Irish Marxism

by C. Desmond Greaves

Irish Democrat, July 1980

“The State in Northern Ireland” by Bew, Gibbon and Patterson, has already been reviewed in the Irish Democrat, but in view of the importance of its contents, which constitute a sustained attack on what the authors call “Irish Marxism” we publish a full and reasoned reply by Feicreanach.

The three sociological dons who have written this book are agreed that national independence and the reunification of the national territory have no relevance to the future of Ireland. This is of course no novel thesis. It is the view of the Unionists, the Orangemen, the international companies and Her Majesty’s Government of the moment. But the authors are not without originality. Up to now nobody has thought of presenting it as Marxism.

The title is a trifle misleading. One would have anticipated the explanation of the Government of Ireland Act in which the constitution of the devolved state was set out, an account of the machinery by which it was established, and a review of its local legislation and administrative methods. This has been done before by writers from both Unionist and Republican camps so perhaps the authors felt it was superfluous.

Or possibly they found it difficult to agree. On page one the book is described as a “Marxist History of Northern Ireland.” But on page 37 it is “a partial survey of the economy and politics of Northern Ireland.”

What there is positive about it can be stated briefly. It tells the story of Unionism during the days of Stormont and gathers together interesting details of internecine struggles, some of them culled from materials only recently available.

But the facts are subordinated to an arbitrary theoretical system which the authors explain as follows:

“Moreover we write, not principally as historians but as social and political scientists, inserting the events we discuss in a systematic framework founded on a strategic conception of politics.”

Doubtless it is the possession of this strategic conception which gives the authors their air of infallibility. One of their more modest claims is that the book is “a contribution to the discussion of the Marxist conception of the State, the national question and imperialism.”

One of the central conceptions of modern Marxism is that since the advent of capitalist imperialism the national and colonial struggles for independence, formerly part of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, have become part of the socialist revolution. It is only necessary to consider China, Cuba or Vietnam if one needs examples. The three authors deny that this principle applies to Ireland, and spend forty pages attacking the “position” of “Irish Marxism”, which assumes it. Once more the only novelty is that the writers consider they are Marxists themselves.

For this belief it is possible to suggest a sociological basis. It was as long ago as 1831 that the British Government decided to leave the education of Irish children in the hands of rebelly hedge schoolmasters no longer. They introduced national education. Pearse called it the “murder machine.” Something similar occurred half a century later in England when those nasty trade union Sunday schools were replaced by centrally controlled formal education in which children were taught respect for their betters.

The exigencies of the post-war world dictated similarly motivated action. Marxism, whether well or ill understood, became the creed of continents. It became the most dangerous ideological challenge to the rulers of the western world. In Britain they responded by founding dozens of “departments of politics” in the universities and polytechnics. Some made an effort to refute Marxism.

Formerly the average Marxist was an active political worker who used the dialectical method to solve practical problems, relating the particular to the general in selecting his procedures. The new state Marxists were more often compilers of bibliographies, dissectors of texts (some of which had been written solely for journalistic purposes) and above all inventors of jargon.

Simultaneously Labour historians taught the youth of the technological age that the memories and traditions, not to say the understandings of their worker parents, could be disregarded. The convenor of a London factory told me how a golden opportunity was lost because some of his shop-stewards wished to go home and consult their college-boy sons. So the workers’ theory and history came to them through the filter of a new aristocracy of Labour.

It is clear from their eclecticism that Messrs Bew, Gibbon and Paterson have been victims of the process described which has been in progress for a full generation.

Now the claim to have refuted the central proposition of Irish Marxism is a bold one. Moreover the contemptuous language they use of it invites a thoroughgoing reply. They say it “has proved unable to generate a single effective political tactic.” What about the Civil Rights Movement? They evidently think that their case can be proved by judicious quoting. The point should therefore be made that T.A. Jackson and other formidable supporters of the classical position are not mentioned. They are not answered but ignored.

Part of the case is that Marx, Engels, Connolly and Lenin failed to see what we might call an Ulster exceptionalism based on the uneven development of Irish capitalism. These had before them the extremely uneven development of English capitalism, which did not create demands for exclusion. The authors excuse Marx because he “died before Protestant opposition to any form of united Ireland had become completely clear.” Marx is rightly excused but the authors have grasped the wrong issue. For thirty years after Marx died Ulster Protestants continued to live in a united Ireland and were perfectly content to do so. The objection raised by Carson and his friends was to separation from England. I would not even guarantee Protestant objection to a United Ireland today if they were sure England would rule the whole of it. They find it unthinkable because England cannot rule it.

Connolly and Lenin are taken to task for concentrating on the political significance of Unionism. It will be recalled that as soon as the Parliament Act destroyed the Lords’ veto on Westminster legislation and a Home Rule bill became inevitable, the Unionists organised the Ulster Volunteers, and when the army was ordered from the Curragh to protect arms repositories in the north the officers, led by Hubert Gough, mutinied. Lenin wrote an article called the “Constitutional Crisis in England” dealing with this event. The three authors think he “slightly misread an aspect” of the political significance of Unionism, because in this article “The UVF is described… as a direct instrument of English landlords.” In the two editions of this article on my bookshelf I have failed to find any mention of the Ulster Volunteers (the authors confuse them with the later organization) nor can I find the words “direct instrument of English landlords.” Moreover I knew Gough well and he told me he was totally opposed to partition.

Lenin believed, quite rightly, that the army acted on behalf of English landlords. His point was that even in liberal England class power resided outside the elected Parliament. One third of the land of England was owned by members of the House of Lords. And members of the same class were at the head of the army. A constitutional bastion having fallen an unconstitutional was put in its place. The authors are incidentally quite wrong in thinking that the landlords were no longer powerful in Ireland. They retained considerable power for a further decade. Then the Free State and Northern Ireland Land Acts were passed.

The authors’ method is thus admirably illustrated. It is to chip at the reputation of those on whom Irish Marxism has been accustomed to rely. On this occasion it was they who did the misreading.

In another article intended for popular consumption Lenin describes the forces set in motion by Carson as “Black Hundreds.” He may have intended the Ulster Volunteers, or alternatively he may have had in mind the Orange mobs who had driven the Catholics out of the shipyards. He may not have clearly distinguished them, but he clearly understood the class forces that were involved.

After this preliminary skirmish the authors tackle the national question. They give quotations which show that Marx and his followers while in general giving precedence to national liberation as a form of democratic advance did not always do so. However that may be, their position with regard to Ireland was clear. Engels wrote in 1882:

“I therefore held the view that two nations in Europe have not only the right but even the duty to be nationalistic: the Irish and the Poles. They are most internationalistic when they are genuinely nationalistic.”

The conclusion reached by the authors is that although Lenin seems to have considered the struggle between 1916 and 1921 as a national liberation struggle “the national stage of the Irish revolution seems probably to be as complete as it ever could be by 1921.”

A section on imperialism asks what have been the effects of “imperialism proper” upon Ireland. The answer they give us “They are few.” Naturally one asks what is the difference between imperialism and imperialism proper. The authors discount the effects of feudal and mercantile imperialism because it is not the same thing as the imperialism that arises from monopoly capitalism. They under-estimate the importance of the well-known fact that British capitalism exhibited some of the features of imperialism early (colonial expansion) and others late (fusion of bank and industrial capital). The fact that the British Empire was founded before the establishment of “imperialism proper” did not save it from exploitation.

This section ends with a challenge. “For Irish Marxists to demonstrate that imperialism and anti-imperialism are a living reality in Irish politics and that the confrontation between them is the overriding one, they must show that they derive their significance from their role in the overall strategic situation of which Irish politics forms a part.” Why must they do so? Because of something the three authors have found in a book? Nevertheless perhaps they might be prepared to attempt it. The 26 counties remain outside NATO because of the British occupation of the six counties. When Lord Mountbatten was killed in Sligo, the Daily Telegraph in an editorial told the “provisional IRA” why Britain refused to withdraw. The reason was that the whole of Ireland might fall into the hands of communists, a somewhat irrational fear but requiring neutrality.

The six counties play an important part in the so-called “western defences” and a German statesman recently told a Dublin audience that the absence of the 26 counties from NATO deprived the Americans of a means of quick access to Europe, and of under-populated areas in which to hold reserve forces.

After a section which attempts to ascribe a peasant origin to Irish national movements, an extreme over-simplification, comes a discussion of the state. It is preluded by an attack on the old Irish Workers’ Party for giving its programme “Ireland her own” a nationalist tendency. The authors think “In this extremely backward situation one primary objective of Irish Marxism must be to detach Marxism from bourgeois ideology and to emphasise its proletarian content. This means drawing upon its distinctive features rather than passing them over in favour of what it shares with bourgeois or petty-bourgeois thought”. In this petty-bourgeois dons are telling the workers to be more proletarian!

Then follows a sentence without a main verb, “The lack of relevance to contemporary Ireland of ‘imperialism’ and the ‘right of nations to self-determination; the ideological pertinence of concepts which are distinctively Marxist.” What this means is anybody’s guess but the result is made dazzlingly clear by this gem of lucidity. “These imperatives suggest the employment of concepts which seek a Marxist-Leninist understanding of the relation of class forces and forms of class power in societies relatively indifferent to such problems as from the point of view of external determinants, for all purposes ‘normal’ bourgeois societies.”

Imperatives! Is this Kant, cant or can’t?

What it boils down to is dismissing the main political division in the six counties and by ignoring the nationalists pretending the six counties form a “normal” society. The introduction concludes with the words “The emphasis in the analysis that follows will, in other words be on the internal relations with the Protestant bloc.” It is as if a ship’s captain, in a hurricane and in sight of dangerous rocks, should concentrate on a quarrel between the purser and the cook over whether they would take tea or coffee.

As previously stated the body of the book contains interesting facts which the reader will assess for himself. We are here concerned with the tendency. A plain man surveying the six county scene would guess that while the Unionist leaders were selling their country in return for privileges, there would be room for differences over how much of the price should be passed onto their working class supporters, or whether possibly the price could be augmented with a bonus paid for this purpose. If they were too tight-fisted, some workers might turn to Labour, or even (as happened in 1932 and 1961 to 1965) consider an alliance with the nationalists. The authors do not present this dilemma in plain English. That would be contrary to the strategic conception. Those Unionists who are prepared to milk hard at the imperial cow so as to placate the masses are called “populists.” Those under the thumb of the Treasury are called “anti-populists.”

The way in which sectarianism has been used in order to head off Labour revolt will best be appreciated in an example taken from real life. Some years ago there was a housing agitation in one of the Protestant areas of Belfast. A city councillor was given a very rough passage at an open air meeting. Finally he cried “Ach! To hell with the rents. Let’s have The Sash.” And they all sang it. He was out of his difficulty for that evening.

Now the word “populist” gradually changes its meaning as the writers proceed. City councillors like the above-mentioned are thereby absolved from the charge of stirring up sectarian feeling. This is how it is done. The authors do not consider that “populists” and “anti-populists” represent distinct economic interests, although they suggest in dealing with the post-war welfare state that the linen industry played a distinct part. They have recourse to a Mr. Balibar who thought up a theory that “the conflict of and dominance by particular fractions etc arises not from organic internal divisions of that class but from the state’s responsibility to the proletariat and its divisions.” Being translated this possibly means that when the working class is divided the capitalists can afford the luxury of dividing over how to deal with it. But one suspects it has little meaning at all.

Having reached this position the authors can proceed progressively to associate the “populists” with the Unionist workers. Moreover they expressly reject Harbinson’s opinion that “the Unionist bourgeoisie has at various stages in the past simply decided to promote sectarianism.” Orange “triumphalism” (bless us!), worship exclusivism” (bless us again!) and “unofficial violence” become “determinate practices” of the protestant working class. We have the conclusion that the populists “banged the big drum when the class struggle dictated bourgeois forbearance of independently generated popular Protestant activity.” So it is all the fault of the workers.

Elsewhere the authors admit that “the sectarian and supremacist ideologies of the Protestant masses have been condoned and encouraged by the ruling class.” But how did these ideologies originate? Out of thin air? There are those who believe they arose from two hundred years of calculated indoctrination. If the Labour movement in the six counties is to be criticized it is for too readily capitulating on this front and not setting on foot a countering propaganda.

The authors conclude cautiously that “contrary to common assumption there is nothing inherently reactionary about the Protestant working class or, for that matter, a national frontier which puts Protestants in a numerical majority.” I know of no Irish Marxist or Republican who ever suggested that the Protestant working class was inherently reactionary, though the work of the three authors seems to imply it. There was nothing inherently reactionary about the German working class though they supported Hitler. There is nothing inherently Unionist about the Protestant workers. Indeed they remain inherently Irish.

As to the frontier, what Irish Marxists and Republicans want is precisely a national frontier. Ireland’s frontier is the sea. Do the three authors assert that there would be something inherently reactionary in a national frontier which put Catholics in the majority? They seem to be implying it.

Throughout the whole of this book the role of British imperialism is consistently played down. The six counties held for military-political strategic reasons at enormous expense, are said to possess only marginal importance to Britain. An example of this is shown on page 175 where the authors write that “in the summer of 1940 Churchill effectively offered the province to de Valera on condition that he joined Britain in the war against Germany.” A note explains that the offer was made in a letter to Roosevelt “who was evidently in touch with de Valera.” Whether Roosevelt was in touch with de Valera or not, what happened at official level was that Malcolm MacDonald visited de Valera on June 26th and presented the proposals of the British Government. These are printed at length in Lord Longford and Thomas O’Neill’s life of de Valera.

The British Government offered to make a declaration accepting the principle of a united Ireland. This is the declaration they refuse to make today. In return British military and naval forces were to operate within the 26 counties, Italian and German citizens were to be interned, a joint defence council of representatives of “Eire” and Northern Ireland was to be established.

But the unification of the country was not to be set on foot at once. A joint body including representatives of “the Government of Eire and the Government of Northern Ireland” was to be set up to work out constitutional and practical details of the union of Ireland. The Unionists veto remained. If they objected to reunification partition remained.

De Valera rejected the proposal. For in effect it would have handed back the 26 counties to British control while leaving the issue of reunification on the long finger. It needs to be said that Ireland would have gained reunification from Britain on the basis of re-entering the United Kingdom at any time over the past sixty years.

Messrs Bew, Gibbon and Patterson have worked hard but they have hardly made their case. In their last paragraph they call for “a decisive break with Irish Marxism’s subordination to bourgeois ideology” that is to say to Republican objectives. Whatever about that it is unlikely they will substitute an ideology of Unionism which is all the authors’ ultra-leftism can offer.