Questions of History

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 75 - February 1988

David Reed reviews Questions of History by Irish Republican Prisoners of War

The defeat of the hunger strike in 1981 was a severe setback for the Republican Movement. While initially, in the wake of the heroic sacrifice of the prisoners, certain political gains were made especially on the electoral front, the last few years have not seen any significant political advances by the revolutionary forces in Ireland.

The greater emphasis on electoral work and the decision to reject abstentionism in elections to the Dail has not led to the gains clearly expected. The work around 'economic and social' issues has not yet produced any substantial results. The revolutionary forces in Ireland have been unable to halt the growing collaboration between British imperialism and the puppet governments in the Twenty Six Counties. Finally, on the military level, the stalemate which has existed for some time between the IRA and the British and loyalist security forces remains.

Inevitably in such a period every revolutionary movement is forced to reassess and rethink its strategy if the impasse is to be broken. The Republican Movement is no exception. It is in this context that we should welcome Questions of History written by Irish Republican Prisoners of War and produced by the Education Department of Sinn Fein 'for the purpose of promoting political discussion'. Part I has so far been made available and covers the period from Wolfe Tone to the Republican Congress (1934).

The book is a valuable historical document which uses the history of the Republican struggle as a vehicle for raising crucial political questions. It asks: whether an ideology based on nationalism alone without a strong social content is sufficient to win the masses over to the struggle? Which class must lead the struggle for national liberation? Can a guerilla army like the IRA expect to win popular support for a social programme if it has no organised political party actively involving itself in the daily struggle of the oppressed? In a revolutionary movement should the army control the party or the party control the army? Is there a need for a vanguard party comprising 'scientifically trained socialist revolutionaries' to ensure that the nationalist working class has the capacity to complete the national struggle? In a situation of dire poverty badly affecting the unionist working class, could the working class in the north become united for long enough to perceive British imperialism as the ultimate enemy of their real interests?

All these questions arise out of their very challenging examination of the history of the Republican struggle. However no answers are given for the aim of this study is to provoke real thought and discussion in the Republican Movement. What, for us, is very significant about their approach is the acknowledgement of the centrality and relevance of the communist standpoint to the history of their struggle. Marx, Engels, Connolly, Lenin, are all discussed and their views on the Irish struggle have played a crucial role in formulating many of the questions. Very heartening also is the considered use of the arguments in Ireland: the key to the British Revolution in assessing their history.

While questions are only posed and not answered, the Irish Republican POWs are quite clearly trying to direct their movement's thinking along a certain path. For them nationalism alone, separate from a social programme, is not going to win the allegiance of the masses (p82). Fintan Lalor's standpoint, for example, in the Young Ireland Movement (1848) is seen as 'much more in keeping with the radical republican tradition'. Lalor saw the land question at the root of the national question (p 31). Marx's analysis of the Irish national struggle at the time of the Fenian movement 'went to the roots of the problem' and Marx 'saw, as Lalor had, the connection between the national and social struggle' (p45)*. Marx primarily, and later Lalor, were influential in forming the views of James Connolly. Connolly argued that national freedom would be useless unless accompanied by social change. His significance in the evolution of the revolutionary struggle 'cannot be emphasised enough' (pp59-60).

Which class leads the national revolution will determine how far the struggle develops. The failure of the United Irishmen (1798) is seen in terms of the lack of a unity between different classes and creeds which made up the movement. 'Protestants who had courted the United Irish movement clung to the British connection once their own property was threatened'. Presbyterian artisans found it impossible in practice to have a common interest with Catholics. And Catholics themselves were divided between rich and poor (p19). Daniel O'Connell used the discontent of the Irish peasantry to win political power for middle-class Catholics (1829). It did not free the peasantry but rather it gained middle-class Catholics the right to sit in parliament' (p26). The Home Rule movement (1870-1912) while under Parnell's leadership was prepared to use the Land League (1870) and the 'social warfare' of the peasantry against the Landlords to achieve its aim. However, it was not concerned with social revolution in Ireland but rather 'legislative independence to enable middle-class Catholics to prosper'. The Home Rule movement eventually fragmented (pp54-7).

Connolly understood that only the working class could be entrusted with the task of leading and carrying through the national revolution as a precondition for its own emancipation. While he participated in the Easter Rising (1916) he was 'suspicious of the bourgeois forces he was aligned with' (p65). To ensure that the interests of the working class and peasantry would be defended he told the Irish Citizen's Army shortly before the rising, 'In the event of a victory hold onto your rifles as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty' (p65). Nevertheless, Connolly felt it correct to align the working class with the 'most progressive section of the national bourgeoisie' as part of the process of achieving national freedom and social revolution.

The Irish POWs suggest that it could have been the loss of the revolutionary leadership of 1916, particularly Connolly and Pearse, which allowed the conservative republicanism of Griffith and de Valera to dominate the next stage of the struggle until the signing of the Treaty in 1921. In the period of the First Dail (1919/21) they point to many occasions when the IRA took the side of the landlords against the peasantry and rural workers in the land arbitration courts (p81). The Irish working class had also lost its revolutionary leadership with the murder of Connolly in 1916 and Larkin's departure to America in 1914. The new opportunist leadership of O'Brien and Johnson with-drew the working class movement from the Irish national struggle concentrating mainly on economic issues. Questions of History asks whether this also contributed to the 'future conservative nature of much republican thought' (p76). This is the context in which the question of the need for a revolutionary vanguard party of the working class is being raised (pp68, 77, 97).

The Irish POWs are examining their history to confront some of the important political questions facing their movement today. After discussing Connolly's decision to participate in the Easter Rising and ally himself with the most progressive section of the national bourgeoisie' they ask would this approach apply to the SDLP or Fianna Fail (p66). Surely the answer is no. First, is it not the case that Connolly allied the Irish working class to the revolutionary wing of the national movement, more exactly the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie and urban intelligentsia and not the national bourgeoisie as such? Had not the latter firmly tied its interests to British imperialism after the Dublin lockout and at the beginning of the First Imperialist War? And second, is it not the case that the last 18 years have conclusively demonstrated that the SDLP and Fianna Fail represent bourgeois and petty bourgeois class forces in Ireland which see their interests firmly tied to those of British imperialism?

One issue has not been directly raised so far by Questions of History. While it acknowledges the main theme of Ireland: the key to the British revolution - unless the British working class makes common cause with the Irish people's struggle for freedom it will undermine its own struggle for socialism - it does not assess the importance for their struggle of a working class solidarity movement in Britain. This is surely a crucial question as the Dublin lockout, the war of independence and the Civil War demonstrated. Should the Irish liberation movement therefore take steps to build links with the most progressive/ revolutionary sections of the British working class movement in the interests of furthering its own struggle?

Finally, some comments on the Republican Congress (1934) and, in particular, the statement raised in relation to this in Ireland: the key to the British revolution: `David Reed in analysing this period has stated: "It is quite wrong to see the dispute between the Republican Congress and the IRA as one between socialists and militarists" (p154). This was directed at the British movement as the next sentence of Ireland: the key to the British revolution shows:

'Those who attempt to use the Republican Congress to justify their own attack on the IRA, slander both the Congress and the IRA.' (IKBR p95)

and was a pointer to the events of 1965 when all of the British left, immediately after the split in the Republican Movement, took the side of the Officials against the Provisionals on the grounds that the former were socialists and the latter apolitical militarists. The point made by Questions of History, 'If the IRA leadership was revolutionary why did it refuse to commit itself to a Connolly-style Republic?', is very telling (p155). However our intention in this context was to make the point that people who call themselves socialists often turn out to be opportunists, playing a treacherous role in future struggles. And those in Ireland who concentrate, if one-sidedly, on the military struggle to defeat British imperialism can, in some circumstances, keep a revolutionary tradition alive. This is what we believe happened. Something which needed to be pointed out to a British movement which has a very backward position on the national question.

There are many more vital points to raise and discuss in Questions of History. Every socialist must study it and they will learn valuable lessons for the future. In particular they will learn how to critically examine and assess their own history in relation to Ireland. Part 2 is eagerly awaited.


*Questions of History is wrong to say the International Working Mens Association would not endorse Marx's proposals in regard to Ireland' (p.45). It did with very minor amendments despite opposition from English trade union leaders on 30 November 1869 (see Documents of the First International vol. III 1868-1870 pp. I 91-5). The same was true in November 1867 concerning the Manchester Martyrs (vol. II pp.179-180).

All page references, unless otherwise stated, refer to Questions of History.


Timeless abstractions

Two reviews of Questions of History have appeared so far in British left newspapers. Both The Leninist and Workers Press manage only to use the review as yet another occasion to repeat their own well learned prejudices.

The Leninist (December 1987) (caught up in the entrails of the very reactionary British Communist Party) tell us that the authors are 'unable to assess their own standpoint objectively, accepting the fundamental premise of the republican movement'. What the Irish POWs have been unable to recognise is that 'Irish Republicanism since its inception with Tone until today' is 'essentially' composed of 'petty bourgeois revolutionaries'. A timeless history followed by a timeless criticism. The Leninist answer to this timeless problem: 'confrontation with petty bourgeois utopias peddled by such as Adams' and building a revolutionary vanguard party.

Workers Press' review runs over three issues of their paper and is a more lengthy examination along the same lines. Their main concern is to defend Trotsky's historically incorrect position on the Russian revolution and Easter Rising, and take a side-swipe at David Reed who, here we go, 'opens the door for a "stages" theory that rigidly separates national unification from the struggle for socialism as a whole'. (At least they have the basic integrity, unlike The Leninist, not to cut short quotes in Questions of History at the point where they discuss arguments in Ireland: the key to the British Revolution.)

Their conclusion: the Republican Movement's programme is the 'programme of Irish nationalism and reformism - not of revolutionary socialism'. Yet another timeless prejudice that fails to draw the fundamental distinction between revolutionary nationalism and reactionary nationalism. Their timeless solution: a revolutionary vanguard party of the working class.

The Irish POWs are seeking concrete answers to the very concrete problem of completing their national revolution in Ireland. Hence the detailed analysis of their own history. Our very 'erudite' British revolutionaries ignore that concrete historical analysis and offer timeless abstractions for what are essentially their own abstract problems. Our suggestion is first that they examine their own history in relation to Ireland, and explain why the British working class has never made common cause with the Irish since the days of the Chartist movement. Second, they should tell us why, with all their superior knowledge of revolutionary strategy, they have never been able to have any practical influence on this very concrete British political reality.