Marxism and republican economism

Jack Conrad replies to Gerry Ruddy's article in the last issue of the Weekly Worker

Nothing can provide firmer foundations for the revival of our movement than robust polemics and an honest exchange of opinions between comrades. I therefore welcome the opportunity to reply to the criticisms of the Communist Party of Great Britain made by John Martin (Gerry Ruddy) in the Weekly Worker (August 11). As the reader might know, the comrade is political secretary of the Irish Republican Socialist Party - an organisation with which we once had a sometimes close, sometimes fraught relationship. In the mid-1980s the IRSP declared its commitment to "becoming a Communist Party". Naturally, what was then the Leninist wing of the CPGB congratulated the IRSP on this bold and timely move. As was our duty, everything possible was done to encourage and deepen the orientation towards communism. Besides technical and other such assistance, there was a week-long joint school in Belfast in 1987, and IRSP comrades attended the first Communist University which took place on the Greek island of Corfu in 1990 (comrades from Turkey, Iran and the US also attended). As a direct result, after a long gap, the IRSP's paper, the Starry Plough, appeared once again - albeit with only a pale communist coloration. Unfortunately the whole project soon unravelled. There were acute tensions within the republican socialist movement. Who was in charge between the IRSP and the Irish National Liberation Army had never been satisfactorily resolved. There was a rash of killings and attempted killings. Instead of polemics, matters were being settled with the bullet. Some comrades withdrew from active engagement. Others simply kept their heads down. Either way, the Starry Plough fell back into silence and in the IRSP what comrade Martin calls "politics" took a "back seat". Comrade Martin rounds on the CPGB because of various comments made in our press, not least Peter Manson's 'Ireland and Marxism' article (Weekly Worker August 4) and a report we carried on the IRSP's December 5 1998 ard fheis (congress). Comrade Martin angrily accuses us of peddling appauling lies and monumental falsehoods. Eg, the IRSP is a "left nationalist" organisation which advocates "national socialism". This is ridiculously equated with trying to "link" the IRSP "with Nazism". Sadly, his overall approach smacks of the same eagerness to be offended, the same eagerness to huffily rule out any idea, any suggestion, of re-establishing relations with the CPGB. With this or that minor caveat, I stand by what we have said, including our report of the 1998 ard fheis, which, it should be stressed, was written in the spirit of fraternal criticism, not Olympian disdain. Yes, regretfully, we pointed to the "frighteningly low" ideological level of IRSP members - to all intents and purposes comrade Martin admits as much. He claims that "none" of the delegates to the 1998 ard fheis had read the Communist manifesto. Such criticism was, however, balanced with admiration. "These comrades," we wrote, "have passed through the most telling of schools for revolutionaries - a revolutionary situation in Northern Ireland that spanned the years 1969 to 1998". We also expressed our respect for the IRSP's martyred leaders and our undying revolutionary optimism: "No matter what episodic problems or setbacks, the heroic tradition of Seamus Costello, Ronnie Bunting, Patsy O'Hara and Ta Power can and must be positively integrated into the communism of the 21st century" (Weekly Worker January 7 1999). Charges Let us pick over the less trivial of comrade Martin's charges and see why they do not stand up to serious examination. Supposedly it is "totally" untrue that the IRSP overwhelmingly voted in December 1998 to abandon a "commitment to Marxism" and the aspiration of "building a Communist Party". Comrade Martin loudly protests that this was not at issue: a motion from the Dublin branch was. In full it reads: "The Dublin cumann IRSP calls on this ard fheis to commit the party to becoming a genuine, revolutionary party of the working class. We believe that this can only be achieved by offering the working class an alternative system of production, control and exchange. That alternative society must be based on 'need not greed' and an end to capitalist exploitation. We therefore propose that this ard fheis commit the party to becoming communist and internationalist with an ideology based on the Communist manifesto written by Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels in 1848. We propose the party aspires toward Marxism with a full commitment to the Manifesto." On the basis of this 'evidence' comrade Martin insists: there was "no motion relating to the building of a Communist Party". I believe he is being economical with the truth. That, or downright dishonest. Remember, we did not put double quote marks around "building of a Communist Party" - in our paper's style that would have denoted direct quotation. We were writing about the political content of the Dublin motion. In my eyes the Dublin motion still reads unambiguously, unmistakably, as a call for the IRSP to become a Communist Party. A party which by definition must base itself ideologically on Marxism. What else is a "genuine, revolutionary party of the working class"? What else is a commitment to "becoming communist and internationalist"? The scientific name for any such party is surely 'Communist Party'. And, of course, the proper, the correct, the full title of the Communist manifesto is Manifesto of the Communist Party. Comrade Martin is therefore plumbing the depths of literal-minded, semantic, argument ... unkind people might conclude that he has another agenda or something to hide. It is also true that leading IRSP members - John Martin amongst them - did their best in 1998 to get the Dublin comrades to withdraw their motion. Why? Why not simply vote for it? If Marxism, as comrade Martin now maintains, is unproblematic in the IRSP - he quotes a seven-point resolution to that effect from the 2002 ard fheis - why not vote through the Dublin motion on the nod? He also, defensively, cites his own address in 2002. Referring to the IRSP, he said: "It is internationalist, it is socialist, it is republican, it is Marxist." A statement which, if sincere, we can only but be pleased with and salute. So why then in 1998 did comrade Martin urge the Dublin comrades to withdraw their motion? Why, when they doggedly refused, did he recommend that the ard fheis vote to refer the matter to the incoming leadership? And why did his 1998 speech throw doubt on the relevance of Marxism to the 21st century? In 2005 comrade Martin gingerly skirts round all this. He innocently asks what purpose would be served by passing "wonderful-sounding resolutions that signify nothing" (Weekly Worker August 11). In January 1999 he wrote an article which was rather less circumspect. He rhetorically asked us if we "never question or critically re-examine .. core beliefs?" Or is "everything from the great gods of Marx, Engels and Lenin above re-examination?" Put another way, in 1998 and 1999 comrade Martin wanted to publicly parade his "core" doubts about the relevance of the Marx, Engels, Lenin "great gods" to the 21st century. In 2005 he no longer wants to. Good. That is progress of sorts. He should then pluck up the courage to admit the regressive, the vacillating, the opportunist character of his 1998 speech. Was it right or was it wrong? A Marxist can only but conclude that it was hopelessly wrong. The 1998 ard fheis came after a lengthy hiatus for the IRSP, which included several outbreaks of armed attacks by dissident elements. Frankly, in that context, I do not think that the Dublin motion signified "nothing". It is not a brilliant example of theoretical analysis. Nor does its literary technique mark it out as "wonderful-sounding". But no such grand claims were made for it. The Dublin motion strikes me as transparently well intentioned, and after years of where "politics" were in the "back seat", it surely signified a great deal. Certainly the speeches directed against the motion signified something about where the IRSP was at the time. Prominent comrades - comrade Martin from the top table - were at pains to put on display their Irish republicanism and profess an ignorance or at least a distance from Marxism. Police What of the law, 'community policing' and illusions in the capitalist state? A series of interlinked questions we felt compelled to criticise the IRSP over in our January 7 1999 report. Comrade Martin says it amounts to nothing: we were creating a storm in a teacup. There was only a "discussion paper" written by a member of the leadership. Moreover, it was never "formally approved" (Weekly Worker August 11). Yet in 1998 it was comrade Martin himself who used the ard fheis as a platform to demand that the capitalist state take measures against so-called "drugs lords". Which particular state body was to take these unnamed measures? The British army? The RUC? The garda? He also presented a totally economistic perspective of working class unity around day-to-day issues like employment, childcare, etc, in contrast to "abstract" constitutional notions like "freedom". And with only six abstentions the ard fheis approved a motion which condemned IRA 'punishment' beatings as having "more to do with revenge than justice". What sort of alternative did the IRSP offer? We never claimed that the ard fheis passed a motion in favour of a "community policing and justice service". But in the absence of anything more authoritative, not to comment on a 'discussion paper' on the subject - written by a leading IRSP member - would have been completely negligent and irresponsible in the extreme. What did this 'discussion paper' say? The hated RUC, it obligingly suggested, should be replaced by a new police force drawn "equally from the different traditions and sexes". To make it palatable to the nationalist population in the Six Counties this body should be jointly financed by the British and Irish states. Entrants should undergo a "screening process to eliminate sectarian elements"; they should also be put through "anti-sectarian courses". This would "ensure sensitivity to all cultures and to minorities of whatever kind". Such an acceptable police force was to be "unarmed" except when "dealing with dangerous situations" (riots, no-go areas, paramilitaries, violent strikes and demonstrations?). Presented with such a farrago, what sort of communist would it be who did not warn about the dangers of reformism? Many IRSP members still appear to believe that they are incorruptible. Since they resisted the might of the UK state for decades, that conviction would seem well grounded. Yet the response to the post-Good Friday agreement situation was profoundly worrying. Not only was it suggested that Marxism was anachronistic, a Communist Party "premature", but in speech after speech and resolution after resolution the IRSP showed itself to be moving to the right. With the Good Friday agreement, conditions in Northern Ireland have radically altered. The old certainties and clear lines of demarcation have evaporated into thin air. There is a new Irish dimension to politics in the Six Counties. There is also a new United Kingdom dimension that cannot be ignored either. Unlike the 1969-1998 period, more is required than intransigence and raw courage. The danger of slipping from revolutionary nationalism into bourgeois reformism is real and for 'grassroots activists' palpable. As we said, when it comes to 'community policing', the British and Irish governments are "quite capable of mouthing exactly the same 'anti-sectarian' platitudes and presenting just such a programme" (Weekly Worker January 7 1999). How right we were. Communists do not advocate that the bourgeois state adopt 'community policing'. On the contrary, at every suitable opportunity, the need for the arming of the mass of the people must be raised - albeit initially as a mere propaganda slogan. Behind every 'community police force' the enemy's state is armed to the teeth. There should be a constitutional right for the working class to possess arms - including the most advanced and destructive weaponry. Without such a demand we in effect meekly accept that our rulers should have a monopoly over the means of violence. Of course, the IRSP is no reformist party. Its characteristics are centrist. Looking back at the 1998 ard fheis, why we came to this conclusion is all too clear. On the one side there was comrade Martin's republican economism and the reformist liberalism permeating the 'discussion paper' on 'community policing' . On the other side was the IRSP's international department (headed, I think I am right in saying, by Peter Urban, based in the USA). "Socialism", its ard fheis motion states, comes from the "revolutionary transformation of society" and "class war"; moreover the "struggle for socialism in Ireland is inseparable from the struggle for national liberation." A motion which was unanimously agreed. Downpatrick branch also successfully proposed a motion which stipulated that the "issue of disarmament will not be on any future agenda of our movement" (interestingly comrade Martin abstained on this vote). This illustrates why we described the IRSP as a centrist formation ... and why we wrote of a bad peace reigning in its ranks. Neither the left nor the right wanted to thrash out their disagreements and have a "good argument". An unhealthy form of 'unity'. Lines of demarcation were deliberately blurred and made vague and indistinct. True, there was still the anchorage provided by a heroic revolutionary tradition. In the last analysis, however, there are only two roads. There is the difficult road of Marxism and the goal of world revolution. Then there is the easy road of accommodation, constitutional nationalism and bourgeois politics. Sinn Féin has clearly taken the bourgeois road, as did successive waves of 20th century Irish republicans. In which direction was the IRSP heading in December 1998? National socialism Give comrade Martin the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he really does believe that national socialism has one meaning alone: ie, national socialism is a synonym for Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers' Party - nothing more and nothing less. No wonder he feels outraged and insulted when we say he advocated a "national socialism" at the 1998 ard fheis. It is not so. Our readers know it. When the phrase 'national socialism' is employed by us it carries no implication whatsoever that comrade Martin has a Nazi programme or Nazi sympathises. To show the truth here I shall not just cite written sources. There is practice. As referred to above, there exists a history of friendship and cooperation between ourselves and the IRSP. We worked and would, given the opportunity, once again work with them as comrades. Obviously that would not apply to fascists, let alone crazy Nazi types. Has comrade Martin been insulted? Have we used the "personal criticisms and bad language" that he dislikes and fears so much? - "personal criticisms and bad language" are apparently outlawed within the IRSP. Yes, of course, we have made "personal criticisms". We have, with much justification, criticised comrade Martin. More than that, we have used "bad language". Weekly Worker writers have said that comrade Martin advocated a "national socialism". However, 'national socialism' is fielded here in an entirely political way - as we field other terms, such as 'opportunist', 'reformist', 'economistic' and 'centrist'. 'National socialism' is a formulation which surely accurately describes someone who in the name of Irish republicanism publicly doubts the relevance of Marxism to the 21st century. Especially when that 'someone' happens to be the political secretary of a socialist party which once aspired to become a Communist Party. Socialism is Marxist ... or it must be something else. There can be no national liberation of the working class. Neither the USA nor Britain nor Russia has within their narrow borders the material base needed to realise and sustain socialism: ie, the lower stage of communism. Evidently the same applies to a small country like Ireland. So there can be no Irish socialism ... not even a 32-county socialism. We are, in fact, being perfectly consistent with the teaching, tradition and terminology of Marxism. Both Marx and Engels lambasted idealist notions of "local communism". "Local communism" is not viable in a world where "each nation" is "dependent on the revolutions of the others". Communism is "empirically" possible only "as the act of the dominant peoples" "all at once" and "simultaneously". The workers exist "world-historically". So must communism (K Marx, F Engels CW Vol 5, Moscow 1976, p33). Trotsky too attacked "all varieties of national socialism" (L Trotsky The Third International after Lenin New York, p4). He meant not only the national socialist ideology of Hitler and Mussolini. His main target was, needless to say, Stalin and the theoretician of socialism in one country, Nikolai Bukharin. In our own time István Mészáros, the noted Marxist philosopher, considers that the "postulated National Socialist solution" advocated by the neo-classical economist Alfred Marshall and the British Fabians actually "resulted in the monstrous inhumanity of Hitler's national and global adventure" (I Mészáros Beyond capital London 1995, pp84-5). So for Marxists there are other socialisms - anti-socialisms - including many different varieties of national socialism. British-Irish Finally, let us deal with the British-Irish and the question of Irish unity. Comrade Martin say that the IRSP will "take no lessons in Marxism from an organisation that not only retrospectively justifies the partition of Ireland, but also would be happy with a repartition of the island" (Weekly Worker August 11). This, believe in or not, is meant to be a pointed reference to the CPGB. The comrade wants to paint us red, white and blue Brits and proud of it. He is either badly misinformed or he is trying to pull Irish nationalist wool over the eyes of readers. We do not, and never have, retrospectively justified the 1921 partition of Ireland. That is the fact of the matter. What about our current position on Ireland though? It is well known and can be neatly summarised under three headings. l Demand one: the CPGB fights for the immediate abolition of the Northern Ireland statelet and the withdrawal of all remaining British forces. l Demand two: we support a united Ireland. l Demand three: within a united Ireland there should be a, transitional, federal arrangement whereby a British-Irish province in north-east Ulster - one county and four half-counties - exercises self-determination. Here are the politics of Marxism applied to the Irish question. Our programme is based on the theory and the best practice of Leninism, and crucially a classless, countryless, stateless and moneyless vision of the future, which in terms of means necessitates the voluntary union of peoples and the struggle for extreme democracy. Of course, comrade Martin does not disagree with demands one and two. Presumably, though, he objects to demand three. Yet, despite the fact that a federal approach flows from consistent democracy, he would appear to be completely opposed to countenancing such a concession. Irish unity is for him the overriding principle. For communists it is working class unity. We communists do not start with the romantic abstraction of a single and, to all intents and purposes, unproblematic Irish nation. The CPGB seeks a working class, not a nationalist, solution in Ireland. The unity of the working class is infinitely more important to us than the territorial unity of the island of Ireland: ie, a mere geography or piece of land. Irish unity is subordinate to the class struggle for socialism. Simply because we recognise the historically constituted existence of the British-Irish, and advocate their democratic rights in a united Ireland, the CPGB is said to be "happy with the repartition of the island". Such obviously false reasoning has been comprehensively answered in many past polemics. Needless to say, we have shown that the idea holds no water. Communists favour Irish unity and we would strongly argue against any future repartition - indeed in general we favour the unity of the working class in the largest state units objective circumstances allow. However, the palpable existence of deep historical ethno-religious antagonisms in Ireland must be overcome positively, by the dichotomised peoples themselves, above all through the self-activating working class. A goal which necessitates an emphasis on voluntary union. Jack Conrad