1960s >> 1969 >> no-775-march-1969

Editorial: Ireland: A Question of Theory

A correct theory is necessary for consistently correct action as the attitude of various groups towards the current situation in Northern Ireland well shows. In this case the incorrect theory is Lenin’s Imperialism, accepted uncritically by the student Left.

Lenin argued that the world could be divided into imperialist countries and their colonies. The former exploited the latter and used part of the plunder to bribe their own workers into backing them. Thus was created an aristocracy of labour which was the social basis for reformism. Lenin argued from this that one good way to disrupt the social peace in the imperialist countries and win their workers over to the policy of the Communists was to encourage their colonies to revolt. Deprived of the “super-profits” of imperialist exploitation the finance capitalists would no longer be able to bribe their workers to reject revolution. Losing its colonies, Lenin argued, would create a “revolutionary situation” in an imperialist country.

It was thus very important for Communists how a particular country was classified: imperialist or colony? The Communist Third International from the start said Ireland was a colony. This is why the Communist Party of Great Britain set up on 1920 has always had responsibility for Britain alone. (The claim of some Scottish Communists at the time that Scotland was also a “colony” was somewhat illogically never accepted, but today it is being revived by the Maoists).

In a colony the parties the Communists were urged to support, or oppose if the Party line changed, were the “national-reformists”, in Ireland republicans like De Valera. Thus Communists there gave critical support to the republicans, including their demand for an end to partition while in Britain they called for a United Ireland and the withdrawal of British troops from North-East Ulster.

Journals like Black Dwarf and Socialist Worker, which have influence in some student circles, regard themselves as the standard bearers of a tradition which the Communist Party has betrayed. So as soon as the Northern Ireland situation blew up they revived hoary old slogans like “an Irish Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic” and “Self-Determination for the People of Ireland”.
As Socialist Worker (18 January) put it :

International Socialism gives unconditional, though not uncritical, support to the civil rights movement and to the Irish national movement generally. At the same time we are firmly convinced of the need for Irish socialists to fight for a socialist workers’ republic of Ireland. Far from repudiating this slogan, we believe that it offers the only perspective for uniting Irish workers North and South. We believe British socialists must emphasise the need to free Ireland from British imperialism.

Thus Lenin’s theory (even though this group is supposed to regard it as outdated!) leads them to support Irish nationalism and so deny that the workers have no country. “Self-Determination” is a delusion, a slogan used by privileged groups to get those they exploit to fight their battles for them, and to talk in terms of “the people” of Ireland is to abandon the class struggle by suggesting that capitalists and workers (“the people”) should unite to set up an independent Republic.

Irish nationalism was the ideology under which the petty capitalists of the south of Ireland sought to win the freedom to gather profits with their own government (“the Irish Republic”) to protect them from the competition of the stronger British capitalists. The bigger Irish capitalists in the North who opposed breaking with Britain stirred up religious sectarianism in order to get workers to oppose the republicans.

In this situation, the task of socialists could only be to raise the banner of World Socialism denouncing both British and Irish nationalism, both Unionism and Republicanism, both Protestantism and Catholicism. This has always been the policy of the World Socialist Party of Ireland and the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

The “tactic” of supporting “the Irish national movement” derives from the theory of Imperialism. However, in time what is originally supported as a tactic (and may still be defended as such) tends to become an end in itself. In other words, the tacticians really become Irish nationalists relegating Socialism to the distant future.

Lenin’s theory was, and is, wrong. Its irrelevance in the present situation can be grasped by asking two simple questions. Do workers in Britain support capitalism because they share in the proceeds of the “imperialist exploitation” of Northern Ireland? /Would the separation of Northern Ireland from Britain spark off an armed uprising here? The answers are obvious but the tactic of supporting Irish nationalism is supposed to be based on the absurd assumption that the answer to both is “yes”. We find it hard to accept that anyone believes this and so prefer the alternative explanation that those who support Irish nationalism are really what they appear to be: confused supporters of Irish nationalism.