The local elections – another step to a united Ireland?

The local election results in the North of Ireland have given rise to more commentary that another step has been taken towards a referendum on Irish unity and a united Ireland.  The success of Sinn Fein in becoming the largest party at local government level in council seats and votes has provoked this reaction, as have its previous victories.  The two have almost come to seem synonymous.

At the same time the two are repeatedly separated by the selfsame commentators who argue that any vote for a united Ireland in a referendum would have to go way beyond Sinn Fein’s support.  If a vote for this party is an indicator of impending unity, then there is an obvious problem.  Its vote in the local elections was 30.9 percent of the ballot so even after an increase in its support of 7.7 percent it is not yet a third of those voting.

It is argued that other pro-unity candidates add to the forward movement of Irish nationalism, except that the other major nationalist party, the SDLP, is slowly dying.  Its vote fell by 3.3 percentage points to 8.7 per cent.  Together the two major nationalist parties gathered 39.7 per cent.  Even with the addition of the pro-unity parties on the left and right, People before Profit and Aontú, the total rises only to 41.5 per cent.  The total for the three main unionist parties is 38.1 per cent; Irish nationalism gained more votes than the these parties.

In the 2019 local government election the three Unionist parties plus smaller unionists gained 41.87 per cent of the vote while the comparable Irish nationalist and pro-unity parties won 37.73 per cent.  At this election the DUP was the largest party and the Unionist vote was higher than that of Irish nationalism.

Local elections, however, are the least accurate electoral indicator of the relative strengths of the two camps; the turnout in 2023 was only 54 per cent, an increase of 2 per cent on the 2019 vote.  Commentators have noted that the turnout in 2023 was higher in predominantly nationalist than unionist areas by as much as 10 percentage points in some places. Irish nationalism therefore won only 22 per cent of the electorate while many unionist voters stayed at home. During any referendum on a united Ireland it can hardly be expected that unionists will be so apathetic or demoralised, unless political circumstances make them so, unlikely to be a result of the vote itself.

In the 2022 Assembly elections, where the turnout was almost 63.6 per cent, the vote for the three Unionist parties was 40.1 per cent while the pro-Irish unity vote comparable to the most recent local elections was 40.7 per cent.  The recent local election results are not the first time the Unionist parties have fallen behind.

Twelve years ago in the 2011 Assembly elections, Unionism polled 47.65 per cent while Irish nationalism trailed behind at 42.81 per cent.  The decline in the Unionist vote over these years is therefore clear and it is this decline that has provided most of the impetus to claims that a nationalist referendum victory is a realistic prospect in the short to medium term.  The 2011 result however also reveals what the advance of Sinn Fein has hidden – that the nationalist share of the vote hasn’t increased:  42.81 per cent in 2011 and 41.5 per cent in 2023.

The missing piece of the jigsaw is the rise of the Alliance party: from 7.84 per cent in 2011 to  13.3 per cent in the recent local election.  The question then becomes the political nature of this party – unionist with a ‘small u’ or nationalist; or what it presents itself as – simply ‘other’.

So let’s start with the third alternative–that Alliance cannot be said to have a position on the national question.  Even if this were so the national question will face Alliance and its supporters with the choice sooner or later and ‘other’ will not be on the ballot paper.

Alliance is definitely not an Irish nationalist party, does not pretend to be or pretend to hide it, and while it has a significant Catholic support, this has consciously decided not to vote for Irish nationalism.  While it may be more likely than other Alliance supporters to vote for unity in a referendum, its existing vote is for the status quo and the status quo is continued British rule.

The party was originally set up as an openly unionist party that presented itself as non-sectarian; one that divorced its unionism from any religious identity.  It has moved from this to present itself as neither Unionist nor nationalist but with a soft, ‘small u’, unionist support that is repelled by the sectarianism of the Unionist mainstream, with many also rejecting Brexit.  In a referendum, all other things being equal, the majority of Alliance voters can be expected to support continued British rule, as will the party itself. 

The ’other things being equal’ is what will matter for many; the political circumstances will at some point be decisive.  These include the reality of what a united Ireland might offer and the configuration of the forces fighting for and against it.  This includes the approach of the British state and the extent of violent unionist opposition.  What the election results demonstrate is that this point is not yet near, whatever about Sinn Fein becoming the largest party and Irish nationalism garnering more votes than ‘big U’ Unionism.  This does not mean that nothing is really changing.

Unionism continues to decline.  Its support for Brexit and rejection of the deal negotiated by the British state with the EU indicates a political movement fighting against its own interests. These are still considered to include a sectarian supremacy that is no longer possible and opposition to economic forces that might make the Northern State more attractive, even while it strengthens the all-island character of potential economic prosperity.  No longer able to make its claims on the basis that it is the majority within the gerrymandered state, it simply declares its veto based on its own existence.  This existence has always been one of sectarian privilege.

The other significant change has been within Irish republicanism, which having ditched its armed struggle against British rule has found itself with no clothes it cannot discard.  From opposition to British imperialism it now stands foursquare behind the western imperialist  proxy war in Ukraine.  Its representatives have acclaimed its recent success as a result of its brilliant electoral campaign.  This put a united Ireland on the back-burner but purposively elevated its attendance at the British king’s coronation, ‘to show their respect’.

It seems not to occur to them that monarchy is the epitome of denial of democracy and deserves zero respect. When Celtic and Liverpool football fans demonstrate a higher level of awareness of very basic democratic and republican principles we can appreciate the level to which Sinn Fein has sunk (with all due respect to those fans).

If this seems a rather glib or flippant remark, we can recall the explanation by another Sinn Fein member who stated that its approach was anticipation of the mutually respectful attitude between an independent Ireland and Britain when it was united.  We are almost back to the original Arthur Griffith Sinn Fein that supported a Habsburg Empire-like dual monarchy.

What this illustrates is the relevance of the Marxist theory and programme of permanent revolution. This argues that the democratic tasks associated with the development of capitalism, such as national independence, should be part of a working class programme and struggle and that it was possible for this struggle to develop into one that went beyond purely democratic questions, and the limits acceptable to capitalism, to be a struggle for working class rule.

This does not mean that such struggles cannot be led by other classes, but that these could not be relied upon to advance the struggle in a thoroughly democratic way or for a consistent and comprehensive democratic outcome.  It matters who leads the struggle, because different classes will lead it to very different ends.

Marxists always defined Sinn Fein as a petty bourgeois organisation, which drew a reaction of complete incomprehension from republicans who were working class and living in solidly working class estates in Belfast, Derry or Dublin.  However, the movement’s political character was defined not mainly by its support considered in sociological terms, including its rural support or its ties to Irish American money, but by its politics.

This politics previously imagined a radically reconfigured capitalism, which the capitalist class opposed, while not seeking to overthrown the system itself, never mind forwarding real working class rule. The Irish capitalist class had no great interest in challenging British imperialism and the Irish working class has interests that go way beyond a united country that cannot provide for its needs.

As the possibility of a united Ireland is claimed to be approaching the democratic content to the struggle is more and more denuded of democratic content.  The obsequious kowtowing to British royalty does indeed show respect but not to democratic and republican principles.  The various scattered proposals to accommodate unionism in a united Ireland are also indicators of the inconsistent approach to a democratic outcome.

Many European countries have achieved unification after the defeat of the popular revolutions that sought to enact it in a more democratic way, such as Germany and Italy.  For socialists support for a united Ireland is a struggle to advance beyond a partitioned Ireland and not one that leaves every other component and trappings of the Irish and British capitalist states intact.

When measured against these tasks, the local government elections in 2023 are not even a minor tremble in the ground beneath the system that must be brought down.

Marx and Engels learn about revolution

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 53

As we noted in the previous post, since the ideas we now consider ‘Marxism’ did not spring whole and fully formed all at once from their progenitors, these ideas underwent a development from less to more adequate expressions of working class politics.  We have already noted and addressed the penchant of Marx to anticipate the next economic crisis and potential for revolution.  

Similarly, it is argued that Marx and Engels consistently anticipated the imminence of this revolution.  If this was indeed their position it would undermine the argument of the last number of posts which have set out the constraints that bind successful working class revolution.

It would undercut their revolutionary caution and might subvert their early argument with the Willich-Schapper faction in the Communist League, which claimed that revolutions were essentially acts of “will” and that the job of revolutionaries was to ‘make’ the revolution.

Given any inconsistency it would be incumbent to compare when and how over-optimistic revolutionary expectations were expressed and when and how more considered and formal analysis led to the arguments of the last number of posts.  Marx and Engels were once young, and regardless of age were always enthusiasts of revolution, optimism expressed privately is the blood of hope that runs through the veins of all such revolutionaries.

So, when Engels was 24, a newspaper in 1845 reported that at a meeting ‘Mr Engels delivered a speech in which he proved (from the fact, that not a word was offered in reply), that the present state of Germany was such as could not but produce in a very short time a social revolution; that this imminent revolution was not to be averted by any possible measures for promoting commerce and manufacturing industry; to prevent such a revolution — a revolution more terrible than any of the mere subversions of past history — was the introduction of, and the preparation for, the Community system.’

Two years later he was writing that the coming revolution would be bourgeois and this class would have to come to power first before it would become the turn of the working class:

‘Not until only one class—the bourgeoisie—is seen to exploit and oppress, until penury and misery can no longer be blamed now on this estate, now on that, or simply on the absolute monarchy and its bureaucrats—only then will the last decisive battle break out, the battle between the propertied and the propertyless, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.’ 

‘Only then will the field of battle have been swept clean of all unnecessary barriers, of all that is misleading and accessory; the position of the two hostile armies will be clear and visible at a glance.’

‘With the rule of the bourgeoisie, the workers, compelled by circumstances, will also make the infinitely important advance that they will no longer come forward as individuals, as at the most a couple of hundreds or thousands, in rebellion against the established order, but all together, as one class, with its specific interests and principles, with a common plan and united strength, they will launch their attack on the last and the worst of their mortal enemies, the bourgeoisie. ‘

‘There can be no doubt as to the outcome of this battle. The bourgeoisie will and must fall to the ground before the proletariat, just as the aristocracy and the absolute monarchy have received their coup de grâce from the middle class.’

‘With the bourgeoisie, private property will at the same time be overthrown, and the victory of the working class will put an end to all class or caste rule for ever.’ (Engels, Collected Works Volume 6, p94–5) 

To believe that in underdeveloped Germany, its mainly small artisanal working class could carry out a social revolution that could ‘end class rule for ever’ would contradict the basic postulates of Marx and Engels historical analysis and their later lifetimes’ revolutionary activity.  Through both of these they learned about the validity of their view that it was necessary to fight with the bourgeoisie against the remnants of feudalism, and about how far the latter were actually prepared to struggle and not turn away from it or ally with fellow exploiting classes:

‘The workers know that the abolition of bourgeois property relations is not brought about by preserving those of feudalism. They know that the revolutionary movement of the bourgeoisie against the feudal estates and the absolute monarchy can only accelerate their own revolutionary movement. They know that their own struggle against the bourgeoisie can only dawn with the day when the bourgeoisie is victorious.’

‘Despite all this they do not share Herr Heinzen’s bourgeois illusions. They can and must accept the bourgeois revolutions a precondition for the workers’ revolution. However, they cannot for a moment regard it as their ultimate goal.’ (Collected Works Volume 6, p332–3)

The relationship between this struggle against feudalism and the bourgeois revolution on the one hand, and working class revolution on the other, is also a subject of much later debate and shall be taken up in greater depth later. In less developed countries it revolves around the idea of permanent revolution, made more famous by Leon Trotsky, but a term also employed by Marx on a number of occasions.  

Hal Draper states that a continued, uninterrupted revolution (the meaning of permanent in this case) was ‘a very widespread, though by no means unanimous view among the radicals of the time.’ (Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Vol II, p 201)

Marx and Engels went through a number of versions of what the transition from bourgeois to workers revolution would look like, learning from the experience of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, and summed up these lessons following the revolutions’ defeat.

Marx had, for example, hoped (at the end of 1848) that sections of the bourgeoisie would join with the Democracy in fighting for a Social Republic, an open-ended agitational slogan ‘referring to a government that takes a socialistic direction.’ (KMTR Vol II p234).  Instead, they learned that even in what was to be a bourgeois revolution, this bourgeoisie did not ally with the Democracy (peasants, urban petty bourgeoisie and working classes) but with ‘the trinity of Crown-aristocracy-bureaucracy’. (KMTR Vol II, 225).

The Communist Manifesto had stated that:

‘The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilisation and with a much more developed proletariat than that of England was in the seventeenth, and France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.’

Following defeat of the 1848 revolutions, especially in France and Germany, Marx drew some important and lasting lessons about the importance of England, as the most advanced country, to future revolutions:

‘A transformation of the relations of political economy in every land of the European continent, on the whole of the European continent, is a tempest in a teapot without England. . . . But every social upheaval in France is necessarily wrecked on the rock of the English bourgeoisies, of the industrial and commercial world domination by Great Britain.  Every partial social reform in France, and on the European continent in general, is and remains an empty pious wish insofar as it aspires to end there [without involving England].  (quoted in KMTR Vol II pp243–4)

The permanence of the revolution would allow the ‘tendency we represented [ to] enter the struggle for the attainment of our real party aims’; the party never imagined itself capable of producing at any time and at its pleasure, that revolution which was to carry its ideas into practice . . .’

This would become possible because ‘only through the increase in power of the bourgeoisie does the proletariat gradually get to the point of becoming the majority . . .’  ‘Only its rule [the rule of the bourgeoisie] tears up the material roots of feudal society and levels the ground on which alone a proletarian revolution is possible.’  In ‘countries where the aristocracy’ must be ‘driven from power’ there was lacking ‘the first premise of a proletarian revolution, namely, an industrial proletariat on a national scale.’ 

(KMTR Vol II p 249, 208, 280 and 284)

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