IS and Ireland, Czechoslovakia, and the national question (Easter Conference, 1969)

Submitted by dalcassian on 10 June, 2014 - 3:44

Introduction (2014)

The following text, part of the discussion on Ireland in IS (now called SWP) in 1968–69, attempted to expound the basic Marxist principles on national questions, as the Trotskyist Tendency (forerunner of AWL) understood them. It was moved at the Easter 1969 conference of the organisation.

The previous August, the Russians and the armies of their satellite states had invaded Czechoslovakia to suppress the liberal Stalinist regime there. For forgotten reasons, our resolution took the form of an amendment to a resolution from the Glasgow branch.

The Trotskyist Tendency, like other "Orthodox Trotskyists", rejected the term "imperialism" for describing Russia and its empire. This was mainly a quirk of terminology. We supported the right of self-determination for such peoples as the Ukrainians within the USSR, and the right of the East European satellite Stalinist states to full self-determination against the USSR. We advocated the immediate withdrawal of all Russian occupation forces from these countries.

When the strain of Orthodox Trotskyism to which we adhered had split the Fourth International in 1953, one of the issues in play was the proper revolutionary socialist attitude to the East German workers' revolt of that year. We considered it a matter of principle to demand the withdrawal of the Russian occupation forces. Thus, in practice we recognised that there was a Russian Empire, and we had a comprehensive anti-imperialist program in relations to the rights of the oppressed peoples ruled by the Kremlin. So had Trotsky.

At the end of the 1930s, he thought that it would only cause confusion to use the same term, imperialism, for both the Stalinist Russian state and the capitalist imperialist powers. By 1969 our refusal to name the Russian Empire for what it was was a glaring anomaly.

In our resolution, we did not propose the removal of the designation of the Russian Empire as what it was, an empire, from the Glasgow resolution, to which ours appeared as an amendment, because we did not want the discussion to be sidetracked into a dispute about terminology. Perhaps also because we didn't think it all that important in substance.

Memory suggests that the resolution was passed, with the support of the IS leaders; reason tells me that that is unlikely: there is no way of checking.


(IS Easter Conference,1969)

This conference deplores the purely nationalistic emphasis of the National Committee'ss Irish campaign in Britain. IS's line has been no better than that of the CP Irish front group, the Connolly Association.

The NC entirely ignored the need to make socialist propaganda related to Ireland amongst the many Irish workers in Britain, and to offer a class as well as a nationalist explanation of the Irish situation. In advanced industrial countries whose economy is distorted and political and social life dominated by a foreign imperialism (Czechoslovakia, Ireland) any national struggle uniting all strata must be supported. But the class issues must also be pointed out, and class as well as national explanations given: the antagonism between the workers and capitalists or (Stalinist) bureaucratic leaders of the oppressed nation must be clearly established: where, as in the Irish campaign, we have direct access to a big section of workers of the oppressed nation, this must be sharply emphasised.
Thus: “For unconditional Czech national independence” and “for Czech freedom against the bosses, Russian and Czech”. “For unconditional Irish self-determination. For British withdrawal. For a socialist Ireland. Against the bosses, Orange and Green, North and South”.


Recognition of the right of nations to self-determination, irrespective of whether the nation at the given moment is ruled by the capitalists,the workers, or by a Stalinist bureaucracy, is an elementary principle of revolutionary socialism, part of the struggle for democratic rights. This struggle in its various forms is vital for the workers of an oppressed nation – and no less so for those of an oppressor nation.

For the workers in an imperialist country like Britain, active support for self-determination for a country like Ireland must be unconditional – irrespective of the form the struggle in Ireland takes.

If the national struggle is led by the bourgeoisie or by a national Stalinist bureaucracy, then Marxists support critically these struggles (in so far as there are struggles) against national oppression. At the same time we support, openly encourage and, where possible, aid the forces of the workers revolution within the oppressed nation.


The working class has no country – it is an international class. The workers of all countries have more in common with each other then with the rulers (and intermediary layers) of their own country. All nationalism is a degree of blindness for the working class and must be fought against. In the advanced countries of the modern world it is a hangover from the era of bourgeois progress, when the consolidation of national states was an agency of that progress. For advanced capitalist and Stalinist countries, which are not suffering from one or other form of national oppression or discrimination, it is now totally reactionary.


But not all countries are advanced and not all have benefited in equal measure from capitalist progress. Not all countries are free and independent – and many nominally independent countries have a history of national struggle and a mass feeling of frustration that colonialism has been followed not by independent development but by neo-colonialism.

In these countries “nationalism" is still a relatively progressive force (within the limits set by the feebleness of the native bourgeoisie and by the world situation) and expresses a legitimate demand for freedom from oppression and freedom of development. Marxists within these nations support the demand for national freedom from a Marxist internationalist standpoint, seeing it as not a negation of internationalism, but preparation for a future international free union of socialist peoples: it clears away the hostility and antagonism which now divides the people, even the workers, of oppressor and oppressed nations.

The existence side-by-side of countries of vastly uneven development in a world dominated by the giants means that there can be no simple and uniform attitude to an abstract “nationalism”. The nationalism of an oppressed is not the same as the nationalism of an oppressor country. What is true in Western Europe is not true of Angola or Vietnam. For socialists of an advanced country to condemn the national aspirations of backward countries, or to condemn socialist internationalists within these countries for fighting for limited national gains, is to fall into gross “Western European” arrogance and sectarianism. Objectively it is to side with the oppressor against the oppressed in the name of.... Socialism!

Between advanced countries where nationalism is utterly reactionary and colonial countries (Angola, South Vietnam) where it is progressive, there is a middle category represented by a country like Ireland. Here there is a tradition of national struggle, a snarled-up neo-colonial system: the (Partition) Border is blamed for all ills and there is an objective need for freedom from foreign control and of development – all in a relatively advanced West European setting with a very large and militant working-class.

At the same time despite the mass national sentiment, in at least 28/32 counties, there is very little actually to be gained by expanding the lines of formal independence or even by (all-Ireland) unity. The real advance would be to clear away the fog of political confusion that has shrouded Irish politics for decades, and reopen the door to revolutionary working-class politics.

The situation calls for the utmost flexibility and awareness of the issues from both Irish socialists and socialists in the oppressor state, Britain.

In Ireland the demand for national independence must be supported at the same time as simple nationalism of the petty bourgeois romantic sort (the predominant one) must be fought. It offers no solutions at all, and having degenerated into sour sterility and stagnation, has for four decades been the major deflector of revolutionary energy away from a revolutionary socialist programme of struggle against Irish capitalism and British imperialism.

While calling for self-determination for Ireland (and specifically for Tyrone and Fermanagh, the two counties which were held forcibly in “Ulster”) Irish socialists have no option but to give a “Luxenburgist” bias to their work of fighting petty bourgeois nationalism and its reflection in “socialist” groups which adapt to petty bourgeois or bourgeois nationalism, or even degenerate into chauvinism.

They must combine the sensitivity of a Lenin to the feelings of a nation on which oppression has stamped a sharp awareness of its identity, with the determination of a Luxemburg not to let the struggle for socialism and for proletarian internationalism be deflected by nationalist considerations.

A group like IS must, because of the British/Irish relationship, actively support the socialist internationalists in Ireland, also by making propaganda for a socialist Ireland amongst the Irish in Britain. This of course in no way detracts from the duty of British socialists to give unconditional support to the principle of Irish self-determination and to support any genuine struggle that breaks out, irrespective of its leadership.


In advanced countries the capitalist class uses nationalism and chauvinism to shield itself. This must be constantly opposed and exposed by socialists: e.g. the Scottish National Party. But even within some such countries there may arise a form of nationalism which is by no means reactionary, and which should not be bracketed with reactionary nationalism.

In the USA, the objective conditions would seem to push proletarian/capitalist conflict to the fore. But within that country history has deposited an oppressed people who are defined by their colour, who were formerly slaves and who now form an especially oppressed section of the working class. In conditions of capitalist expansion, of the belatedness of the socialist revolution and the lack of a politically developed labour movement in the USA, with the continual collusion of the majority of the white workers with the capitalist class, this black stratum has aroused itself separately into struggle. Wearing the stigma of their colour as a proud badge, their initial consciousness is a form of nationalism, Black Nationalism.

Seeing it as part of a process, Marxists must support these oppressed people. Not to do so on the grounds that “objectively” the major struggle should be between US capitalism and the massed battalions of – white – US labour, would be sectarian in the extreme, attempting to preach a mechanical class unity immediately, while the white workers are acquiescent or even racialist, is in effect to tell the black workers to relapse into passivity and wait patiently for the white workers.

US Black Nationalism is limited (or rather it is an expression of limited possibilities and will have to be outgrown by the black workers). But it is not reactionary. In principle US Marxists should support it and accept in principle the right of the black sub-nation in America to its own territory and, if it so wills, to secede, even after the socialist revolution. For us West European Marxists to condemn it would be to convert Marxism into a supra-historical dogma and prove ourselves incapable of seeing the world from any other angled but that of the most historically privileged nations.

British black nationalism is essentially reactionary, because there is no comparable situation in Britain: Britain's "Deep South" was in the colonies. Black and white workers daily engage in common struggle here, and white workers do not constitute a distinct (let alone a partly institutionalised) group in opposition to black workers within Britain. British socialists must therefore reject any ideas which advocate or accept division of black and white workers: we must struggle for immediate class unity in action.

But even here Marxist must understand (and spread understanding) and be sensitive to the feelings of the black population – faced as they are permanently by the poisonous vapours of racialism and such permanent outrages as Powell and his Labour understudies – which have generated a certain sympathy with British “black nationalism”. Here also we must fight pseudo-Marxist arrogance and “West European” sectarianism, and attempt to work with the black militants.

The above was an amendment submitted by Manchester IS to resolution no.20 from Glasgow IS branch which read as follows:

This Conference rejects the NC's slogans for the Irish Campaign in Britain. Self-determination when conceived in nationalist terms is purely a bourgeois idea with no clear class implications. Nationalism on the other hand is an ideology frequently used by the capitalist class and must be consistently opposed by socialists when economic development allows the class divisions of society between bosses and workers to be posed in its place.

In advanced industrial countries whose economy is distorted by a foreign imperialism (Czechoslovakia, Ireland), any national struggle uniting all strata can be supported but only in terms of raising the class issues. “For Czech freedom against the bosses, Russian and Czech”. “For a socialist Ireland Against the Bosses, Orange and Green, North and South”.

In underdeveloped countries the national struggle can also be supported but only because there is no alternative in that the immediate fight is for industrialisation, the creation of a working-class and against imperialism.

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