What is Irish republicanism?

Liam O Ruairc argues that the republican socialist tradition provides the basis for the working class struggle in Ireland

In last week's edition of the Weekly Worker Philip Ferguson wrote: "In Ireland, the revolutionary tradition, like it or not, is republicanism - Marxists ignore that fact at their peril. Republicanism is a product of the concrete political and economic subjection of that country. This means that building a Marxist movement in Ireland requires a positive engagement with that tradition. A genuine Marxist movement in Ireland is inherently republican, but not merely republican" (Letters, May 26). This point is often misunderstood by the left, because they do not understand republicanism, the nature of its relations with socialism, and have problems understanding a concept like 'republican socialism'. Republican or nationalist? In the previous articles it was pointed out that what distinguished Irish republicanism from Irish nationalism or constitutional nationalism was its rejection of the unionist veto, whereas for nationalism unity is subject to that veto. If this is what differentiates them on the national question today, there are deeper qualitative differences between the two. What fundamentally distinguishes Irish republicanism from Irish nationalism is that it is not simply about desiring independence from Britain, but that it is intrinsically connected to establishing democracy in Ireland. The national question is part of what Marx and Engels later called the process of "winning the battle for democracy". The question of national independence is part of the more general question of national democracy. It is the democratic element within Irish republicanism that distinguishes it from nationalism. The founders of Irish republicanism were Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen. It is to them that presentday republicans trace their roots - every June republicans organise an annual pilgrimage to Tone's grave in Bodenstown. Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen were inspired by the ideals of the enlightenment and the French Revolution. In that sense, republicanism is not even Irish. Their separatist project of breaking the connection with Britain and establishing an independent Irish republic, ruled by the people for the people, was motivated not by Anglophobia, but by the necessity of breaking with the monarchy and aristocracy in order to establish democracy and the rights of man in Ireland. Far from being 'nationalist', their outlook was in fact profoundly internationalist. It was more about 1789 Paris than the Brehon laws. Its language was not that of national particularism but universal rights. 'Breaking the connection' separatism is about breaking with colonialism and imperialism. It is thus not surprising that from the United Irishmen onwards, republicans have always expressed solidarity with other colonised nations. Their republicanism is also profoundly inclusive, substituting the common name of Irish man and woman to the catholic, protestant and dissenter denominations. The republican concept of Irish nationality is inclusive of all the people on the island, irrespective of their race, gender, language, class or creed. Irish nationality is not restricted to those blood descendents of the old Gaelic clans. This aspect of republicanism is very relevant today, when one thinks about the recent nationality referendum in the south and the upsurge of racism. Irish republicanism is secular and non-sectarian. It advocates the full separation of state and church, religion and politics. Far from being identified with catholicism, there was a certain amount of anti-clericalism within Irish republicanism. No wonder that the catholic church was hostile to the United Irishmen and the French Revolution. Irish republicanism is egalitarian. It always had an interest in social and economic justice and equality. That aspect was substantially developed by subsequent generations of republicans. Finally it is popular rather than elitist in nature. Its base has always been "the men of no property", as Tone called them. It has been a movement of the people, of the lower orders, and has reflected their aspirations and interests. These are the core values and most dynamic elements of Irish republicanism. Republican or socialist? Some will object by saying that maybe during the period of bourgeois revolution all the above was relevant; but that in the age of death agony of capitalism and proletarian social revolution republicanism is fundamentally outdated: what is needed is 'pure' socialism. Others will object that republicanism is not a safe vehicle for social revolution, as it has given rise to some conservative tendencies. Additionally, critics could point that apart from the ambivalent and negative features that republicanism has historically given rise to, the people in the south of Ireland already have a republic, so the relevancy of republicanism is more than questionable. So why be a 'republican' or a 'republican socialist' and not just a socialist' or a democrat'? Why is republicanism still relevant? The first reason is that Irish republicanism is not yet a dead dog that can be ignored or passed over. Criticisms of Irish republicanism must be weighted against its historical role and emancipatory core. It played a significant historical role, and is still a major element in Irish political life today - a lot to do with the unresolved national question. It is impossible to build a left current that either ignores or remains outside republicanism. To ignore it would be ignoring the experience of history and a major political force today. The second reason is there is a democratic content within republicanism that has not yet exhausted itself. The fact that there exists within Irish republicanism a conservative as well as a radical element, and that there is a militarist and elitist tendency as well as a democratic and popular one, should of course not be passed over. What is essential is that there is within republicanism a potential for radical development. The task ahead is to develop that radical potential. The point is not to break with, or to abstractly negate, Irish republicanism because of its defects, but to redirect, to improve Irish republicanism. So what is that democratic and radical content? Since Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, the qualitative developments within Irish republicanism that have been of lasting value have been those that emphasised and developed its egalitarian and popular aspects, those who stressed not just the democratic but also the social content of republicanism. This has sometimes been called 'left republicanism', or 'social republicanism'. For this current, the national question and the social question are inseparable, and national liberation is meaningless unless it also means the liberation of the 'men of no property'. James Fintan Lalor was the first to connect the national to a social revolution, and base the struggle for independence on the land question. What Ireland needed was complete independence and the ownership of the soil by the entire people and not just a small class of landlords. Independence alone is not sufficient unless it is followed by radical social changes -the abolition of landlordism. In Pearse's final pamphlet The sovereign people he discussed his feelings about the role the "sovereign people" play in determining matters involving private property. At one point he plainly said: "I do not disallow the right to private property; but I insist that all property is held subject to the national sanction." Often social republicanism expressed itself in a confused populism. However, its most fully developed expression is to be found in the theoretical contribution of James Connolly (though his work falls more into the category of scientific socialism). Connolly's fundamental teaching is that the struggle for national liberation is not opposed to the struggle for socialism, but an integral and necessary part of it. This is why "The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland; the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered." On the basis of a concrete analysis of social forces in Ireland, Connolly concluded that "only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland". The genuine motor of the national liberation struggle is the working class. All the other social classes will capitulate and sell out at some stage because they are not prepared to risk their wealth and power: "Ireland cannot rise to freedom except upon the shoulders of the working class knowing its rights and daring to take them." Republican socialism The roots of republican socialism, the current of thought which follows the teachings of James Connolly, are in 'social republicanism', which sought to radicalise its democratic, egalitarian and popular aspects. But it is more than that. It is part of the socialist tradition. How does it differ from republicanism in general? The first specificity is the class orientation. Although, as we have seen, republicanism has a 'popular' orientation, it does not explicitly and specifically represents the interests of the working class. While republicanism is progressive and democratic, it only speaks of 'the people' or 'the Irish people', not the Irish working class. Illustrative of this is Padraig Pearse's statement that "the nation is more important than any part of the nation". Republican socialism differs from this in so far as it is a movement of the working class for the reorganisation of society in the interests of the working class. Republican socialism is based on Connolly's teaching that "Only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland." The second difference is that of ultimate goal. Republican socialism aims to establish the workers' republic, not simply the republic. Republicanism at best stands for a socially egalitarian republic, while republican socialism aims to establish the socialist republic as a transitional stage, in which the working class begins to lay the foundations for a truly liberated society and abolish classes. Only when the working class takes power, as a class, will the socialist republic be established. The aim of republicanism is not for the working class to take power as a class. For example, on January 21 1919, Dáil Éireann, the parliament of the provisional Irish republic, met for the first time and discussed three documents. The first was a declaration of independence, and the second, a request to the nations of the world to recognise the Irish republic and allow it to be represented at the peace conference. The third declaration was the Democratic programme of Dáil Éireann, written by Johnson and O'Brien as a reward for Labour candidates standing down in the election. The original draft had contained sentences such as "The republic will aim at the elimination of the class in society which lives upon the wealth produced by the workers of the nation but gives no useful service in return." IRB leaders opposed this original draft, and Michael Collins declared that he would suppress the Democratic programme. However, despite Collins's objections, the document could not be completely discarded as the members of the Dáil refused to go on without a democratic programme. As a result the draft was handed over to O'Kelly, who expurgated much of the socialist rhetoric and produced what was finally put before the Dáil. His draft removed a line from Pearse that read: "No private right to property is good against the public right of the nation", as well as Johnson's sentence: "It shall be the purpose of the government to encourage the organisation of the people into trade unions and cooperative societies, with a view to the control and administration of the industries by the workers engaged in the industries." Thirdly, republican socialist ideology draws its inspiration first and foremost from the struggles and ideas of the working class in Ireland and worldwide rather than simply the republican tradition. More importantly, it is based on class struggle, its core part. Republicanism is not part of the global working class movement. It may be in sympathy with it, but it is not organically part of it. It does not see itself as part of the class struggle. Illustrative of this is the attitudes of republicans during the 1913 lockout. Most republicans, like Pearse or Thomas Clarke, were broadly sympathetic to the strikers. However, the IRB as a body refused to back the strikers. Class struggle would have been a divisive issue. It was left to individual members whether or not they would support the strikers. Republican socialism is not simply socialism. To call ourselves simply 'socialists' would imply that republican socialism has no organic roots in republicanism. Its roots are in left republicanism, as opposed to say Maoism, Trotskyism, social democracy or international communism. This is not simply a genealogical or historical question. It means that no serious revolutionary movement or process can be built in Ireland outside or apart from the republican tradition. We could characterise Irish republicanism in the same way Jürgen Habermas characterised modernity: "an incomplete project". Irish republicanism should not be abandoned - it can still be a vehicle for the revolutionary transformation of society today. Given the continued structural and social exclusion and alienation of the nationalist working class and rural poor in the north, Kevin Bean has argued that republicanism will continue to function as a lightening conductor of both social and national-democratic discontent. Likewise, the growing economic inequalities and social exclusion of sections of both the urban and rural populations in the south will be expressed by growing popular challenges to the precarious success and inherently unstable hegemony of the Celtic tiger. The point is to preserve and radicalise what is best in republicanism; to complete - not abandon - the project. IRSM The task of republican socialists is to provide political leadership to the economic, political and ideological struggle of the people, not tail-end them. In Ireland today, the Irish Republican Socialist Movement seeks not simply to participate in various struggle, but to lead them actively. The creation of a strong political leadership is essential for success. The IRSM is currently working to develop the correct programme, strategy and tactics that will lead the working class to power. It is also actively engaged in the economic, political and military organisation of the class. The Irish Republican Socialist Movement has a lot of credibility as a revolutionary organisation. Its membership and support is almost entirely based within the working class. Many of its members have been killed or served long sentences in prison for their part in the struggle. The fact that they have been ready to pay the ultimate price shows that they are genuine professional revolutionaries. How m any organisations left of the political spectrum could claim that? Some left groups may well dismiss the movement; but the state has recognised it as a significant threat. This is why it has been engaged in the deliberate murder of republican socialist militants; not least because the organisation had put the question of armed confrontation with the state on the agenda. The Irish Republican Socialist Movement is thus well placed and has the necessary credibility to renew the republican and socialist projects in Ireland, and ensure that the cause of Ireland and the cause of Labour remain organically tied. The arguments developed here owe a lot to discussions with (in no particular order): Tommy McKearney, Anthony McIntyre, Gerry Ruddy, Marian Price, Kevin Bean, Eddie McGarrigle, James Daly and Brendan Holland. I wish to thank them all.