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Rethinking the Republic

19 July 2011

Editor’s introduction:

In May this year Anthony Coughlan published an extraordinary 18- page review of a new book 
By  Matt Treacy, "The IRA 1956-69: Rethinking the Republic", MUP, 2011.

The review was not based on opposition to the book as a whole. It was reject any suggestion that he had been a member of the communist party but, more importantly, to reject a “conspiracy theory” that saw himself and others as planning to recruit the IRA to communism.

“that there was a chain of command, lubricated by money, from the Moscow Kremlin to the London King Street Headquarters of the Communist Party of Great Britain(CPGB), of which the Labour historian the late C.Desmond Greaves was a member from the 1930s to the 1980s, and thence to Dr Roy Johnston and the present writer. The supposed purpose of this linkage was to convert the 1960s Republican Movement to “socialism” or “Marxism” and establish a “national liberation front” between the Republicans and the Irish Communists, the latter being represented at the time by the Communist Party of Northern Ireland (CPNI) and by the Irish Workers League, later the Irish Workers Party, in the Republic. “

The review makes some astonishing statements;

“The persons mentioned did not act in unison. As independent individuals acting on their own behalf they welcomed the moves by the IRA and Sinn Fein leadership to “go political” and move away from militarism in the 1960s, as people all over Ireland did at the time, but they had no desire whatever to see the Republican Movement take up “socialism” or Marxism. In so far as they shared a common view of the Republican Movement they wanted the IRA and Sinn Fein to stick to Republicanism, but a political Republicanism, and to stick to civil rights in Northern Ireland when the campaign for these developed there post-1967”.

This is a strange position. These people clearly saw themselves as socialists. Why did they not want republican radicals to become socialists? How did they see socialism becoming a majority current without other radicals converting? If the republican movement itself could not be converted to socialism surely the task was to supplant it rather than help it grow?

An even stranger view is expressed about the evolution of the Official republican movement:
“Roy Johnston had resigned from the Republican Movement and Eoghan Harris became political guru to the Officials in his stead. Harris developed a unique ideological mishmash of his own, which he termed “class politics”……, the Officials or “Stickies” jettisoned Republicanism altogether. They embarked on the course which led them eventually to adopt quasi-Unionist and anti-national policy positions.”

Here we get to the nub of the apologia. The many years of influence that this group clearly had evaporated overnight and were immediately replaced by Eoghan Harris who was responsible for the collapse to the right.

This won’t wash.  The policies that Coughlan and company spent years foisting on the Officials were the policies that led to their collapse to the right.  

And behind this is another  responsibility. The “Democratic stage” that they urged upon republicanism in relation to the North is what we have now.  Well can Coughlan and his ilk hold their nose at the sectarian stench coming from there.  They did everything in their power to bring it about.

Below D.R.O’Connor Lysaght takes a closer look at the stages theory that illuminates more clearly the motivations of Anthony Coughlan and the layer of Dublin intelligencia that he represented.

Coughlan, Greaves and the stages myth

by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght.

Some weeks ago, this writer received a copy of an Indymedia Ireland review article by the distinguished sociologist and anti-EU campaigner, Tony Coughlan. The reviewer’s chief aim seems to be to refute the charge that he was ever a member of a Communist Party. In this matter, he has been successful. Matt Treacy’s The IRA 1956-69, the book reviewed was withdrawn from retail sales and public reviews until Coughlan’s non-membership has been noted within it. However the eighteen pages of his review include analyses and statements that themselves require correction. 

It should be stated from the outset that this article does not seek to challenge Coughlan’s assertion that he was not a member of any Communist Party in or out of these islands. The writer is in no position to do so and is happy to accept Coughlan’s word for it. On the other hand, Coughlan himself makes clear that he was one of a milieu loosely identified with the Connolly Association that worked within guidelines set for the majority of the world Communist movement by an overall strategic perspective set in stone by Joseph Stalin.

Coughlan summarises this quite succinctly (P.8)

‘In colonial countries and countries like Ireland with legacy national problems, it is only commonsense and in accordance with historical experience that an independent state needs to be established first before that state can implement the economic and political changes which constitute socialism, however defined. Those who deny the validity of the so-called ‘stages theory’ show themselves ignorant of the most basic principles of politics. They fly in the face of the historical experience of all countries that do not have, but seek to establish, their national independence. It is obvious that historical development goes in stages. To dignify this truism with the title of a ‘theory’ is really pretentious.’

To unravel the argument of the last paragraph it is necessary to begin at the end. It is possible to agree wholeheartedly with the last sentence of the quotation; it is far better to term the idea of revolutionary stages as a myth. It is justified, partially, by the assumption from which it is obvious that Coughlan proceeds: that a socialist society can be and has been achieved within the borders of a single country. If this is so, it is easier to believe that ‘an independent state [class nature apparently irrelevant] needs to be established before that state can implement the economic and political changes which constitute socialism.’  Proletarian revolution is unnecessary: perhaps, even, national bourgeois revolution if there are other means to founding the independent nation-state. Such a state is in itself capable of implementing ‘the economic and political changes which constitute socialism.’ What these changes are Coughlan does not elaborate, rather he allows them to be ‘however defined’. Presumably, he excludes from the possible definitions ‘National Socialism’ (Naziism) on the one hand and, on the other, far less justifiably, Anarchy and Syndicalism. If this is so, he bases his argument on two models: that of the west European welfare state and that of the workers’ states of Eastern Europe and arising from parts of the semi-colonial world. Both models enjoy, in various degrees, a large-scale state ownership of basic industries and comprehensive welfare provision. Yet neither model has shown itself able to build the ‘actually achieved socialism’ which the workers’ states ascribed to themselves. In the first case, the states themselves are dismantling the economic and political changes that they erected at the bidding of the super-state imperialist institutions that call the tune, having paid the piper. The workers’ states have suffered and often fallen in a manner objectively similar. However, as, unlike the welfare states, they recognised the need to protect themselves from the world commodity market, they imposed on themselves centralised brutally regimented societies which stifled new technological initiatives at a time when such initiatives were essential for surpassing those of world capitalism, and left them more immediately vulnerable to that capitalism than the honestly capitalist welfare states. As will be shown, both these experiences contain lessons for Ireland, but, before narrowing the perspective of this essay, it should be remarked, too, that few countries trying to establish ‘independent states’ have been serious in implementing socialistic ‘economic and political changes’.

How processes of human development divide into stages can be formulated with hindsight. The problem comes in the here-and-now. Since Stalin, the vast majority of self-proclaimed Communists and their allies have tended to adhere to the stage of democratic/national revolution as a straitjacket preventing them from doing what was necessary to establish independent states not only to ‘implement the economic and political changes which constitute socialism, however defined’ (though such changes must be implemented), but as bases for the spread of the world revolution that is the only way to achieve that desirable end. For the most part, they have been all too ready to wage their national revolutions on bourgeois programmes to be enforced against their own followers, strengthening the power of those who are determined to ensure that the newly independent state will not move toward socialism internally or externally. The exceptions are where the national revolutions have been headed by authoritarian working class parties, establishing states very different from the traditional bourgeois model when their vulnerability to world commodity economy requires an international challenge that they are inhibited from presenting by their expectation of a socialist society in their (own) single country and by their trust in bourgeois revolution outside it.

These weaknesses are to be seen in the strategy for Ireland that Coughlan defends. Admittedly, there are some things in it that could be made clearer. There is no doubt, it was obvious at the time that, as he says, the aim was not to make the Republican Movement socialist (an obviously impossible task, anyway) but to cause it to adopt a perspective of struggle more politically developed than simple physical force. But what was to be the said movement’s position in this struggle? It was the largest of the organisations committed. Its base among what Coughlan refuses for some reason to term the petty-bourgeoisie was in the largest Irish social grouping until the 1960s and tended to hegemonise the people more genuinely of no property. (As C S Andrews has noted in his autobiographical volume, Dublin Made Me, the term ‘men of no property’ covers only real estate, allowing bosses and employees to claim its cover.) Presumably, then, the Republicans were to provide the leading body in the alliance. Whether the course of the struggle was expected to bring the official Communist Parties to the fore is not made clear. There must have been those in its ranks who knew that the full Irish self-determination demanded would be achieved only under socialist leadership. Whether the non-member, Coughlan, saw this he does not say.

What is certain is that, as he presents it, there were real problems in the stated approach to the Republicans. In the first place, by the sixties, it was no longer possible for their movement to claim its base was in Ireland’s largest social grouping; industrialisation followed by slump had depopulated Ireland’s people of small property and weakened their influence over the fully unpropertied. More important were the longer term contradictions in the ideology of Republicanism itself. To politicise Republicans was and is a valuable task; come the revolution, there will be many of them correctly politicised among the socialists. On the other hand to politicise the Republican Movement means making it constitutional; the movement has too much baggage to be moulded for revolutionary politics. Coughlan remarks accurately (PP.5-6) how physical force served as the revolutionary glue keeping its base together. There was more to it than that. Physical force is a revolutionary threat to the ruling state but it threatens as the coercive expression of the Republic Virtually Established central to its claim for allegiance. Abandoning this strategy, as in the nineties, to exercise its right to wage war by other means, leaves the said Virtually Established Republic naked in the council chamber. In theory this should not handicap it from seeking to mobilise its citizens; in practice, such a call threatens to expose the fact of its actual lack of allegiance. The elitism of the gun and the council chamber, of the revolver and the ballot box is always more attractive. Though the ballot box is seen initially as a limited tactical concession, when the gun is abandoned, it becomes more than that. Compromise with the imperial enemy becomes inevitable.

So it was that when Cathal Goulding tried to politicise the Republican Movement, with the aid of Coughlan and the Wolfe Tone Society, he was placing it on a path that would lead to reformism. 

How far this was realised by anyone involved is another of the uncertainties left by Coughlan’s document. However, it should be recognised that ‘the face of the historical experience of’ Ireland provided clues for them. Attempts to politicise the Republican Movement had been made by the Land League in the 1880s, by Fianna Fail in 1926, by the Republican Congress in the thirties and by Sean MacBride and Clann na Poblachta in the forties. Only Congress avoided surrendering completely to constitutionalism, and that was because it was the shortest-lived of these initiatives and, anyway, saved its soul at the cost of the effective retirement of most of its leadership from politics and, more tragically, by the sacrifice of its brightest and best on Spanish fields.

Thirty years later, the new process of politicisation lasted longer, but ran into difficulties very soon, not only from resistance within the movement but from circumstances outside. Republicanism’s base was eroding, and its new campaigns waged within national capitalist guidelines had less mobilising power than was expected of them. Even the housing agitations tended to be powered by small groups of activists. It was this consideration that led Seamus Costello to call for socialism with the backing of the majority of other republican leaders, but to the disapproval of sympathisers such as Coughlan and Greaves.

The limits of republican politicisation were to be seen in its answers to the major questions of sovereignty: the European Economic Community (now the European Union) and Irish unity. Each poses problems that neither ‘traditional’ nor ‘political’ republicanism can handle. Both require more genuinely communist approaches. Greaves and Coughlan are correct to see the Treaty of Rome, like its successors,, ‘as amounting to a contract not to have socialism‘ (P.11: emphasis in original.). The problem is that these are a series of contracts, and contracts, as can be seen today, between unequal partners. The EU can survive without Ireland, but, to most people, it is less certain that Ireland can do without the EU. There is a well-justified fear of a prospective European state, but, also, a doubt whether Ireland can stay outside one, a doubt which is no less justified given the economic situation in the twenty-six counties and the role of the capitalist order that sustains it.

In the sixties, certainly, everyone, including the writer, underestimated the difficulties of mobilising to oppose Common Market entry. By the middle of the decade, the destruction of native industry by Lemass and Lynch (supported by Fine Gael) on the grounds that There Was No Alternative to free trade as the solution to the stagnation of the fifties had gained general acceptance. It is possible, too, that the aborted agitation in the twenty-six counties after Bloody Sunday caused a demoralisation in anti-imperialist ranks, though the four to one majority for entry would seem to reflect a core majority that would ensure its victory anyway.

Whether entry could have been defeated at that time remains doubtful. What should be considered is whether the strategy pursued in resisting it was the most effective. It was very much within the strategic orientation advocated by Desmond Greaves: an appeal to Sinn Fein economics, though with a socialistic tinge (‘More trade with third world and Socialist countries’). The enemy seemed to have a bigger, if more definitely right-wing vision. In particular, the anti-entry campaign tried to maintain a cross-class perspective that was most apparent in often appearing to be hostile to any idea of European unity, regardless of its class nature. Coughlan knows that there were people and organisations in Europe who were opposed to the Common Market for the same reason as Greaves and himself, yet little was done to connect with them. The writer and his comrades did try, but their attempt on this matter was half hearted, and, to that extent, they share responsibility for the failure.

What is worrying is that the strategy has been maintained. Coughlan can point to his Platform’s moral victory in the Lisbon referendum, but a single defeat of an over-confident opposition that is able to reverse the decision a year not so impressive. What is more, his movement’s nationalism is being frayed in the worst possible way, though one all too much in the traditional Republican tradition of embracing indiscriminately any enemy of the enemy. It is allying openly with individuals whose critique of the imperial European project is not that it is contracted not to have socialism but that the contract is not copperfastened: people like Vaclav Klaus and the Kacynskis. Today, as this is being written, the capitalist way of resolving the financial crisis through attacking working class rights by protecting the EU institutions is not being combatted by these characters but by the striking workers of Greece, providing an example to the workers and oppressed in Ireland.  To read the website of the National Platform is to be encouraged to believe that nothing is happening. Yet the Greek workers are showing the only way forward. They may well lose this battle, but, in fighting it at all they are already closer to victory than their Irish comrades.  

A similar faith in politicised Republican tactics is to be found in the strategy pushed by Greaves and executed in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. This issue has been shown to be even more of a flashpoint in Ireland than that of European union for two reasons. It is an issue specific to these islands, though it has resonances elsewhere. It focuses on the current nature of state power in Ireland, in a way that, even now, the EU does not. Constitutionally, the twenty-six county state has surrendered enormous swathes of sovereignty to the said Union, but it can regain them unilaterally without the Union being able to use common police/military (as against economic) force against  it; in the writer’s time, at least, the reunification of Ireland cannot be achieved so routinely.

Ultimately, it can be agreed, Britain is responsible for the partition of Ireland. Its pretext, the Protestant/Unionist population of Ulster would be dumped if it suited the metropolitan power. If this were all, Irish resentment would not have the revolutionary force that it does; it would be, merely, irredentist or revanchist, like French resentment of German rule in Alsace-Lorraine a century ago or German resentment of the inter-World War Polish corridor. What distinguishes the continuing British presence in Ireland from these is that maintaining colonial rule over the north-east of the western island is Britain’s means of keeping a base, far more formidable than Guantánamo, to check the natives, if they get too restless. To keep it, the British government was prepared to surrender to the new Saorstat greater powers than the whole of Ireland would have been delegated under Home Rule. It is the latest of Britain’s rulers’ strategies going back to 1171. The difference now was that partition was aimed not only to control Ireland but, more specifically to keep its working class divided by the border and within the six county province itself. This ensures that Ireland’s capitalist class is satisfied not only by keeping the British connection (the Unionists) or by formal control of their economy (the twenty-six county nationalists) but are in unofficial agreement  in accepting that, as a twenty-six county capitalist writer put it, Divided We Stand. 

The weakness in the arrangement is the position of the Catholic/Nationalist classes in the six counties. This is due partly to the fact that partition left them a minority large enough to appear a threat to the dominant power, yet not large enough to be a serious challenge to it. This situation has provoked suggestions for repartition, particularly during the recent northern troubles, but the main problem goes deeper. Ulster Unionism has been maintained on an industrial base created and perpetuated by the use of sectarianism as a productive force, dividing the workers and inhibiting them from developing permanently beyond trade union consciousness.  Although the local industries it created are much reduced along with their sectarian base, the said base remains potent enough to perform its function in a time of economic stress as can be seen, on the one hand, by the revival of militarist republicanism and, on the other, by the loyalist offensive in east Belfast.

In the sixties, several factors encouraged the idea among the Northern Irish minority that their situation might be bettered by political means. The IRA’s border campaign had failed and improved education and welfare facilities were creating a spirit more optimistic about upward mobility within the territory, without compromising longer term hopes of Irish unity. The ground was prepared for Desmond Greaves’ idea of an agitation for equal civil rights for all in Northern Ireland.

There were problems with this. The basic one was that the six county Catholics were the community that would have to provide the largest component of the campaign and they formed a minority of the province’ total population. The Northern Irish Government would not agree to demands made by their movement; it needed allies. The founders of the campaign hoped to win a sizeable number of Protestant workers, who were as deprived of political rights as Catholics. Greaves suggested (in The Irish Crisis) that this possibility was lost when the Northern Ireland Labour Party refused to join. However, it was Protestant economic prerogatives that were challenged by the original demands of the campaign. Had it begun with the demand for a full Bill of Rights, it is imaginable that it might have assuaged unionist doubts. That this was not considered in 1967,  is not something to be blamed on the Communist Party; nobody was thinking in these terms. Later on, the new People’s Democracy would try to make a start with calls for ‘One Family, One House’ and ‘One Family, One Job’, but this was when communal tensions had arisen. In any case, it is doubtful whether any campaign aimed at weakening Unionist hegemony, democratically or not, would have done more than skim the surface of that hegemony’s proletarian support, built over more than a century and rooted in events more than two centuries before.

A second possibility was support from the metropolitan sovereign island. This would fit into the model of the American Civil Rights Movement that inspired the Northern Irish campaign leaders; the American civil rights demands had been enacted against opposition from the southern states by the less affected northerners. The possibility of such an alliance was probably greater than winning a sufficiently large number of Protestant Northern Irish workers. Nationalism may have inhibited such a strategy, but though there were supporters in Britain, nobody seems to have imagined building for a march on London after the pattern of the 1964 march on Washington. Instead the  police riot of 5 October 1968 exposed Unionist arrogance and embarrassed the British Government into starting to make concessions, and concessions followed with more embarrassments until revived military Republicanism provided constant embarrassment ending in an inadequate settlement.

There was a third possible ally: the workers and oppressed of the twenty-six counties. The problem here was that the aim of the civil rights campaign was to democratise Northern Ireland and thereby weaken the base of the support for partition. To build support for northern civil rights in the twenty-six counties would threaten to resurrect the demand for Irish unity before the northern reform. In this, the straightjacket of stageist assumptions can be seen. There were solidarity campaigns in the republic but they were half hearted affairs and became more supportive of the armed struggle after August 1969. Indeed, after Bloody Sunday, a further fear for the organisers of the northern civil rights movement made an appearance, when there were signs of working class action against British imperialism that raised the spectre of the workers’ republic. Added to the more justifiable fear of another Bloody Sunday, this caused the movement to abandon agitation. As a result, despite attempts by PD and others to keep up the mobilisations this left military republicanism as the major force in the northern struggle with the inevitable result of a compromise settlement that would lock its leaders into partnership with some of the most extreme Unionists.

The agreement will fall, anyway, as part of the economic crisis that has hit Ireland. Stageism does not have any answers, save a revival of protection in the twenty-six counties and, perhaps, a pious wish that the six county power-sharing regime will break with Britain and follow suit. Carefully ignored is a more realistic scenario. If such moves are to be successful, either Britain or Ireland or both will have to go further, initiate socialist policies and, eventually, work with forces abroad to initiate such policies in their countries. The perspective of Republicanism has to be superseded by that of Socialist Republicanism which must be superseded, in turn by that of Proletarian Internationalism. If this does not happen, then even the programme of ‘the people of no property’ will be defeated, once more, by that of those with property. In short, the time is overripe to start talking Permanent Revolution; the world needs changing, not just Sinn Fein Amhan.     


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