Ireland: imperialism and national revolution / FRFI 187 Oct / Nov 2005

FRFI 187 October / November 2005

How the Trotskyists got it wrong

Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution
by Alan Woods,
Wellred Books,
May 2005,
135 pages, £6.99

Why review a book on Irish republicanism written by a long-standing member of the bloody, racist, imperialist British Labour Party? Because socialists needs to understand the significance of the revolutionary national class struggle against imperialism and for socialism, particularly with developments in Latin America. Woods’ analysis of Irish republicanism totally fails in this respect. Indeed, his book is an example of a trend which Lenin called imperialist economism, and which today expresses the interests of a narrow section of the working class – the labour aristocracy.

Woods says that ‘the only way to solve what remains (sic) of Ireland’s national problem is as a by-product of the revolutionary struggle for socialism.’(p127) He continues: ‘There can be no reunification of Ireland while the working class remains divided along sectarian lines’ (ibid). He concludes that ‘It is time to put an end to the sectarian divisions that have bedevilled the working class of the North of Ireland for so long’ (p129). This will be achieved by fighting ‘on issues that unite working people, not those that divide us’ (p130). But these fine words are really no more than idealist drivel which in the end capitulates to imperialism.

Lenin and imperialist economism
Lenin had to deal with a number of trends during the First Imperialist War to re-establish the principled position on the struggle for national self-determination, amongst them the imperialist economists. Lenin described ‘the same economist refusal to see and pose political questions’, continuing ‘Since socialism creates the economic basis for the abolition of national oppression in the political sphere, therefore our author refuses to formulate our political tasks in this sphere (Lenin, Collected Works Vol 23 p 16). In particular, imperialist economists disagreed with the right of oppressed nations to self-determination because, they argued, it would mean capitulating to the nationalist bourgeoisie. This is exactly Woods’ argument. He is of course against national oppression. But he does not translate this into any concrete political tasks. Instead he says, in relation to partition:

‘The border is of course an abomination that must be removed. It is not, however, the task of socialists to erect new frontiers. Our aim is altogether different: our aim is to abolish all frontiers, not just the one that separates the South from the North. We stand for a socialist revolution in the North and South of Ireland, and a socialist revolution in Britain and the rest of Europe.’ (Woods p132)

What follows from this? Frontiers, including the one that separates North and South, can only be abolished by socialist revolution. Therefore the issue of frontiers (ie self-determination) should not be posed as a concrete question today because it cannot be resolved under capitalism. Hence his utterly one-sided view that ‘The whole history of the national liberation struggle in the 20th century shows...that the achievement of formal independence on a capitalist basis has solved nothing’ (p131).

Woods never differentiates between the tasks facing the working class of oppressor and oppressed nations. He rejects Lenin’s clear exposition of the two-fold character of the struggle of the working class against national oppression:

‘(a) first, it is the “action” of the nationally oppressed proletariat and peasantry jointly with the nationally oppressed bourgeoisie against the oppressor nation; (b) second, it is the “action” of the proletariat, or of its class-conscious section, in the oppressor nation against the bourgeoisie of that nation and all the elements that follow it’. (Lenin: ‘A caricature of Marxism and imperialist economism’, Collected Works Vol 23 p62)

Lenin’s position was clear: socialists in imperialist nations must support the right of oppressed nations to self-determination down to an uprising or war. Does Woods agree with this? You cannot find out from his book.

Lenin argued that imperialist economism had both a left and a right face. Woods presents the right face: for him anyone who engages in struggles for national independence is by definition subordinating the interests of the working class to those of the national bourgeoisie. Hence they must be opposed and condemned. In the case of Ireland, this means attacking the IRA. Woods justifies his position by distorting Marx, Engels, Lenin and Connolly.

Marx and Engels
Woods provides a very selective account of Marx and Engels’ position on the struggle of the Fenians in the 1860s, one which depends almost entirely on their private assessment of Fenian tactics (p34). He does not mention their intensive public campaigning in support of Fenian prisoners, nor their challenge to English working class leaders in the First International. Marx and Engels were indeed at times very scathing about the Fenians – but only in their private correspondence. In public they fought Woods’ equivalents in the ranks of the English trade union movement. Their supporter Dupont argued in the International against those he called ‘English would-be liberators’ who argued that ‘Fenianism is not altogether wrong’ but asked why they did not employ ‘legal means of meetings and demonstrations.’ He continued:

‘What is the use of talking of legal means to a people reduced to the lowest state of misery from century to century by English oppression...Is it well for the English to talk of legality and justice to those who on the slightest suspicion of Fenianism are arrested and incarcerated, and subjected to physical and mental tortures?...The English working men who blame the Fenians commit more than a fault, for the case of both peoples is the same; they have the same enemy to defeat.’ (Marx and Engels on Ireland p486-7)

Lenin, Connolly and Trotsky
Although Woods seeks justification for his position in Lenin and Connolly, as an imperialist economist he feels much more at home with Trotsky’s generalisations. Lenin, however, never adopted Trotsky’s perspective; to think that he did would be to ignore his contribution to the debate on self-determination at the Second Congress of the Third International where he pointed to the vital importance of supporting the revolutionary nationalist struggle against imperialism.

There is a simple test of Trotsky’s and Lenin’s respective positions: their responses to the 1916 Easter Uprising. Trotsky wrote that:

‘An all-Ireland movement such as the nationalist daydreamers had expected failed to materialise...The basis for national revolution has disappeared even in backward Ireland... The experiment of an Irish national over. But the historical role of the Irish proletariat is only beginning. Already it has brought into the revolt, even though under an archaic flag, its class indignation against militarism and imperialism.’

Lenin replied:

‘To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without the revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy against national oppression etc – to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution!’ (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol 22 pp355-56)

Nor was Connolly a Trotskyist. He could not have made himself plainer when he asked a few weeks before the Rising: ‘Is it not well and fitting that we of the working class should fight for the freedom of the nation from foreign rule, as the first requisite for the free development of the national powers needed for our class? It is so fitting’ (cited in Reed, Ireland: The key to the British Revolution p25). You would not know this from reading Woods.

The split in the working class
Woods constantly seeks to minimise the significance of the split in the working class in the occupied Six Counties. Every time he is forced to concede that discrimination against Catholic workers in the North exists, Woods tries to belittle its significance by saying that conditions for Protestants are also bad (eg p70, pp80-81). But that is not what is at issue. The split in the working class is not merely ideological, as he tries to suggest, but has a material basis in British imperialist domination, and Connolly understood its significance when he observed that:

‘...the Orange working class are slaves in spirit because they have been reared up amongst people whose conditions of servitude were more slavish than their own. In Catholic Ireland the working class are rebels in spirit and democratic in feeling because for hundreds of years they have found no class as lowly paid or as hardly treated as themselves.’

He concluded that:
‘...the doctrine that because the workers of Belfast live under the same industrial conditions as do those of Great Britain, they are therefore subject to the same passions and to be influenced by the same methods of propaganda, is a doctrine almost screamingly funny in its absurdity’

Yet it is this doctrine Woods wants the Irish movement to pursue: ‘A programme based on issues that can unite the class: jobs, wages, conditions, housing, women’s rights – only the struggle for this can succeed where all else has failed’ (Woods, p126). Connolly may not have used the term ‘imperialist economism’, but this is what he was dealing with – the Woods of his day.

1969 and the introduction of British troops
On this subject, Woods just lies. He states that the Marxists in the Labour Party ‘came down firmly against the sending of the troops to the North. They wrote at the time: “The call made for the entry of British troops will turn to vinegar in the mouths of some of the civil rights leaders. The troops have been sent in to impose a solution in the interests of British and Ulster big business” ’ (p110). But he omits to mention that the self-same article in Militant of September 1969 also says:

‘A slaughter would have followed in comparison with which the blood-letting in Belfast would have paled into insignificance if the Labour Government had not intervened with British troops.’ (cited in Reed p177)

So the ‘Marxists’ were not against the introduction of troops at all! Indeed, ten years later, they were describing those who called for the withdrawal of British troops as ‘attorneys for the Provos’ (Bulletin, November/December 1979). Needless to say, Woods makes no reference to this either.

Out of countless examples of Woods’ capitulation to imperialism, we will take just one. His account of the struggle of the 1970s against the criminalisation of Republican prisoners ignores the crucial role of the 1974-79 Labour government in establishing a regime of institutionalised torture and repression. Although he now seems to endorse the struggle led by the Relatives Action Committees (RACs) in support of the prisoners it was a quite different story at the time.

In October 1979, Militant Irish Monthly issued a virulent condemnation of the Mountbatten and Warrenpoint bombings entitled ‘Mass action not individual terror’, saying that: ‘Above all these events have, very temporarily, stunned the rising movement of the working class just at a time when the attention of all workers needs to be focused on opposition to the policies of the Tory government.’

The article is silent on the prisoners’ struggle let alone the role of the RACs.

Woods’ arguments express the interests of a privileged section of the working class, the labour aristocracy. His defence of the Labour Party, his opposition to armed resistance to the British occupation, his re-writing of the shameful history of his organisation, his misuse of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Connolly all have a purpose: to keep opposition to British imperialism within the confines of bourgeois respectability. Together they amount to a deeply reactionary standpoint.
Robert Clough