programme that answers the problems posed by partition and sectarian division. In fact I have written a number of posts beginning here that point to the problems posed today in elaborating a socialist perspective.

This series of posts is an exercise in being, what I hope is, wiser after the event, which is infinitely better than not being wiser.  If you can’t do this after the event there is really no hope of you learning anything.  As the very un-Marxist philosopher Kierkegaard said – “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”  We will learn from history in order to make whatever attempt we can to change it better next time – “fail better” perhaps, in the words of Samuel Beckett.

What must strike anyone reading of the period, and current reflections on it, is the ready acknowledgement by many of the participants that they didn’t fully understand what was going on at the time. So one examination of the lessons of the civil rights campaign accepts that –

“We were blind to the complexities. We believed in our new enthusiasm that we could appropriate ready-made tactics of moral persuasion and mass nonviolence resistance. We were unaware of the complexities of the American black and radical movements and of the sharp debate around very real differences. We did not realise that the tactics and strategy of the civil rights movement in America were contested there and that that strategy would be contested in Ireland also.”

Another prominent participant, Eamonn McCann, admits that:

“Anybody who looks back on 50 years and says, ‘I never made a mistake’, is a liar or a fool. We all make mistakes. Huge mistakes were made in the 1960s in the course of the broad civil rights movement. But I think the civil rights movement achieved an awful lot.”

And it is not that this confusion and lack of clarity, leading to disagreement and mistakes, was not obvious at the time.  One only has to read the New Left Review interview with the leaders of Peoples Democracy in 1969 to see the obvious lack of coherence.

So, Eamonn McCann says in the interview that “the consciousness of the people is still most definitely sectarian” while the next answer from Michael Farrell states that “we have radicalised the Catholic working class to quite a considerable extent and to some degree got across to them the necessity of non-sectarianism and even the fact that their Protestant fellow workers are almost as much exploited as they are”

To which McCann replies – “I think this assessment is very wrong . . . I believe we have failed to get our position across in the last six months”.  Bernadette Devlin (as then was) then says that “People outside Northern Ireland fail to appreciate the confusion that exists here; nobody knows what they want or how to achieve it . . .”  And then she goes on “we are totally unorganised and totally without any form of discipline within ourselves.  I’d say there are hardly two of us who really agree . . .”

Today this lack of agreement continues, with the first writer linked above stating that “the CRM [Civil Rights Movement] was defeated”, while Eamonn McCann makes a less clear-cut judgement – “It was by no means perfect, but I do think it emerges with great credit from the history of the last 50 years and it is arguably the most successful movement that there has been in the North, certainly since the coming of the women’s movement . . . I think it was a very significant success which didn’t last. That’s the way I look at it. It absolutely failed to create a new politics in Northern Ireland.”

I think a movement that “is arguably the most successful movement that there has been in the North” but which absolutely failed to create a new politics in Northern Ireland” might be close to the truth.

In any case, this series of posts is premised on the view that the issues and arguments that arose during the period from civil rights to ‘the troubles’ is still relevant not only to understanding what happened then but to socialist strategy today, not only in the North of Ireland but more generally.

So traduced has this history become that we have seen Sinn Fein claim ownership of the civil rights campaign when the creation of the Provisional Republican Movement was based on the militants who rejected the political course of the existing Republican Movement which supported that campaign, and rejected political struggle in general as a way forward.  The civil rights movement issued at least partly out of the Republican Movement that the Provisionals rejected and preceded their birth.

This series of posts will not present a comprehensive narrative of the history of the civil rights campaign and start of the troubles but will look at the most important themes and developments that should be re-examined today.  The next post will look at the creation of the civil rights movement.

Forward to part 2