The theory of Permanent Revolution and Ireland: is there a socialist quintessence in Irish nationalism?

Submitted by Matthew on 5 March, 2010 - 8:38 Author: Sean Matgamna

[This is a copy-edited and slightly expanded version of the text in Solidarity replying to Lysaght.]

A dozen years on from the “Good Friday Agreement” (GFA) things in Northern Ireland are far from settled. The Good Friday system is far from stable.

The political system set up by the GFA is an intricate network of bureaucratised Catholic-Protestant sectarianism. Communal antagonism is still so strong that it takes 60 or so permanent walls to keep active communalism from erupting into violence across Belfast.

Militarist republican activity is still a major factor in Northern Ireland. It is a growing force.

The age-old pattern of physical-force-on-principle republicans going political, and being denounced as traitors for it by other physical-force-on-principle republicans who try to fill the vacated role, is still in operation in Irish republican politics.

So too is the half-century old phenomenon of “Trotskyist” mystics weaving socialist political fantasies around physical force republicanism, muddying the political waters — Rayner Lysaght and his comrades of the Irish “Fourth Internationalists” (Mandelites), for instance.

Their basic idea is that there must be an Irish national revolution — concretely that means that the political unification of the island must be won: that's all it can mean — and that in the winning of that nationalist, "bourgeois-democratic" revolution against "Imperialism" the Irish working class, North and South, Protestant and Catholic, can be roused, mobilised and educated in "the struggle" to go on "uninterruptedly" to make the Irish socialist revolution.

For the duration of the Provo War, "Permanent Revolution" served to rationalise accomodation to the Provisional IRA: up to the Good Friday Agreement, there were always "Trotskyists", and not by any means only in Ireland, to argue that, any day now, the Provo war would start to "develope" into the Irish Workers' revolution.

Thus Rayner Lysaght raises serious questions. These issues are still very important on the Irish left. True, Lysaght does not handle any of them seriously. I’ll try to make up for that, taking the issues in the order of their political importance. [*see footnote]

Permanent revolution

Let us discuss the theory of Permanent Revolution and Ireland.

History knows a number of classic bourgeois revolutions against feudalism — that of the Dutch republic in the 16th century, the English Cromwellian revolution of the 1640s, and the "supplementary revolution in 1688, and the great French revolution against the king and the entrenched aristocrats, in 1789 and after.

These revolutions won freedom for developing bourgeois societies from old feudal and church-state constraints, restrictions and interference. They won civil liberties — in England such things as habeas corpus, no pre-publication censorship and, above all, the rule of parliament — with very limited suffrage — instead of that of the king. In the netherlansds they won self-determination.

In France the lower orders, the "sans-culottes", made the revolution and put their own radical stamp on it before ceding power to the bourgeoisie.

But what of countries in the era of modern capitalism where bourgeois-democratic revolutions still need to be made, and where a set of unrealised bourgeois-democratic tasks, necessary for the development of society, overlap with, abut on, working class socialist revolutions or revolutionary movements? "Permanent revolution"?

Theories of permanent revolution concern themselves with the relationship of the working class socialist revolution to still-ahead bourgeois revolutionary social tasks in underdeveloped countries, where feudalistic and other pre-capitalist institutions need to be overthrown — freedom for market economic development, civil liberties and a democratic republic need to be won. That includes colonies and semi-colonial countries struggling for bourgeois democratic freedom against colonialism and imperialism, and in the first place for self-determination.

There are a number of theories of permanent revolution. They can be divided conveniently into pre- and post-October 1917 theories.

After the defeat of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in 1848, Karl Marx talked of the revolution “in permanence”, and he roughed out working class tactics for such situations: the workers would join with bourgeois revolutionaries against reaction, would strike the common enemy together with them, but would “march separately” — maintain working class political independence and serve working class goals. It would be a continuous process, up to the working-class conquest of power. In fact, the bourgeois-democratic revolutions were everywhere defeated. Marx soon faced the fact that capitalism had entered into a long period of, more or less, stable expansion.

Central Europe evolved differently from any "permanent revolution" scenario. In Germany, Bismarck, the servant of the junker landlords and the monarchy, carried out most of the bourgeois social — as distinct from political — goals of the 1848 revolution, in his own way and from above, without dislodging the junker class or the monarchy, indeed strengthening and enhancing them. When the radical bourgeois political tasks posed in 1848 were realised in 1918/19 — the monarchy overthrown, the democratic Weimar Republic set up — it wasn’t as part of an ongoing working class-led permanent revolution: it was counterposed by its leaders, the right-wing social democrats, to the German proletarian revolution. You could say it was inverted “permanent revolution”. For the working class it was a counter-revolutionary bourgeois-democratic revolution. (It was the starting-point for the disorientation on the question of democracy which still sometimes skewers the revolutionary left. [[ node/8147])


The pioneer Marxists in Russia, like the Marxists of other socially and politically backward countries, advocated a revolution like that of the French revolution, as a necessary stage in social evolution towards the possibility of a socialist revolution. The Russian Marxists, Plekhanov above all, took their stand against Russia's predominant Narodnik populists, who hoped that history would spare Russia the experience of capitalism, that there could, so to speak, be a jump into socialism rooted in the peasantry. Plekhanov insisted that Russian capitalism already existed and was developing, irreversibly. Inevitably, it would continue to develop. In Russia too, socialism would be be made by the industrial proletariat. But what exactly did this mean in Russia — in concrete Russian soocial and poltical conditions?

On this two basic Marxist schools of thought emerged in the 1905 revolution and after, both based on the premiss that increasingly capitalist but immensely backward Russia was socially ripening toward a revolution like that which England and France had had. These were the Bolshevik and Menshevik schools.

I’ll put it very schematically. For the Mensheviks, including the great pioneers Plekhanov and Axelrod, this bourgeois revolution would be led by the bourgeoisie. One task of the Marxists was to make sure the bourgeoisie weren’t frightened off doing that by an over-assertive working class movement.

Lenin in 1905 and after (indeed, until he died, in January 1924) agreed that Russia was ripe enough only for a bourgeois-democratic revolution like that of France 100 years earlier. But, analysing the social and political relations in Russia, including the bourgeoisie in ther relationship to the landlords on one side and to the powerful working class movement on the other, he concluded that the Russian bourgeoisie could not, would not, lead an anti-tsarist revolution: they were tied in too closely by financial and other ties to the landlords and too afraid of the militant socialist working class to do that. At best they would work to modify the Tzarist regime, with postt-1848 Germany and the English Whig settlement of 1688 as their models.

Lenin’s paradoxical conclusion was that the bourgeois revolution in Russia would be led by the workers and peasants, in something like equal partnership. The workers and peasants would in that revolution play the role of the plebeian sans culottes in the French revolution, who had, before the Jacobins were overthrown, driven the revolution far deeper than the bourgeoisie wanted. The “bourgeois revolution” would in that sense also be a revolution against the big bourgeoisie. It would be bourgeois in what it achieved — a republic, democratic rights — but the bourgeoisie could not lead that revolution.

Lenin postulated a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”. Dictatorship here meant not what Stalinism would make the word mean in the 20th century. “Democratic dictatorship” was not oxymoronic, but plebeian democracy: it would be mass dictatorship in the sense that the workers and peasants would overrule and destroy the laws and entrenched rights of the old rulers, physically suppressing those who served them and, in general, would act “dictatorially” in that sense. The force that would do it would itself be a democratically self-ruling mass movement.

It was, Lenin argued, in the interests of the working class that as much as possible of the old feudalistic debris be cleared away, and replaced by a democratic republic in which all political and social relations were transparent and stripped of mystifications: these would be the best conditions for the working class struggle for socialism in the decades after the bourgeois revolution had reached equilibrium.

Trotsky made pretty much the same assessment as did Lenin, but he disagreed with Lenin’s political conclusions and perspectives. In 1905 he analysed Russian social conditions and postulated that the Russian anti-tsarist revolution would be led by the working class which would go on interruptedly to take power for itself and make a working class revolution. It would be one continuous process. Trotsky advocated “permanent revolution”.

Yes, said Trotsky, to Lenin’s democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasantry: the workers and peasants will make the bourgeois revolution, but not as in Lenin’s conception as more or less equal partners. The revolution would culminate not in the establishment of a bourgeois democratic republic but of a workers’ republic: the permanent revolution would go in one uninterrupted movement, led by the workers, at the head of, not in equal partnership with, the peasantry.

The peasantry, argued Trotsky, can play no independent role in making the socialist revolution: they will, as in history so far the peasantry always have, follow, be led by, one of the town classes — either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat.

The workers, backed by, at the head of, the peasantry will make the revolution. The workers will take power — not democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasantry but dictatorship of the proletariat (again, dictatorship meaning not the meaning Stalinism has given it in modern history, but as above: it would be a mass popular dictatorship against the old ruling class and their institutions and their servants, smashing their power and institutions — taking those institutions by storm). And what will the working class do in power?

Pass a self-denying ordinance and not look out for their own working-class interests — for example, not pass eight-hour day legislation? No, Trotsky argued, to consolidate, the workers in power will act in their own class interests. Make Russian socialism? No. That was impossible. It was too backward, economically and socially. Here Trotsky did not differ from either the Mensheviks or Lenin that socialism could not be built in Russia.

This would be a working class revolution in social conditions that were greatly unripe for the creation of socialism — where Marxists believed socialism was not yet socially possible. What would happen after the Russian workers had taken power and set up a workers’ republic? That would be determined by the fate of the working class revolution in Western Europe, where social conditions were ripe for the creation of a socialist society.

After the workers’ revolution, Trotsky concluded, either the workers’ dictatorship would be overthrown in Russia, as the Jacobins had been in France in 1794, or the revolution would spread to Western Europe and the countries where, once in power, the workers could, in ripe social conditions, begin to make a socialist society: on the international plane, the Russian revolution will if that happens be able to compensate for its backwardness, and Russia will take its place as a backward working class ruled segment of a European working class state, which is driving towards socialism in the advanced countries.

For Trotsky, there would be an uninterrupted sequence of bourgeois-democratic revolutionary-socialist tasks, led by the working class, and in that sense, a fusion of the two revolutions, bourgeois and proletarian.

But the defeats in the west — in Germany, the inverted counter-revolutionary permanent revolution — left Russia isolated. The Russian Stalinist counter-revolution was the result.



What happened in 1917? The February revolution made a clean sweep of tsarism, discredited by the war and its catastrophes. In Lenin’s absence the Bolshevik party in Russia, led by Kamenev and Stalin, settled into supporting the new regime which, in fact, procrastinated over such “bourgeois” tasks of the revolution as the distribution of land to the peasants.

Now, basing himself on the great militancy of the working class and, as always, guided by concrete realities, not by dogmatic abstractions, Lenin grasped concretely what Trotsky had grasped already in 1905 — that the Russian revolution would be a working class revolution, or it wouldn’t happen: counter-revolution would roll things back. The bourgeois and proletarian revolutions would have to form a continuous sequence.

In 1918, in "The proletarian revolution and the renegade Kautsky", Lenin described the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the first period after the working class had taken power in the October revolution.

So the difference between democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasantry and Trotsky’s permanent revolution were of no importance? Lenin got there too, in his own step-by-step way? Lenin got there, but he had a struggle to reorient the Bolshevik party, to turn it away from support for the post-February revolution regime and direct it toward taking power. No one else but Lenin could have changed the role of the Bolshevik party from the role it played for a few weeks under Kamenev and Stalin to that of the party that led the proletarian — and thus also the bourgeois democratic — revolution half a year later.

Suppose that Lenin had died in exile in January 1917. Then the “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasantry” would not have been, as it was, a corridor to permanent revolution and Lenin’s policy that culminated in working-class power after October 1917. It would have been interpreted as Stalin and Kamenev interpreted the old party line before Lenin returned to Russia and won the day for permanent revolution at the April conference of the Bolshevik party. If Lenin hadn’t been there, or failed to win over the Bolshevik party, then Trotsky’s “permanent revolution” would be known to us as the utopian fantasy of a Russian Marxist who, like the narodnik-populist Socialist Revolutionary Party, blurred the distinction between the Marxist idea of the revolution and that of the socialist populists.

Without Lenin — without his ability to focus on evolving reality and not be confused by a previous, now outmoded, inadequate or incomplete theoretical scenario — the old Bolshevik commitment to a "democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasantry" would have led the Bolshevik party to play the role of saboteur of the working-class revolution that some Mensheviks played.

(A pernicious, subterranean conclusion is often drawn from this episode, in and around the Trotskyist movement: Lenin’s Bolshevik party made all the difference; that party was built on false political perspectives and then reoriented — the task is to build the party and don’t worry too much about the politics. The SWP approach — “apparatus Marxism” [].

In the discussions in the late 1930s on the class character of the Russian Stalinist state, Trotsky said there was a paralell between his, Trotsky's, holding on to the formula that Russia was a degenerated workers state and Lenin's position on the "Democratic Dictatorship of Proletariat and Peasantry: so long, said Trotsky, as our practical politics against Stalinism, in the first place our advocy of a "political" revolution against the bureaucratic autocracy ruling the USSR, are concretely adequate, it won't in practice matter if we have to jettison the deformed workers state theory later on. He spelled out the considerations that would lead him to do that. They included: if Russia survived the looming world war.

At the end of his life, he moved steadily, step by step, away from the degenerated workers state theory. In his last writing on the subject, on the eve of his death, "The Comintern and the GPU" [Stalinist secret police] he defined the Communist Party leaders all over the world as mere aspirants to the social role which the totalitarian bureaucracy played in Russia. He redefined the Russian system as only "provisionally" progressive. And then he died, leaving his followers to flounder around the degenerated workers state theory. (See the introduction to the Workers Liberty book, "The Fate of the Russian Revolution".), rather as Kamenev and Stalin had, without Lenin, floundered around the "Democratic Dictatorship of Proletariat and Peasantry" early in 1917. What the post-Trotskyists made of the Theory of Permanent Revolution - see below - was rooted there: in the hames they made of the degenerate workers state theory)

The Communist International’s Theses on the national and colonial questions of 1920, drafted by Lenin, and amended at the congress, cautiously codified the Russian experience in the formula that there would not necessarily be a period of stable bourgeois rule in backward countries. The Stalinists would turn this on its head in Comintern policy from the Fifth World Congress of the Comintern (mid 1924), imposing on communists in colonial countries (and even in Ireland) what in 1917 had been the Menshevik dogma: first must come the bourgeois revolution and then, at a later stage, a socialist revolution.


Trotsky and after

In 1928 Trotsky wrote a book-length polemic against Karl Radek — The Permanent Revolution. He generalised the permanent revolution for third world revolution. Essentially, it was the pattern of Russia — the bourgeoisie could not lead the struggle for national independence: the proletariat would have to, and combine that with making its own revolution. He summed this up as a process of “the reconstruction of the nation under the leadership of the working class”.

Trotsky’s permanent revolution was a perspective of action by the working class, led by communist parties. Its protagonist was the working class, led by a revolutionary party. Nowhere in any of the allegedly working class revolutions in third world countries, in the 1940s and after, was the proletariat the protagonist: in Yugoslavia and China peasant/déclassé communist parties took power. The workers played little part and no independent part. In China, for instance, the proletariat immediately felt the repression of the Stalinist regime.

The working class communist movement in the earlier Chinese revolution had been drowned in blood in 1927. The remnants of the Communist Party, led by Mao and Chu Teh, relocated to the countryside, abandoning the working class. The Japanese invasion of 1937 pulverised the coastal cities where the proletariat had been mainly based destroying much of the old proletariat. Trotsky in 1931 had raised the idea that the communists like Mao who had moved to the backward regions might evolve into an anti-working class force. It did.

The post-Trotsky Trotskyists had to face the reality that Stalinist revolutions in Yugoslavia, China and Vietnam were anti-capitalist revolutions: they used the theory of the permanent revolution to rationalise accommodation to Stalinism, which was both anti-capitalist and anti-working class.

Isaac Deutscher did the same rationalisation in terms of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution for a mass audience in his “Trotsky” trilogy. The whole sleight of mind here depended on identifying such things as the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the peasant armies with the proletariat — of reading backwards from the conclusion that China, for instance, was a degenerated workers’ state. The Mandel-Pablo “Fourth” International did not think a political revolution necessary in China for 20 years after the Maoist consolidation in 1949!

They interpreted the actual events of the revolution, where the proletariat played no part, certainly no leading part, and no important part, with Trotsky’s “permanent revolution”, in which the working class had been central. In this “permanent revolution”, the proletariat was not the protagonist but at most a bit-part player. The CPs were substituted for the proletariat.

This Stalinist “socialist revolution” resulted in the rule of a primitive bureaucratic ruling class over the workers — over workers held in a tight, totalitarian grip; the bourgeois-democratic element — the bourgeois-democratic freedoms won in western Europe and other places — which had been a central dynamic in Trotsky’s version of permanent revolution (as indeed in Lenin’s approximation to permanent revolution, the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”), was non-existent here.

Here too, even if you identified the peasant movement with the bourgeois democratic element of the bourgeois democratic revolution, the fact of a totalitarian state radically changes all the values and meanings. The peasant movement against landlords, leading to the expropriation of landlords, this was done under firm Stalinist control. After the establishment of the Stalinist regime the peasants and their landownership were at the mercy of the totalitarian state. The bourgeois democratic element — free republic, democratic rights, etc — was entirely absent.

Stalinism in power negated almost all the gains of society in bourgeois democratic history: the “bourgeois democratic” element in this revolution was a totalitarian Stalinist rule which Leon Trotsky, and even the 2nd Congress of the Fourth International as late as 1948, said differed very little from fascism.

In Volume 1 of his trilogy on Trotsky Isaac Deutscher asks how it was that Trotsky’s prediction of collapse and defeat of the Russian proletarian revolution if it didn’t spread quickly to Europe had not happened. He answered: Trotsky had not anticipated the power of a totalitarian state — the Stalinist state. As an observation that was true. Its implicit identification of the workers’ “permanent revolution” with the totalitarian Stalinist state was a pernicious nonsense.

The point that concerns us here is that permanent revolution in post-Trotsky Trotskyism — in Lysaght’s “Fourth International” -- is radically different from Trotsky’s permanent revolution. It is Trotsky’s permanent revolution formula emptied of its central content — working class activity and working-class socialist revolution.

It is simply a formula to allow confused Trotskyists to reconcile themselves to revolutionary third world Stalinism.

The proper formula for what this Stalinist “permanent revolution” was in reality would be not Trotsky’s formula of the reorganisation of the nation under the leadership of the proletariat, but the reorganisation of the nation under the totalitarian dictatorship of the Stalinist bureaucracy put in power by civil war, based on peasant armies. Trotsky’s profound theory was bowdlerised and relegated to a fond and stupid rationalisation for these Stalinist totalitarian revolutions.

I know only one case in the 20th century after 1917 where the formula about reconstructing the nation under the leadership of the working class described reality. That was in Poland between 1980 and 1989. There the whole movement for the emancipation of Poland from Russia’s imperialist rule was led by the working class and its organisation Solidarnosc. The Polish nation reconstructed itself around the core movement originating in the Gdansk shipyards in 1980.

Permanent revolution? If you insist. Except that it was the reorganisation of the oppressed Polish nation by way of a revolution against the Stalinist and Russian overlords that created not a socialist but a bourgeois Polish society. It was bourgeois democratic liberation winning tremendously important liberties, not least the liberty for the workers to organise freely, but it led not to working class power and socialism, but to a bourgeois Poland. Better by far if the Polish workers had transformed the property of the Stalinist state into real social property. Even so, bourgeois democracy is better, and against Stalinist totalitarianism, historically progressive.


What has all this to do with Ireland?

Ireland and “permanent revolution”

In Ireland, permanent revolution has functioned as a rationalisation to allow people like Rayner Lysaght to pretend that the Provo war would somehow evolve, self-transform, into an Irish proletarian revolution uniting Catholic and Protestant workers. It was always and in all instances simply foolish to do what people like Ernest Mandel did when he crammed Stalinist facts into Trotsky’s theory; its equivalent in Ireland it is simply puerile.

Insofar as anything definable and even remotely coherent is described in the Irish context by the formula “permanent revolution”, it is the notion that Irish national struggle is incomplete, and that Ireland’s national struggle can only be completed under the leadership of the working class. But every single premiss of this idea is so false that the assertion is simply ridiculous. It is the plaything of pretentious fools.

Ireland is, in terms of society and economy, bourgeois. It is far freer from what might (misleadingly) be said to be feudalistic elements, than is Britain, with its House of Lords, the monarchy with its vested reserve powers, etc. Protestant Ireland had its bourgeois revolution in 1688. The history of the two countries is so intertwined way back into the early Middle Ages that you get in Ireland reflections of and emanations from the various moves in British society toward modern capitalism, but in a very distorted fashion. The core Irish bourgeois revolution was made in the 19th and early 20th centuries by the British bourgeoisie — under tremendous pressure from Irish social revolt, certainly — from above.

Michael Davitt famously named his book of 1905 about the struggle for the land between peasant and landlords "The fall of feudalism in Ireland". Arguably the system before the reforms of 1869-70 really was a sort of feudalism. The landlords simply confiscated the work, land improvement, etc, by the tenant, thus expropriating every beginnings to capitalist accumulation of the sort that Britain had experienced long ago.

From 1869-70 provision was made in principle for state assistance in buying out landlords willing to sell. Its immediate practical consequences were negligible. Gladstone’s Liberals, committed to low state expenditure, were in their basic approach and principles, willing only to provide state aid to tenants who could themselves put up a large part of the total price. Only the very well-off tenants could benefit; and in fact few tenants did at first benefit.

It was the Tories who carried out the full land revolution in Ireland. It should be said here very plainly that by the 1870s and 80s the Tories were the main party of the bourgeoisie, including the landed bourgeoisie. The Tories in a succession of acts of parliament simply gave the Irish peasants the land of landlords willing to sell — as indeed, by then, many were — substituting a state mortgage for the rent, usually for a lesser annual payment than there had been in rent. Over a number of decades the farmer would become the sole owner of the land. This was done in waves, the greatest being the Wyndham Land Act of 1903.

After the “political revolution” of 1918-23, the Free State Land Act of 1923 added an element of compulsory sale, but all that did was tidy things up a little bit: the British bourgeoisie had carried out a profound revolution in the land system in Ireland and in Irish society. In a sense, it was a very late extension of the British bourgeois revolution.

This radical bourgeois social revolution, organised by the British ruling class from above, exchanged the old landlords for their petty peasant spawn. The winning of the Free State in 1922 and, in the dozen years afterwards, the extension of 26 county state autonomy to full and real independence, was a sort of — very important — political afterword.

One of the aspects of the land reform that is sometimes ignored was how important it was in Protestant Ulster, to the Ulster Protestant descendents of the 17th Century settlers. A large number of Protestant Ulster smallholders — who had had English style rather than Irish Catholic tenant relationships with their landlords — benefited greatly from the Tory Land Acts.

Ireland, I repeat, is a bourgeois society, north and south. There is no bourgeois democratic development to win except maybe in certain Catholic areas along the border, whose majority population are in the six counties against their will and therefore lack self-determination.

All permanent-revolution-for-Ireland fantasists base themselves on the ideological lie that Britain is just a colonial power in Northern Ireland, that if the Northern Ireland people wanted them to go Britain would refuse to go, that the British are still manipulating the Protestants to their own advantage. But by this time of the political day you have to have turf-dust for brains, or subscribe to a mythical transcendental nationalism, to hold that view.

The opposition to Irish unity comes from Irish people — Irish Protestant/ Unionists who describe themselves as British. If talking of “British occupied Ireland”, as distinct from Protest-Unionist Irish occupied north east Ulster, has any meaning at all it is only in relation to the Catholic majority border areas of the six counties.

Substituting vague talk of “imperialism” for the specific proposals and definable goals of a real bourgeois democratic revolution is simply to mystify things.

In reality the underlying logic of your talk about British occupied Ireland is to simply target the Protestant Irish people in north east Ulster. To my knowledge, no republicans state that clearly, or consciously want it. Certainly, you don’t. In practice, however, that logic worked its way during the IRA’s long war in attacks on Irish Unionists, dubbed traitors for “collaborating” with Britain. That came to be a central part of the situation.

In Ireland north and south there is no way to go beyond what exists socially and economically except by way of a proletarian revolution — the Workers’ Republic.

One of the self-consolations of post-Trotsky Trotskyism faced with a world taking shapes we never expected it to take was the response to things such as the liberation under bourgeois regimes of colonies and the abandonment of the old colonial systems – under American pressure – after 1945. Post-Trotsky Trotskyists asked the question: but are they really free? They are not economic fully free, we said; they are caught in a worldwide web of imperialist economic rule.

True. But this is to amalgamate and confuse distinct things. Whereas it is possible to fight imperialism physically, to drive it out of a colony, and thus win freedom, it is not possible to wage such a struggle against worldwide advanced capitalist-imperialist hegemony. That does not defend an occupation and colonisation.

The answer to this impossibility opted for in some third world countries has been economic autarky, self-cutting-off from the world market. It is in reality a retrogressive step. And yet this drive to autarky is — short of a worldwide working class revolution — the only logical alternative to economically weak countries being immersed in the world economy. It is a reactionary petit-bourgeois populist-national blind alley!

Whereas a particular measure of third world state nationalisation of imperialist controlled assets may be progressive in terms of filling out national independence, the only completely progressive way out of the current situation for less developed countries and weaker economies is the proletarian revolution, in those countries and in the advanced capitalist countries. Theories such as permanent revolution were pressed into service to explain post-colonial developments, as they had been used to rationalise Stalinist revolutions in Third World countries but to do it in such a way that simultaneously denied or half-denied that “real” decolonisation had actually happened.

Thus you had tremendous mystification. This is important for the Irish experience.

Ireland, of course, is not and never will be the economic equivalent of Britain. Economic independence? In a number of countries certain nationalist regimes have tried to do something like that, cut off as much as possible from the world market — in Argentina, for example. And in Ireland.

Between 1932 and 1958 Ireland attempted to make itself as economically independent as possible. It did this behind high tariff walls. People who wanted to become manufacturers of goods sold in Ireland had merely to ask the government to put on a high enough tariff against the importation of such goods to make it economical for Irish manufacture to replace them. It led to the creation of jobs. It perhaps served Ireland well in the Second World War. But after the Second World War Ireland was caught in a stifling system in which its goods could not compete overseas.

Economic stagnation led in 1958 to the abandonment of that system (by the same government Fianna Fail, and even the same minister, Sean Lemass, which has brought it into being in the first place).

In the politics of post-Trotsky Trotskyism the notion that the ex-colonies are not economically independent served to blur the distinction between working class politics and national populism of various sorts, including third world Stalinism. It does that in Irish politics now.

It is not a matter here of supporting or not supporting an ex-colonial state’s seizure of foreign-owned basic assets. Trotsky supported the Mexican state seizure of the foreign owned old fields as an aspect of Mexico’s exercise of self-determination. It is a matter of explicitly or implicitly substituting for the programme of the working class revolution a programme of national-populist economics and a drive to autarky as a way forward for ex-colonial countries — and even for an advanced bourgeois country like Ireland.

Nowhere should this be clearer than in independent Ireland, where governments operated such a policy for a full quarter of a century. There is only one national liberation or bourgeoisie democratic task in Ireland that — in any theory of “Irish permanent revolution” — can be conceivably assigned to the proletariat – unification of the island. That’s all Rayner Lysaght and others mean by permanent revolution for Ireland.


People divided

The problem is that the root of partition is the division in the Irish people.

How might “permanent revolution” “work” in the real Irish conditions?

The people are mobilised by a working class based party on the demand for unification. The roused workers ally with an equally roused peasantry — to do what? Invade the north? Resume the Provo war inside the north? Hope that such a Southern mobilisation for unification would evoke a similar movement among Protestants in Northern Ireland? Again, to do what? What would such a movement do, what could it hope to do?

In fact a mass mobilisation for unification in Northern Ireland by a majority – it would have to include a sizeable proportion of the Protestant Unionists – would achieve it quickly and easily. Britain would simply have no reason to resist it. Short of the whole situation radically changing, Britain would certainly not resist it.

And how would such a popular mobilisation for unification go over from its initial form — a movement for political unification of the island — into a working class revolution? Or even into a movement for working class revolution? Certainly it would not be out of the working class being the most consistent fighters for unification, while the upper classes would, as upper classes in third world countries did, drag their feet.

Certainly not because British resistance would radicalise the movement and lead it in self-defence to attack British bourgeois property in Ireland.

In fact of course it is simply inconceivable that a mobilisation for unity would include most or even a lot of Protestant unionists. The experience of the Provos’ war and its impact on the south shows that there would not be a mobilisation of anything like the majority of Catholics even in the South. In any such mobilisation, the Protestant majority in north-east Ulster would inevitably be the target against which the unification movement would organise and unite. It would be against Britain only in so far as Britain defended them and refused to leave Northern Ireland without their agreement. Are you entirely incapable of learning from the events of the last 40 years Raynor?

There was no Catholic mobilisation for unity, but even if there had been what would it have done? Invaded the north? With what goal? To conquer the Protestants, in alliance with the northern Catholics? In the name of what? Physical unification! And afterwards? Hold them against their will in a united Ireland as the Northern Ireland Catholics in the border areas were — and still are — held against their will in the six counties after 1922?

Why? For what conceivable national or republican, socialist or democratic objective? This could make no sense other than as a rabidly chauvinist Catholic-nationalist project. And in the real Ireland it would make no sense even as that. Of course – thank God! – there was no such mobilisation. The attempt by Republicans to send a few busloads over the border in August 1969 was a small political farce. If it had been other than that it would have been the beginning of widespread civil war.

The volunteers who got involved in the north – I was one of them — were negligible in number. The boasting of the then leader of the IRA, Cahal Goulding, that the IRA was mobilising to move north served only to help the Ulster leaders line up the Protestants behind their 6 County government. There was some movement in the south after bloody Sunday 1972 - the British Embassy was burned in Dublin - and around the hunger strikes. It was always feeble and narrowly nationalist. The main effect of the Provo war was to intensely polarise northern society between Catholic and Protestant. A sizeable southern involvement would have led to full-scale Catholic-Protestant civil war.

As I have established in a series of articles on the left and the Irish crisis in 1969 (, the advocates of mobilisation and of opening the southern arsenals to the republicans, etc, to help the northern Catholics, were either raving demagogues who didn’t care what they said — and some of them were — or people who knowingly advocated that the existing states, including the independent Irish state, should stand back and let Catholic-Protestant civil war rip. Such a war might have redrawn the Northern Ireland borders. It would not, could not, have unified Ireland.

The Provo war had as its objective to beat down the Unionists and compel Britain to coerce them — “persuade them” was the doubletalk way of putting it – into a united Ireland. Politically the whole project was simply preposterous. Today there are three times as many “partition walls” in Belfast, separating Protestant and Catholic districts, as there were at the point of the Provo ceasefire.

Arguably, if the Provos hadn't fought their war, a peaceful evolution — Britain and Ireland both in the EU, etc — towards Irish unity would by now be well advanced, bringing voluntary unity closer. And the permanent revolution Trotskyists in all this?

Rayner, you and your comrades have been parasitic – politically, emotionally and intellectually parasitic — on the republican movements for many decades. The truth is that permanent revolution has had no political bearing on Ireland except in providing ideological rationalisation and glosses on what the Provos were doing. You cast yourselves in the role of a special strand of militant nationalists who spouted political gobbledygook about an imaginary working class dimension in the Catholic nationalist struggle and in the Provo war.

You are the mystics — mystical populists – of Catholic nationalism! Not of republicanism in Wolfe Tone's sense or Connolly’s or even Pearse's, but mystics and would be alchemists looking for the fifth essence of nationalism, for a magical and golden transformation that you are convinced will be revealed in time as socialism. In practice you have acted as political outriders and propagandists for the Provo war. “Permanent Revolution” is your mantra!

More than 40 years ago, the manifesto of the Irish Workers’ Group, basing itself on the Theses on the national and colonial question for the 1920 Communist International Congress, dealt in principle with all of these issues. You’d do well to re-read it.
*Footnote. I’ve already, more than once, said what I have to say on permanent revolution and Ireland: in the introduction to a little cluster of letters on the subject from 1966-7 []; in an imaginary dialogue on it, where I used all the arguments Lysaght and others had made in a long discussion in Socialist Organiser (1982), and every other arguement for their position which I could think of [ node/13647]. I’ve discussed “Marxism and Ireland” in a number of articles, including in a review of Lysaght’s strange compilation “The Communists and the Irish revolution” [ node/12135]. But he chose to ignore them: why?

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