Permanent revolution and the Irish left

Submitted by AWL on 3 February, 2015 - 6:12 Author: Micheál MacEoin

Workers’ Liberty has recently examined Trotskyist debates on Ireland (Trotskyists debate Ireland WL 3/45). There is another set of relevant debates worth looking about: over how, and if, Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution” relates to Ireland.

The first debate took place in 1966-67 in the largely émigré Irish Workers’ Group (IWG). It was an attempt to clear away some of the confusions generated by a mechanical application of the theory to Irish realities.

In 1983, another debate took place in Socialist Organiser (forerunner of Solidarity). That debate showed how confusion present in the 1960s had only deepened with the outbreak and ongoing violence of the Troubles.

The 1966-7 debate was launched by an editorial written by Gerry Lawless in the Irish Militant arguing that the “major point of confusion in the Irish left today centres on the national question and its relationship to the struggle for socialism,” and claiming that Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution showed the model.

Lawless’s motivation was to counter the Stalinist/Maoist theories being propagated by the Irish Communist Group led by Brendan Clifford, based on a mechanical and scholastic application of a “stages theory” to Ireland. The theory was that the bourgeoisie must first overthrow “feudalism”, heralding a prolonged stage of bourgeois capitalist rule, during which the working-class would grow and then proceed to overthrow capitalism.

The theory resembled the Menshevik position that Russia, in 1905 and 1917, could not have a workers’ revolution – the bourgeoisie would first have to make a bourgeois revolution. A variant of the theory had been used by the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia to choke the Chinese Revolution in the 1920s. In both cases, the consequences bound the proletariat to a position of political subordinacy to the bourgeoisie.

Lawless’s intention was to reach out for the theory which “refuted” the Stalinist stages theory I.e. “permanent revolution.” However in doing so, Lawless made a concession to the Stalino-Menshevik methodology.

Just as the Menshevik theory was based on a scholastic conception of an idealised French Revolution applied to Russia, and the Cliffordite approach borrowed Russian and Chinese Stalinist theories to apply to Ireland, Lawless abstracted a theory developed by Trotsky from circumstances for which Trotsky developed it, and tried to make it a template for Ireland.

What is Trotsky’s original formulation of permanent revolution?

Firstly, it was a development of Marx’s analysis of the failure of the 1848 revolution in Germany and the need for proletarian class independence in revolutionary situations.

In the first years of the twentieth century Trotsky argued that the revolution in Russia against the Tsar would be bourgeois. Though capitalist social relations had been penetrating Russia in the last decades of the nineteenth-century, it remained a semi-feudal social formation in its land structure and its absolutist state.

But the uneven and combined economic development inside Russia had created a social structure in which the bourgeoisie was numerically and socially weak, and unable to put itself at the head of the workers and peasants. Trotsky argued that the peasants, though they would play a huge part in the revolution, could not develop a clearly distinctive class progam. It would have to be the working class which led the peasants and the oppressed against the Tsar.

The working class, once in power, would be compelled by the logic of the struggle, to go beyond the limits of the bourgeois revolution. Faced with a lock-out or a strike, for example, it would have to take radical measures to back the workers against the capitalists; it would have to make inroads against capitalist private property. Thus the bourgeois revolution, with the workers at its head, would, through working class acivity, be converted “uninterruptedly” into a socialist revolution.

What are the key points from this, and how do they apply (or not) to Ireland?

First, permanent revolution is concerned with the role of the working-class in a bourgeois revolution, in a pre-capitalist feudal or semi-feudal country that is connected to the capitalist world economy.

Do these conditions fit Ireland ? Sean Matgamna wrote in the IWG debate: “As an analysis of [social] forces and a proletarian perspective of action for feudal and semi-feudal countries, the ‘Theory of Permanent Revolution’ does not apply literally to Ireland.”

Ireland was not feudal. The land question in Ireland was settled — from above — in the late nineteenth century and a class of capitalist farmers created. Any land question, from then on, would be a capitalist one.

The two states in Ireland – north and south – were both capitalist states. However far they were from the “norm” of a bourgeois state, no reasonable analysis could conclude that any class other than the bourgeoisie exercised social and political power on both sides of the border.

The problem with Lawless’s editorial was, Matgamna argued, that he “confined [himself] to an abstract outline of the ‘Theory of Permanent Revolution’, merely intimating that it answers the professional confusionists in general [and on Ireland in particular] — without spelling it out. But it must be spelled out ...

“When you talk of there being no period of capitalist rule [between the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions] this is correct for the Theory - but apply it to Ireland and it appears to say that the bourgeoisie don’t hold power yet. To deny that the capitalists have direct power in Ireland, even if they in turn are not their own masters, would be absurd.”

The movement for Catholic civil rights, the Protestant backlash, and breakdown of the sectarian six-county state led to British troops going onto the streets in the North in August 1969. These events restarted much discussion about Ireland on the British left.

After the Troubles intensified in 1971, most of the left backed the demand for “Troops Out”. But the slogan was disconnected from any wider political solution to Catholic-Protestant division. “Troops Out” advocated as a cure-all, implied strongly that the only issue at stake was the involvement of British imperialism in Ireland. The existence of one million Protestant Unionists in the north-east of the island was, if not ignored totally, then relegated to an epiphenomenal status. What role did “permanent revolution” play in this set of “anti-imperialist” politics?

As we saw earlier, Trotsky’s permanent revolution was a perspective for independent working-class action, and an independent working-class political party. But this emphasis was largely absent in post-Trotsky “orthodox Trotskyist” accounts of the theory. It was used, instead, to “explain” the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, in which the working-class played no decisive political role, and to rationalise adaptation to Stalinist and Third World nationalist forces.

After the Stalinist social system expanded in the 1940s and 1950s to cover a third of the world some “orthodox Trotskyists” saw this as an expansion of the “world revolution”, and conceived of this revolution as a process disconnected from working-class agency.

The Stalinist bureaucracy created states in its own image, in which the working-class was crushed and enslaved. For the “orthodox Trotskyists”, these states, “degenerated and deformed workers’ states” were “post-capitalist”, that is to say, in advance of capitalism, even in “transition to socialism.”

In Ireland, this version of “permanent revolution” could mean two positions which, though seemingly opposed, in fact, intersected in a common denial of the need for a democratic programme for Ireland.

The first position involved a fantasy about the latent socialist potential of the Provisional IRA.

Matgamna spelled out the logic, writing in 2009 that: “For the duration of the Provo War ‘Permanent Revolution’ would serve to rationalise accommodation 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 ‘develop’ into the Irish Workers’ revolution.’

The second position was a maximalist variant of “permanent revolution” which saw an unresolved national question in Ireland and asserted that it would be solved under socialism, so “socialism was the answer”.

Both these positions dened the need for a democratic programme aimed at uniting the working-class north and south, Catholic and Protestant and of bridging the gap between working-class trade union struggles and socialism.

The first position denied the identity of a separate community of Protestants in Ireland, seeing them as a passive function of imperialism; the second position denied the need for a democratic programme as part of the fight for socialism.

In the wake of hunger strikes by IRA prisoners, and before the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985), a debate on these issues took place in Socialist Organiser. It was provoked by an interview with Mick Duffy, a Belfast shop steward and supporter of the Militant (now Socialist Party), who argued that workers’ unity in a recent NHS pay dispute could lead to class unity on the political level.

An outraged response from the Nottingham Socialist Organiser group argued that the interview was “unacceptable propaganda for the national chauvinist politics of the Militant.” In his response to the letter, Matgamna looked at the Militant’s politics on Northern Ireland and how they should be answered.

The Militant were economistic. Looking at the NHS strikes, for instance, they saw in temporary and episodic working-class unity on the economic or trade union level unrealistic potential for wider political unity within the sectarian structures of the Northern Ireland state. In the Militant’s view, national and democratic questions would simply dissolve in the solvent of trade union action.

Northern Ireland did have a history of impressive economic working-class struggles. Time after time, however, the “constitutional question” reared its head, and working-class unity foundered on the rocks of national division.

Broader class unity on the political front, argued Matgamna, could not come without the labour movement advocating a democratic programme which met the realities of the “constitutional question” head-on.

A democratic programme, which Militant lacked, “has to be part of filling the void between trade union minimalism and the socialist revolution.” For Matgamna, its content should be “a federal united Ireland with as much autonomy for the Protestant community as is compatible with the democratic rights of the majority of the Irish people.”

In response, Socialist Organiser supporter Tony Richardson (who is now with Socialist Resistance) wrote that “Northern Ireland is dominated economically and militarily by imperialism” and “the starting point for us must be the struggle to end that.” The force he looked to? “The Republican movement is anti-imperialist, as is most of the Catholic population.”

Almost as an afterthought, he added: “Of course, within that struggle we attempt to give it a class content by fighting for the Permanent Revolution” by “connecting the anti-imperialist struggle with the need for the working-class to take power through a socialist programme.”

This approach typifies the blurring together of vicarious Irish nationalism with abstract socialist maximalism. Though it is thought that socialists need to “break down the pro-imperialism of the Protestant workers”, no democratic programme is advocated which could address this task.

It is conceded that “on the road to [a socialist united Ireland there] are other demands”. But “any form of autonomy for the Protestants” is excluded because “insofar as they are a ‘community’ they identify themselves through their imperialism.” Any stress on “‘democratic’ solutions” only “softens the approach to the liberation struggle.”

For Martgamna, Richardson was substituting an analysis of the facts for “satisfying words which mirror his emotions and serve to seal him off from the real problems”, an approach which could only reach a correct evaluation of the situation by accident.

Defending the idea of “as much autonomy [for the Protestants] as is compatible with the rights of the majority of the Irish people”, Matgamna demolished Richardson’s claim that it is “pro-imperialism” alone which defines Protestants as a community. As against a moralistic and reductive essentialism, Matgamna described the complex historical determinations of Ulster Protestant identity from the United Irishmen onwards, and their often very conditional loyalty to Britain.

“Everything,” he wrote, “that has happened in Northern Ireland over the last 15 years refutes the idea that the Protestants are defined as a community only by ‘pro-imperialism.’ They are pro-British or define themselves simply as British, but that is not necessarily the same thing.

“And in history they have been ‘pro-British’ and supporters of the British state only on certain conditions… In the last decade the Protestant (mainly working-class) masses have brought down three governments, organised powerful militias, and defeated the British government’s entire strategy for Northern Ireland with a general strike in 1974.”

Richardson attempts to define this separate Protestant identity out of existence but, for Matgamna: “The attitude of the Protestants is the central problem, reflecting as it does the existence of a distinct community. Either the Protestants will be conciliated in some way, or they must be coerced, subjugated, conquered and maybe driven out… Nothing conceivably progressive or ‘anti-imperialist’ could come from such a development. Nothing.”

Permanent revolution was invoked at two other points in the debate.

Martin Collins wrote that “permanent revolution has never been something in the revolutionary cookbook for which the peasantry was the main ingredient, but a means of looking at how to make a revolution in a country where capitalism had thoroughly distorted any ‘natural’ or ‘national’ economic development.” This, he argued, applies to Ireland because it “is not an advanced capitalist country, but one dominated in every aspect of economic and political life by imperialism.”

In an echo of the 1966-7 IWG debate, Clive Bradley responded that the whole frame of reference was scholastic; the “problem of the border is a problem for the working class: its abolition does not constitute a ‘bourgeois revolution’ in any meaningful sense.”

Bradley also detected a strain of accommodation to Third World national developmentalist thinking in Collins’s approach, as if the purpose of permanent revolution was above all the development of the productive forces in a national economy: “Trotsky’s theory had nothing to do with the ‘un-natural’ or (worse) ‘un-national’ character of capitalist development in Russia” but about how the combined and uneven development in Russia created a particular social dynamic that allowed the working-class to take the lead in the bourgeois revolution. The point is not to guarantee national development but along with revolution in other countries... to secure workers’ interests.”

Donal Rayner O’Connor Lysaght, from the Irish section of the “orthodox Trotskyist” Fourth International, argued that denying the validity “the Permanent Revolution” means attempting “to unite on a lasting basis within the borders of the Six County state Catholic and Protestant workers.”

This approach, he argued, had been followed by “[former SDLP labourite] Paddy Devlin, [former Irish Labour minister and anti-republican Conor Cruise O’Brien, [the Stalino-Unionist] Sinn Fein the Workers Party (formerly Official Sinn Fein), the [ultra-Stalinist pro-loyalist] British and Irish Communist Organisation and, of course, Militant Irish Monthly [now the Socialist Party/Socialist Appeal].”

“Two factors link this motley crew,” wrote Lysaght: “All deny Permanent Revolution’s validity in Ireland and all have moved steadily rightwards in the fourteen years since the start of the present struggle.”

“The Permanent Revolution”, then, functioned for Lysaght as a sort of guarantee against a rightist deviation. Moreover, any federal arrangement would be a reactionary “insurance policy against the Permanent Revolution” because Protestants, for Lysaght, “are a backward part of the all-Ireland workforce, kept backward by imperialist concessions”, a “labour aristocracy recruited by religion”, possessive of “colon consciousness.”

No democratic programme is required because they “will join us in struggle, they will fight alongside us, but they will join us late and only as a result of a thirty-two county fight.” Lysaght does not say exactly what this struggle is but from his claim that it would be like “1972” and “at times during the H block agitation” it is clear that he means the mobilisation of the Catholic community after Bloody Sunday and around the hunger strikes in 1981.

In other words, the nationalist-republican struggle will pass “uninterruptedly” into a united working-class struggle.

The facts belie this perspective. In 1972, the death-toll in Northern Ireland was 479, reflecting the high degree of sectarian polarisation. It was the highest death toll for any year of the Troubles before and since. In 1981 and 1982, the figures (113 and 110) for deaths would not be reached again during the conflict. For the “orthodox Trotskyist” Mandelites, then, the phoenix of united working-class struggle could rise from the ashes of furious sectarian warfare.

Jim Denham responded that that these misconceptions arise from those comrades “who in their (correct) eagerness to solidarise with the nationalist cause, end up forgetting the ABCs of working class politics, and lapsing into petty bourgeois nationalism…There need be no contradiction between being an ‘anti-imperialist supporting the Irish national democratic struggle’, and advocating measures conciliating the Protestant working-class… The only people who see any contradiction are those who have given up any independent working class view of the situation and opted instead for Catholic nationalism plus ‘Trotskyist’ rhetoric.”

Denham also reminded Lysaght that “‘Militant’ do not ‘deny Permanent Revolution’s validity to Ireland’. In fact they proclaim the applicability of this theory to Ireland very loudly and with monotonous regularity… So much for the idea that allegiance to this particular view of the Irish struggle guarantees intransigent anti-imperialism.”

Lurking behind these positions were wildly differing conception of how to categorise Ulster Protestants.

Some, like Lysaght, thought the “the Ulster Protestants originated as colons. Their consciousness is still a colon consciousness.” As Martin Thomas wrote in the debate, from this assessment of Protestants as “similar to the European settlers in colonial Algeria… clear conclusions follow. Catholic/Protestant workers’ unity on any mass scale is not just difficult to achieve but utopian.”

This simplification arises from a tendentious method of “reading history backwards in a straight line to identify today’s Protestant community with Cromwell’s soldiers of the 1640s.”

If, asks Thomas, Protestants were simply “colons”, why did Irish republicans such as James Connolly hope “that the pressure of a common exploitation can make enthusiastic rebels out of a Protestant working class, earnest champions of civil and religious liberty out of Catholics, and out of both a united social-democracy.”

It was “because they saw that the Protestants were not a mere clique of exploiters superimposed on the masses of Ireland – that neither Catholic nor Protestant working people could be free unless both could unite in a fight for liberation.”

In his response, Thomas mentions the “two nations” theory; the idea that, broadly speaking, there are separate nations on the island of Ireland – a Catholic-Irish one and a Protestant-British one.

This view was most often associated with the British and Irish Communist Organisation (BICO), Maoists who around 1969 developed the line that there were two nations in Ireland, with the Protestant nation the more progressive. This led them to actively support the reactionary Ulster Workers’ Council strike in 1974, which brought down the tentative power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.

However, the “anti-imperialists” held a mirror-image position, with the value judgements reversed. Thomas retorted that for those who saw the Protesants as colons, “Ireland, in short, is after all ‘two nations’ – only one of these, the Protestant nation, is a bad nation.”

In the 1983 debate Jo Quigley was accused by Matgamna of advocating a BICO-style position on “two nations.” Answering Alistair Todd’s assertion that “the Protesant working class can have nothing in common with the Catholic working class” because of the former’s material and national privileges, Quigley replied that: “The class unity of Protestant and Catholic workers against capitalism can indeed flourish…but only if Protestant sense of cultural separateness from the Catholic Irish nation is respected. Conversely, as long as socialists endorse the ‘irrendentist’ republican campaign to subjugate into a nation they feel no part of, no working class unity will ever be possible.”

Matgamna, himself accused of being a “two nationist”, responded that this view of the situation was “perverse”.

“Irrendentism” is “the belief that a state should include all those citizens of other states who speak ‘its own’ language and belong to ‘its’ ethnic group.” It is often associated with national chauvinism and expansionism, such as Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. This is not what is behind the conflict in Ireland.

In reality, the Republic of Ireland’s “irredentist”claim on the North was not serious Indeed, successive Irish governments worked with the British to maintain the border.

The real root of the conflict was the fact that the form of partition was an undemocratic imposition on Ireland, which trapped an Irish majority in the border areas of the Six Countries. So far as it was linked to the Protestants feeling “threatened”, the “threat that the Six County majority have felt has been the threat of the Northern Ireland minority, the main victims of partition.”

This means, argued Matgamna: “Any criticism of elements of Catholic chauvinism in the Republican movement…must be put in that context, or you wind up with a back-to-front view of the world, unable to distinguish between the oppressed and their oppressors.”

Though the Republicans superimposed their militarist agenda on top of the Catholic revolt of the 1960s, the “revolt of the Six County Catholics was a just and necessary revolt against the intolerable injustice of partition, and of its intolerable consequences for the Northern Catholics.”

Politically, “the ‘two-nationist’ position is…inextricably linked with the defence of the untenable and unjust status quo” and works against the “claim of the majority of the Irish people to self-determination.”

And what are the characteristics of a nation? “For Marxists a nation is a social complex embodying a common history, language, culture, economy and territory” whereas Northern Ireland Protestants are “interlaced and intertwined in the same territory with the Catholic community in Northern Ireland.” Instead, they are a “‘distinct community’…a social formation with some of the features of a nation which has failed to develop fully into one, and for which autonomy of development has not been possible because it is enmeshed with another community, and with Britain.”

Even if they were a nation, the Six Counties would not be its “natural and proper territorial expression”, and the only way that it would be lies on the other side of a civil war and forced population transfers.

Matgamna’s approach still rings true today, though the sectarian war has been replaced by a sectarian peace and intricate political structures to manage it. “Concern for the Protestants must be integrated with the unresolved issue of national rights; concern for the Northern Ireland Catholics and Irish national independence must integrate with awareness what the Protestants are and what the ‘Protestant problem’ is; concern for class unity must integrate with the building of a socialist movement concerned also for the just struggle of the Catholics; concern for Irish national independence against Britain must integrate with a proper and consistently democratic concern for the relations between different sections of the Irish people.”

Part of building such a socialist movement is understanding this history, including these debates. Most important is doing what so many Trotskyists have resisted doing regarding Ireland – thinking critically about how to apply these analyses to the situation in Ireland today.

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