Self-liberation or vicarious nationalism
Jack Conrad replies to Steve Riley and renews his call for a democratic approach to the British-Irish question
That comrade Steve Riley has entered our discussion on the British-Irish question in print is welcome indeed. That comrade Riley’s 5,000-word contribution, ‘Inconsistent democracy’, is a catalogue of mistakes, misunderstandings and woefully misdirected polemics is to be regretted (Weekly Worker September 2).
Perhaps Jack Conrad is to blame. Perhaps my argument in favour of a British-Irish federal entity in a united Ireland having the “right to self-determination up to and including the right to secession” (thesis 15 Weekly Worker August 26) is so complex and so difficult to grasp, such a radical departure from previous CPGB positions and such an innovation in communist thought, that ‘orthodox’ comrades like Riley are bound to be confused, mystified and angered to the point of blind rage.
Comrade Riley begins his attempt to “trash” my proposals with the insinuation that Jack Conrad has abandoned the CPGB’s “principled history” of solidarity in support of the Irish national liberation struggle. My supposed “new thinking” on the British-Irish question in Ireland is explained in no small measure by the, presumably malign, influence of outside forces. On the one hand Dave Craig and the Revolutionary Democratic Group, and on the other hand Sean Matgamna and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.
Transparently this is not the case. Without exception everything I have recently formulated on the British-Irish question flows directly from, and is absolutely consistent with, what I and my co-thinkers have been saying on democracy over the last 20 years. Regular readers of the Weekly Worker will hardly need reminding, but for the benefit of comrade Riley, and the sake of furthering the polemic, let me repeat a fundamental proposition, one enshrined in the CPGB’s Draft programme. Democracy and socialism are inseparably linked. Without democracy there can be no socialism. Without socialism democracy is incomplete and always in danger of being subverted and turned into its opposite.
When it comes down to it, here we have a CPGB ‘orthodoxy’ with which comrade Riley has never really agreed. Today as a freelance communist and yesterday as a brittle member of the Communist Party, comrade Riley entertains a stubborn illusion in bureaucratic socialism. Half-seriously, half-mockingly, he remarks, “We are all consistent democrats now.” Unfortunately this is rot. For our friend democracy is a nice, nay desirable, add-on extra to socialism ... if the material conditions permit and the benighted masses are sufficiently trustworthy in terms of voting the right way.
In other words for him there can exist, and has existed, a socialism with the complete absence of democracy. The counterfeit title of this chimera was the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. Comrade Riley still believes that under the superstructural monocracy of Stalin the USSR was essentially socialist, not the slave society, the bureaucratic travesty of socialism, I have written about and am still in the process of trying to fully theorise.
Comrade Riley combines inconsistent democracy with a predisposition towards bureaucratic socialism, not only retrospectively in relation to the USSR of Stalin, Krushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, etc, but the politics of contemporary Ireland too. The country’s dichotomised communities are not to be brought together voluntarily through the leadership of a self-liberating working class. No, on the contrary, unification for him centres on the primitive notion of land and is to be achieved using the methods of blood and iron. Where we concern ourselves with uniting peoples, comrade Riley substitutes territory. That is the only possible conclusion consistent with comrade Riley’s line of reasoning, not least when it comes to his denial of elementary democratic rights for the protestant British-Irish in Northern Ireland.
Who are the British-Irish? Comrade Riley and myself disagree. Comrade Riley can see no British-Irish people: only Irish Protestants, who constitute a mere “religious faction”. The British-Irish are not a distinct community. Protestants are an “integral part of the Irish nation”. They have more in common with the rest of Ireland - from economic life to preferences in alcoholic beverages - than Britain and the British. What keeps the Irish nation divided is British imperialism, above all Britain’s role in cultivating the Protestants in the Six Counties as a labour aristocracy which solidly votes for reactionary loyalist parties and organisations. Communists must “neutralise” the Ulster unionists.
Jack Conrad has a different analysis. It is correct to say that Britain is the main problem and that the majority of Protestants in Northern Ireland have throughout the 20th century constituted a labour aristocracy (a politico-economic category). They have sought to preserve their meagre privileges at the expense of catholics by initiating and buttressing sectarian discrimination from below and by appealing above to the Northern Ireland and British states. However, the Protestants are not simply a labour aristocracy: “There is an undeniable historically established religious, ethnic and cultural dimension” (thesis 1).
The British-Irish have continuously inhabited parts of what is now Northern Ireland since the early 17th century. They were settled in Antrim and Down as a mass of ‘strong farmers’ - from England, but mainly Scotland - to pacify the most rebellious part of Gaelic and Anglo-Irish Ireland and hence “assure” it for an absolutist British monarchy that had recently redefined itself according to its nationalised version of protestantism: ie, Anglicanism. Inevitably the settlers quickly diverged from their origins and formed another - hybrid - Irish identity. They stopped being Scottish or English. Yet in general they kept themselves against and separate from the Irish catholic majority (both Gaelic and Anglo-Irish). Significantly cultural links between Scotland and the British-Irish in Northern Ireland are nowadays still stronger than those between the British-Irish and the south. Either way, the million-strong British-Irish are “a historically constituted and distinct community of people” (thesis 2).
As a matter of strategic calculation the British-Irish were given privileges denied to the native Irish. Being Presbyterians, they were themselves subject to prohibitions as dissenters by the Anglican ascendancy - hence some of the ‘strong farmers’ of Antrim and Down ‘were out’ in the 1798 United Irishmen rising. That notwithstanding, in 17th century Ireland, British-Irish Protestantism did not represent a progressive alternative to catholic obscurantism, but a subaltern arm of British colonial domination.
The Catholic majority were victims of constant persecution as Catholics. The old English in Ireland were thereby “excluded” from the emerging British nation (SG Ellis Tudor Ireland London 1985, p319). Non-change meant change. Because they remained catholic the Anglo-Irish became simply Irish. The bitter divisions between the Anglo-Irish and Gaelic feudal cultures “gave way ultimately to a sense of common Catholicism” - the highly fragmented Gaelic-Irish slowly merging with and forming a new “subordinate” English-speaking culture “in the polity of Ireland” (H Kearney The British Isles Cambridge 1995, p170).
As a consequence the Irish national question and British domination both took the outer form of religion. This has undergone constant rearticulation. The motives of the Cromwellian plantations are not those of modern Paisleyism. Nor are the motives of the Land League those of Sinn Féin. Suffice to say, religion in Ireland is not simply a matter of religion, as comrade Riley stupidly contends. For example, I have met not a few catholic atheists in west Belfast. Only a hopeless doctrinaire would describe this as an oxymoron.
Comrade Riley turns to Stalin as a mentor (thankfully when he was a pupil of Lenin’s). Nations have, said Stalin, in his famous 1913 pamphlet Marxism and the national question, five “characteristic features”. Firstly, and “primarily” a nation is a definite, stable, community of people; secondly, nations must share a “common language”; thirdly, they possess a “common territory”; fourthly, they have an internal economic bond to “weld the various parts into a single whole”; fifthly, they have a collective “character” which manifests itself in a “common culture” (JV Stalin Works Vol 2, Moscow 1953, pp303-307).
Comrade Riley finds the British-Irish severely wanting. The Protestants are merely a “religious faction, not a people.” Ulster is no more than “an administrative and political convenience of imperialism”; it is “not an historically constituted territory”. And as only nations, or people deemed sufficiently nation-like, should have the right to “self-determination up to and including secession”, comrade Riley decrees that the British-Irish have no right to “break away and form an independent state”. He jokingly lists the Nation of Islam, the boy scouts and the inhabitants of Moss Side are being similar “candidates for separatism”.
The comrade is not a complete ass. He concedes that Stalin’s definition must not be treated too rigidly. So let us flexibly discuss Stalin’s five characteristics vis-à-vis the British-Irish and see what we come up with.
As shown above the British-Irish have constituted a “stable community” for some 400 years. Due to their similar conditions of existence in north-eastern Ulster they have from generation to generation developed customs, an outlook and character peculiar to themselves (Stalin’s points one and five). The work ethic, blunt speaking, a collective memory of King Billy, 1688, July 12 and the battle of the Somme, the union jack, rival presbyterianisms, orangeism and hostility to republicanism and popery all mark out the British-Irish in terms of self-image.
That “common psychological make-up” is surely why Irish-catholic nationalists have such completely contradictory assessments of the British-Irish. There are those who hold them as an alien element akin to the “Saracens in Spain” (O MacDonagh States of mind London 1983, p19). On the other hand they are claimed, albeit as “perverted” Irish, who thereby, in the immortal words of Arthur Griffith, have no right to call “into question” the “integrity and authority of the nation” (cited in C O’Halloran Partition and the limits of Irish nationalism Dublin 1990, pp36,37). Comrade Riley would appear to fall into the Griffith camp. Be that as it may, the British-Irish are defined as ‘other’ by mainstream Irish-catholic nationalism, a vital external factor which tangibly shapes the ethnic identity of both communities. As the Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen notes, “ethnicity is a product of contact and not isolation”. So ethnicity “entails both commonalities and differences between categories of people - both complementarisation and dichotomisation” (TH Eriksen Ethnicity and nationalism London 1993, p35).
What of language? Comrade Riley cannot but admit that the British-Irish speak English (Stalin’s point two). However this is shared by the Irish-catholics and “much of the world”. We need not quibble here about Gaelic or the fact that the vast majority of the world’s population do not speak English even as a second language. Unlike the Nation of Islam or the boy scouts the British-Irish have a “common language”.
What of a common territory? For comrade Riley the idea that the British-Irish occupy a common territory is “absurd”. Why? Because they occupy Northern Ireland along with a sizeable catholic-Irish minority. I am the last to deny the presence of the catholic-Irish minority imprisoned within Northern Ireland or their palpable cultural-political affinity with the south. But the British-Irish are not scattered throughout Ireland. They are not the equivalent of the Jews in tsarist Russia. There is a one-county, four-half-counties area containing “a clear British-Irish majority” (thesis 15). This forms a geographically coherent whole broadly comprising county Antrim, north Tyrone, south Derry, north Armagh and north Down (Stalin’s point three).
Lastly we come to the economy (Stalin’s point four). There is no “Ulster protestant economy” as such. Comrade Riley is perfectly right. Nevertheless there is a Northern Ireland economy which evolved along its own pathway, making it distinct from the rest of Ireland. Till the mid-17th century Ulster was generally regarded as the poorest of the Irish provinces. The industrial revolution changed all that. North-eastern Ulster developed in a way analogous to Liverpool and Glasgow. Belfast in particular was an industrial centre that in the 19th century and into the 20th century served not Ireland, but the worldwide British Empire. Furthermore capital was mainly personified by Protestants: “Virtually everyone engaged in commerce in Ulster was a protestant.” Protestant control and rapid industrialisation “gave the political economy of north-east Ulster its unique character” (L Kennedy and P Ollerenshaw An economic history of Ulster Manchester 1985, p65). Today the north-south axis remains weak, the east-west axis with Britain strong. Whether or not it has a viable economy is not relevant. In the last analysis the right of “self-determination up to and including secession” is not about language or economics, but politics and democracy.
Communists do not invent or exacerbate national or ethnic questions. Our aim is to overcome such conflicts and antagonisms according to the principles of consistent democracy so as to bring forward and heighten the class struggle. For us the key practical task is not defining nations against a check list. The British-Irish do not constitute a nation according to strict scientific criteria. But neither are they merely a religion or a population of colonial settlers who, by implication, should return from whence they came. The British-Irish have a common history, territory and culture and there is a long established conflict between them and the catholic-Irish. That, and the continued British presence, calls for a definite political solution.
Comrade Riley savages those amongst “Conrad’s supporters” who advocate a potted version of the cultural national autonomy theory, with which, it hardly needs saying, I profoundly disagree. This reactionary panacea, invented by the Austro-Marxist Otto Bauer, is a plan for the extra-territorial self-determination and autonomy of ethnic and national communities - parliaments, schools, arts, science, etc - within an existing state. Two principled objections are readily apparent. The right to separate is denied. Divisions are hardened and institutionalised. Undaunted, comrade Riley pins on me Bauer’s notion that all that is required to constitute a nation is “a common psychology”. That alone is “sufficient qualification for national rights”. As evidenced above, that does not correspond to my conclusions about the British-Irish. Nevertheless in contradistinction to comrade Riley I have no hesitation in locating the rational kernel in Bauer’s politics. Something Jack Conrad shares with Lenin.
In his lengthy article, ‘The discussion on self-determination summed up’, Lenin dismisses Bauer’s “pet little point” of “cultural and national autonomy”. But wisely he does not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Lenin praises Bauer because he “argues quite correctly on a large number of most important questions” (VI Lenin CW Vol 22, Moscow 1977, p324). In terms of relevance to the subject at hand, what were these “most important questions”?
Both Bauer and Lenin stand for democratically delineated frontiers in accordance with the will and “sympathies” (ie, the “common psychology”) of the population. A principle taken directly from Engels, who favoured national frontiers determined by the “language and sympathies” of the population (‘The Po and the Rhine’).
There is also the principled objection to force. “The socialist community,” insists Lenin, “will never be able to include whole nations within its make-up by the use of force” (ibid p324). He approvingly reproduces a passage of Bauer’s: “Imagine the masses of the people, enjoying all the blessings of national culture, taking a full and active part in legislation and government, and, finally, supplied with arms - would it be possible to subordinate such a nation to the rule of an alien social organism by force?” Bauer thinks that such a possibility “disappears”. Lenin finishes his section on ‘Socialism and the self-determination of nations’ with these rather pertinent remarks:
“By transforming capitalism into socialism the proletariat creates the possibility of abolishing national oppression; the possibility becomes reality ‘only’ - ‘only’! - with the establishment of full democracy in all spheres, including the delineation of state frontiers in accordance with the ‘sympathies’ of the population, including complete freedom to secede” (ibid p325).
Lenin, let us recall, never felt the need to present his own special definition of a nation. His overriding concern was politics and hence the “sympathies” of the people. According to these “sympathies” communists should work for “democratically” agreed frontiers along with the “freedom to secede”. “Socialism,” emphasised Lenin, “gives full play to the ‘sympathies’ of the population, thereby promoting and greatly accelerating the drawing together and fusion of the nations” (ibid p324).
This is Marxism, a theory which, when applied to Ireland, comrade Riley fails to grasp and rashly denounces as “not Marxism and not even consistent democracy”.
Having unsuccessfully attempted to “trash” Conrad using Stalin and Bauer, our comrade resorts to downright fabrication. He solemnly proclaims that “practically” my programme can “only mean one thing - the repartition of Ireland”. An accusation repeated many times. Eg: “We know that partition is precisely what Conrad has in mind.” Eg: “There is not one ounce of revolutionary content in the repartition of Ireland.”
Polemics are a dual using words, not guns. As a matter of honour comrade Riley feels bound to challenge me. So be it. His vicarious Irish-catholic nationalism has been insulted. He demands satisfaction. The place of combat is chosen. We meet and take our stations. Eyes full of hate he turns, takes aim and fires ... and misses by miles. I am amazed. I am prepared to have shortcomings in my arguments shot to the ground. But comrade Riley’s target is a phantom. His partitionist Jack Conrad exists neither in flesh and blood nor in paper and print. No, comrade Riley’s Jack Conrad is the product of his own mind.
Obviously I must once again patiently outline my programme. Jack Conrad is against the present division of Ireland. He is against any future division of Ireland. As things stand, he is also against all claims or demands for self-determination by the Northern Ireland statelet. My theses on ‘Ireland and the British Irish’ is quite explicit and should for the objective observer leave not a shadow of doubt concerning my attitude:
“There can be no right of present-day Northern Ireland to self-determination. The six-county statelet was founded in 1921 on the cynical basis of permanently institutionalising the oppression of the catholic-nationalist minority. We do not, and cannot, support the right of the British-Irish majority in the north to oppress the catholic-nationalist minority” (thesis 7).
Moreover the CPGB is for the immediate abolition of the United Kingdom. As part and parcel of that, we demand the immediate - ie, unconditional - withdrawal of the British state and British troops from Northern Ireland. The CPGB is therefore committed to a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales and a united Ireland. I am convinced that such a programme is the best, most democratic and revolutionary way to bring workers together, not only within Britain and Ireland, but throughout the British Isles.
Of course, our programme is not a magic wand. It is a programme of working class struggle and therefore in its realisation a process of changing and overcoming apparently immutable antagonisms. Thus I am not in favour of the unity of Ireland for its own sake. It is the revolutionary unity of the catholic-Irish and British-Irish peoples that we communists aim for. James Connolly was spot on when he said: “Ireland without her people is nothing to me” (P Berresford Ellis (ed) James Connolly: selected writings London 1973, p38).
Communists therefore stress that unity must be voluntary and an integral part of the class struggle for democracy and socialism. The self-determination of Ireland is for us not about a head count, but the coming together of the working class. To bring about that outcome we must say beforehand what we are for:
“In a united Ireland communists are for the maximisation of democracy and therefore working class leadership. There must be no discrimination against Protestants. They must be at liberty to practice their religion and encouraged to freely develop the progressive side of their culture” (thesis 11).
In general communists favour the organisation of the working class in the biggest, most centralised states. That by no means contradicts far-reaching measures of local autonomy. As a transitionary measure, however, we are prepared to accept or advocate federalism as a step towards the unity of people, in particular the unity of the working class. Two cases in point being Britain and Ireland.
In the early 1970s Sinn Féin adopted a programme, Eire Nua, which advocated a “federal Ireland”. Unfortunately this ignored the actual cultural/ethnic divisions in Ireland and instead sought to revive the “four historic provinces” - Connacht, Munster, Leinster and a nine-county Ulster. A chilling refusal to address the objective British-Irish question in a democratic manner.
Comrade Riley does not need to brand Eire Nua a recipe for the redivision of Ireland. The British-Irish would be outnumbered in greater Ulster. The British-Irish would be given the right to ‘jointly determine’ the fate of Ireland. Yet all bourgeois democracies grant such a participation in a common parliament to all unwilling minorities (eg, the catholic-Irish in Northern Ireland). The replacement of British for nationalist gerrymandering can do nothing to overcome British-Irish xenophobia. It simply confirms for them that they will be an oppressed minority.
In order to overcome present-day divisions it is necessary to honestly address the British-Irish question and the legitimate fears of the protestant community. This can only be done through consistent democracy. A united Ireland established through a “voluntary union” of its peoples should “fully reassure” the British-Irish if it includes in its constitution a federal solution whereby the area containing a clear British-Irish majority has the right of self-determination up to and including session. That is a real, not a pseudo-federal arrangement.
For comrade Riley this is synonymous with a breakaway and the renewed oppression of the catholic-Irish minority. Like a dyed-in-the-wool Irish nationalist he is resigned to an unchanging British-Irish population. Nor does he understand that the rights of the British-Irish are not primarily something we have to convince Protestants in Northern Ireland of. Instinctively everyone looks after their own. It is though vital, if they are to liberate themselves, that British-Irish rights are championed by the mass of Irish-catholic workers, north and south. A united Ireland fought for by such a universal class, in league with the proletariat in Britain, has every chance of forming a common front with the British-Irish. So self-determination is not synonymous with the redivision of Ireland, but the revolutionary unity of the working class.
I think we can draw a few useful lessons from the experience of revolutionary Russia. The Bolsheviks promised all nations within the Russian empire the right of self-determination up to and including the right to separate. Soviet Russia and then the Soviet Union were constitutionally founded as federations of soviet republics, and amongst them was the Don Republic (ie, the land of the Cossacks). The Soviet Republic was established as a “voluntary union of the peoples of Russia” - something for Lenin which “should fully reassure the Cossacks” (VI Lenin CW Vol 36, Moscow 1977, p472). His optimism was not misplaced. The 1st Congress of the Soviets of the Don Republic, held over April 9-12 1918, “regarded the Don Republic as part of the RSFSR” and declared the “working Cossacks’ readiness to defend Soviet power” (VI Lenin CW Vol 42, Moscow 1977, p509n). The Cossacks, it should be noted, were a historically established privileged caste who served as the counterrevolutionary terror troops of tsarism. Is there a qualitative difference between the Cossacks and the British-Irish? Surely not. Except that in a small country like Ireland the million British-Irish add up to something like 20% of the population. The Cossacks were a mere drop in the continental sea of Russia.
What of borders? Again there are lessons from the Russian Revolution. In February 1918 Lenin and Stalin, the commissar for nationalities, instructed that the “geographical boundaries” of the Don Republic “must be fixed by agreement with the population of the neighbouring zone and the autonomous republic of the Donets Basin” (VI Lenin CW Vol 36, Moscow 1977, p483). A similar approach ought to be adopted in Ireland, where a federal solution would require new internal borders. I have suggested an Antrim, north Tyrone, south Derry, north Armagh and north Down British-Irish province. But the point here is not the details of where half-counties will be drawn on a map, but the principle of voluntary union, democratic negotiation and the right to secede.
There would, as comrade Riley triumphantly declares, still be a catholic-nationalist minority in the British-Irish province. There would also be a British-Irish minority elsewhere in the united Irish republic. So what! “Whatever the religio-ethnic community, there must be full citizenship rights” (thesis 17). We communists do not advocate a movement of population or ethnically ‘pure’ territories or states. This was certainly the case in the Soviet Union under the leadership of Lenin. The Ukraine contains Russians, Poles, Jews and many other smaller minorities besides the Little Russians. The same went for every other republic, from Georgia to those pocket-sized republics established for Don Cossacks, Volga Germans and Asian Jews.
Comrade Riley tries one more trick. There is a “danger” of giving the right to break away not to the British-Irish, but to loyalists. Again I will restate my position. Am I for self-determination, up to and including the right to secede, for loyalism? No. Am I for such a right for all Irish Protestants? No. Loyalism is a deeply reactionary and sectarian movement. Protestantism in Northern Ireland is a cultural-politico-religious category. “There can be no right of session for political movements or religions” (thesis 19). National rights have to be attached to a distinct, significant and historically established territorial dimension: ie, a one-county, four-half-county federal entity in a united Ireland.
Now, finally we come to the programme of involuntary union implicitly advocated by comrade Riley. He is willing to concede that a British-Irish “majority” could be gained in a plebiscite. But he urges communists not to “gamble our support for a loyalist partition on the outcome”.
I suppose the British-Irish are somehow a uniquely or permanently reactionary people who should be denied rights even in a ‘democratic’ or ‘socialist’ Ireland. Such ideas are repugnant to me and alien to the spirit of Marxism. Comrade Riley asks if we communists would be “prepared to support an armed struggle against the unity of Ireland by loyalist separatists”. As a vicarious Irish nationalist, he insists we must.
Yet nothing of the sort follows:
“Communists support the right of a British-Irish federal entity in a united Irish republic to self-determination, but argue against exercising that right in favour of secession. We are for voluntary unity and the growing together of the two traditions in Ireland on the basis of a common struggle for international socialism and world communism” (thesis 20).
A crazed loyalist rebellion which is massacring militant catholic-Irish and British-Irish workers alike should be crushed if there are the means available. Needless to say, all our efforts in the here and now must be directed towards positively avoiding such a disastrous scenario. We can win a British-Irish majority to communism, as the Bolsheviks once won a Cossack majority. Something that cannot be done with bloodcurdling promises of force and communal-religious warfare. Democracy, as the Bolsheviks proved, is our unbeatable weapon. Moreover, means determine ends and ends determine means.
Engels once said that there is only “one, absolutely internationalist, principle” - that it is impossible “to force blessings upon” other peoples. If, as it is, socialism is the self-liberating act of the working class, then the unity of Ireland under the leadership of the working class must be a voluntary unity of both its historically constituted communities. Freedom cannot be forced upon the British-Irish.
Communists strive for a society where humanity can at last find full collective and individual expression and development. Instead of dumbly expecting the British-Irish to fight to the bitter end in order to hang onto their miserable relative privileges, our programme offers a truly inspiring and fully realisable future. Comrade Riley seriously maintains that the British-Irish “have nothing to gain” from our programme, whereas we have “everything to loose”. Evidently it is the reverse. The British-Irish have everything to gain. We communists have absolutely nothing to lose.
However, in the event of a ‘victory’ under comrade Riley’s programme of military conquest his so-called socialism can only be an anti-capitalism which exploits and oppresses the working class. Whatever his fine intentions, he is back to Stalin’s USSR and bureaucratic socialism.
So, yes, we communists are against a fratricidal war against the British-Irish. There are a million of them and they have at present 100,000 legally held firearms (not counting those in the arsenals of the RUC and the loyalist paramilitaries). Communists have no wish to rerun the barbarism of Lebanon or Yugoslavia. Nor do we desire a reversal of the poles of oppression. We fight not for a 32-county nationalist Ireland, but working class ascendancy.