US Trotskyists debate Ireland in 1939

Submitted by AWL on 25 October, 2014 - 2:16

In April 1939, the US Trotskyist magazine The New International published an article by William Morgan (a pseudonym), lauding the IRA. The IRA had given Britain an ultimatum to withdraw from Northern Ireland and, when it was ignored, declared war on Britain. It carried out a few bombings in England. “Morgan” retold the populist-nationalist version of Irish history.

Sherman Stanley

The Irish Question

The New International, May 1939

To the Editors: In the April issue of The New International there appeared an article by William Morgan on the subject of Ireland and its “revived” nationalist movement.

I find myself to be in complete disagreement with its evaluation of the activities of the Irish Republican Army as a revolutionary force and believe that the attitude of our international movement has not been correctly represented. The article is incorrect from two aspects: (1) some of its statements are wrong politically; (2) its omissions are of a serious nature.

Our general approach to the national revolutionary movements in the world colonial empires of Britain, France, America, etc. may be briefly summarized as follows:

1. Clearly establishing the utmost solidarity with the people of the oppressed colonial or semi-colonial nation, we direct our major attack against the imperialist oppressor. In the case of Ireland, our energetic support goes to the people of Ireland struggling for full independence from British imperialism.

To us, the British Empire ranks among the most reactionary forces in world history and its complete breakup and destruction is our goal. This is elementary.

2. Our attitude towards the colonial nationalist movement is that of active participation in its practical struggles against the imperial power and the utmost political solidarity in each progressive step forward it makes.

3. Towards the petty-bourgeois leadership of the colonial movements (Chiang Kai-shek, Gandhi, de la Torre, etc.) and their reactionary activities we retain complete independence of the right to attack and criticize. If not for these reactionary leaders world imperialism would long ago have crumbled away. They are our enemies. Against their doctrines we advance the transitional program of the Fourth International as outlined in the colonial section of our World Congress thesis. In its most general form this is the program of the permanent revolution.

The above may appear to be a repetition of the familiar, but it is my opinion that Ireland and its nationalist movement are partly an exception to the above general pattern. Ireland is a semi-colonial country that has developed a capitalist and landlord ruling class of its own, capable of independent rule. In recent years—under the de Valera régime—it has marched along the road of clerico-fascism, similar in many respects to the Dolfuss Austrian type. A reading of the new Irish Constitution will verify this. The White Steed—a new Irish play—is, I think, a fine artistic representation of the present Irish government.

This Irish bourgeoisie has succeeded in so demoralizing and isolating the nationalist forces that—in the shape of a revived IRA—it has resorted to tactics that can only increase its isolation from Ireland’s and England’s workers. Far from witnessing the upsurge that comrade Morgan speaks of, it appears to me that the movement of Ireland’s people is indeed at a low ebb. What indications are there of a mass stirring of the people in support of the IRA? Ireland’s labor movement is practically down to zero, its organized peasant movement is non-existent, there are no reports of labor or peasant strikes, demonstrations on behalf of those IRA men who were imprisoned for their bombing activities. In a word, there are no objective facts to prove that Ireland is stirring along class lines. Certainly the bombings have aroused no support among England’s workers. One could not for an instant, for example, compare the present Irish nationalist movement with that of India. In India—despite the treacherous leadership of Gandhi and his followers—there is an upsurge because it is based upon a mighty class force, namely, the throwing into action of millions of workers and peasants organized into their labor and peasant unions and struggling for independent expression in the ranks of the Nationalist Congress. What action beyond the activities of an isolated group is taking place in Ireland today? What to comrade Morgan is a “revival” appears to me as the gestures of despairing petty bourgeois, who are incapable of getting down to rock-bottom and attempting to revive the dormant labor and peasant movements.

It is necessary to be unsparingly critical of the “program” of this IRA group. There is no question that we aid and protect these men from the vengeance of the British blood-hounds. This is not the issue. But the fact that they have no program whatsoever—beyond that of bombing —only makes it more necessary for us to point out its obvious limitations. Comrade Morgan does not do this. Furthermore, in practise, the IRA has shown itself to be extremely reactionary in many instances. Its ambiguous relations with the traitor de Valera, its not so ambiguous relations with the fascist Franco régime in Spain, its kow-towing to the Irish Catholic Church, its supreme unconcern with labor, peasant and socialist problems—all of these clearly stamp the IRA as an exceptionally backward and limited nationalist movement. By no means do I state that it has no possibilities. That remains to be seen. But we cannot bury our critical attitude towards the IRA merely because it appears to be the only movement.

The question of the bombings is secondary and solely a matter of the most effective tactics to be employed. That the IRA considers it to be the only worthwhile activity to engage in only reveals its almost incredible backwardness. In my opinion, they have been ineffective in arousing sup-port and action among the people. Morgan calls them the carefully planned acts of “revolutionists”. Perhaps, but what of it? What sort of substitute are they for protest meetings, demonstrations, strikes, etc.? In what way do they further or help revive the mass movement? How do they awake England’s workers to Ireland’s situation? Where is the evidence of the healthy effect of these bombings? As a tactic they are as effective as a fast by Mahatma Gandhi (and incidentally belong in the same category!). Gandhi too, “plans” his fasts! He plans them so that he will appear to the masses as a substitute for their action, as their redeemer and savior. When Gandhi fasts India stands still and is “saved”—for the British!

In addition, there are two serious omissions in the article. First, comrade Morgan mentions the newly formed Irish Republican Brotherhood as a progressive development of the IRA. He says these men “go about their business”. What is their business and how does it differ from that of the IRA? Precisely what is the IRB?

Secondly—and most important—there is absolutely not a word of material or information on the present Irish labor movement—in its trade union and socialist form. Or is there no labor movement?

I strongly suggest that what is needed is a more scientific and exhaustive study of the Irish question—one based less on emotional longings and wishful-thinking than Morgan has given us.


Ireland and Ulster

The New International, June 1939

[I exchanged letters in about 1970 with George Lavan Weissman, an SWP-USA old-timer, about who “V F” might have been. Nobody Weissman could contact in the SWP remembered.]

The importance of the Irish question is increased manifold by the presence in America, England, and Australia of millions of Irish proletarians, whose attitude toward our movement is largely dependent upon our position on Ireland. It is therefore mandatory that we face the problem soberly and analytically.

Comrade Morgan’s article is unfortunately compounded of pure emotion, and in addition involves numerous distortions and mis-statements of fact. (For example, contrary to Morgan’s statements, Ireland never provided the bulk of the wheat consumed In England, and the famine of 1846 was caused not by the repeal of the Corn Laws but by the potato blight of the preceding year).

Sympathy for Ireland’s wrongs and hatred of the British empire are not a sufficient basis for deducing the proper position on a subject of such complexity. The vital considerations are: 1) What are the consequences of the old policies pursued, and 2) What policies can achieve the desired results.

Ireland alone of all British possessions may be said to have become a colony by accident rather than design. British policy always aimed at absorption rather than segregation of the Irish. Had this aim been achieved (as in the case of the Scotch and Welsh), Ireland would today be part of the British monarchy, and the Irish would be petty stockholders in the great British Empire.

This policy failed primarily because the Protestant Reformation came at a time when Ireland was not ready for it. The Irish remained Catholic. Onerous burdens and disabilities were placed upon them by a monarchy striving to consolidate its absolutism on the basis of religious uniformity and centralization. The aim of these measures was not to set the conquered apart from the conquerors, but simply to stamp out heterodoxy. Irish Protestants suffered no persecution. The Irish were oppressed not as Irish but as Catholics, and English Catholics were subjected to much the same treatment.

The early rebellious movements in Ireland contained no progressive features. During the Seventeenth and early Eighteenth centuries, the Irish fought not for separation from Britain, but simply for the restoration of Stuart despotism: the Stuarts, being Catholic, would not enforce anti-Catholic legislation. This in turn caused an intensification of the repression. But however non-national the oppression may have been in its origins, it was thoroughly national in its incidence, and the problem entered into the consciousness of the Irish as a “national” problem.

By the middle of the Nineteenth century, the Irish had secured the removal of virtually all the Catholic disabilities. The Irish were the legal equals of the British. But the difference between the living standards of the two peoples was a glaring fact. The Irish attributed their situation to their English landlords. But in actual fact, the methods of exploitation practised in Ireland differed only in minor details from the methods practised in England. The poverty of the Irish was the consequence of their birth rate. During the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries the population of both England and Ireland increased rapidly. But whereas in England the agrarian increment was drained off by the growing towns, Ireland experienced no parallel development. The agricultural population became redundant Landlords in England, as well as in Ireland, charged whatever rents the traffic would bear. But whereas in England there were a thousand tenants bidding for every thousand farms, in Ireland there were two or three times that number. The Irish tenants, competing for a very limited acreage, bid the rents up and their labor down. When five thousand workers apply for one thousand jobs, a similar development takes place. But whereas industrial unemployment is the product of capitalist decay, Irish agricultural unemployment” was due simply to the fact that the habitable earth, and Ireland in particular, is limited in size. Had the landlords been Catholic instead of Protestant, and residents instead of absentees, the situation would not have differed materially. Even national liberation was and is no cure for such a situation. Unfortunately one cannot guarantee that, even in a state of complete and utter national independence, even under a proletarian dictatorship, a tiny island with no minerals, an indifferent climate, and a poor soil will be able to provide eight million persons with strawberries and cream. Under capitalism in 1850 it failed to provide them with potatoes.

During the last years of the Nineteenth and the early years of the Twentieth century, the bulk of the land of Ireland was transferred from the absentee landlords to the native tenants, as a result of Britain lending the tenants the purchase money. This brought a slight improvement More important was the reduction of the population by half as a result of emigration.

Since 1922 Ireland has had its own independent government. Under the Cosgrave protection policy, a native bourgeoisie was hatched, to flap its puny wings impotently. In 1937 De Valera secured the ending of the land annuity payments, the surrender of British forts within the Free State, and the severance of connection with the British crown.

These various steps in the direction of national liberation were progressive. Whatever the historical origins of a sentiment of nationality, it is wholly legitimate for it to seek expression in the formation of an independent state. It is the duty of revolutionists to support such national movements, but it is equally their duty to note the point at which a progressive nationalism becomes reactionary.

Ireland today is an independent capitalist nation, with a native bourgeoisie, a class of native landowners, an independent army, and a republican form of government. The standard of living of the masses can be raised only by the socialist development of industry (to the limited extent possible) and the reduction of the population. The latter can be achieved only by large-scale migration—no longer possible under world capitalism—or by a steep reduction of the birth rate—prevented by bourgeois and church forces. Ireland, in short, has solved the problems of the national revolution, and confronts today the problem of social reorganization.

But the Irish ruling class has an effective means of stifling revolutionary development. It has only to appeal to ancient grievances and anti-British sentiment: perfidious Albion is the source of all woes. The bourgeoisie must keep this agitation within bounds; it cannot alienate its chief customer. But the workers do not understand the business aspect of the situation; they throw bombs.

The nominal basis of the agitation, the fact which causes some to denominate Ireland an oppressed nation and others to call her a British colony, is the British occupation of six counties of Ulster. In the agitation of the nationalists, Ulster is represented as a child torn from its mother’s bosom, longing to return, and thwarted only by superior force.

In actuality, two-thirds of the population of Ulster is Protestant and British. Far from desiring union with Ireland, the Ulsterians (or Orangemen) are fanatically anti-Irish, and are ready to resist Irish “reunification” with gun in hand. The demand of the Irish that Britain withdraw her garrison from Ulster is not the demand for the self-determination of an oppressed people; it is a demand for a hunting license to shoot Protestants. The Irish physical-force people are here fighting a wholly reactionary struggle against the principle of self-determination.

The arguments adduced in favour of reunification are 1) historic right, 2) natural frontiers doctrine, 3) presence in Ulster of many Irish, 4) military insecurity against British attack. A similar set of arguments could be adduced to justify Hungary’s ambition in Transylvania or Poland’s seizure of the Corridor. Like its Hungarian prototype, Irish expansionism is also based far less upon the economic requirements of the ruling class than upon the “revisionist” sentiment of the broad masses. The longing of every people for a large territory, an economically viable state, and a secure frontier, are not without much justification. But the realities of the present situation make impossible the gratification of these demands. It is impossible to ‘free” certain peoples without enslaving others. A “just” set of boundary lines for the states of Europe is an unrealizable fantasy. The task of the European proletariat is not to rectify frontiers but to destroy them.

The incorporation of Ulster into Ireland would not obliterate the boundary line; it would perpetuate it. Thenceforth the struggle between the two national and religious groups would constitute the sole content of Irish political and cultural life. Class struggle and socialism would recede far into the background. The solidarizing of the exploited of both national groups would be delayed for decades.

The consequences of nationalist agitation in Ireland are already manifest in Ulster. Irish revisionism has driven the British population into the arms of Toryism: only the Tories can be counted on to block reunification. Politics in Ulster is the struggle between Irish candidates and Tory candidates; no liberal or labor current exists among the British there. If Ulster is today a stronghold of the British Empire, the Irish revisionists have themselves to thank for it

Sixteen years of Irish revisionism have not erased the Ulster frontier, nor have they produced any class solidarity between British and Irish workers. Bombing British bridges and post offices, far from winning converts among the British, will only deepen the existing fissure between the two peoples; to the British workers the Irish will appear as homicidal maniacs, not exploited brothers.

The Irish workers must resolutely reverse their policies of the last sixteen years. They must renounce revisionist aims, and set themselves the task of overthrowing their own native exploiters. The seizure of power by the Irish workers and peasants would destroy at once the present firm solidarity of the British workers with their capitalists. The revolution might be extended in short order to Ulster and even Britain herself. Only in this manner will the liberation of the Irish from exploitation become possible.

It is thus the firm responsibility of the Fourth International to tell the Irish: We cannot support your demand for Ulster, for it is reactionary. You must recognize the principle of self-determination, and turn your energies against your class oppressors. Only thus can you win the support of the British workers, without which no Irish movement can succeed.

In taking this position we will greatly intensify the difficulties of propagandizing the Irish. That cannot be helped. When we tell the Polish workers that Poland is not entitled to the frontiers of John Sobieski, or the Turkish workers that Turkey is not entitled to the frontiers of Suleiman the Magnificent, we also do not increase our popularity. But we cannot endorse policies that in their consequences are reactionary. To free the masses from the enslavement of their emotions and prejudices is our first responsibility.

William John McAusland, Irish Labour and the Bombings

The New International, August 1939

Though Ireland’s population is a mere four millions the Irish question is of international revolutionary importance both because of Ireland’s strategic position athwart Britain and because there are some twenty million folk of immediate Irish extraction outside Ireland who are liable to be swayed by Irish nationalist sentiment.

In the States that sentiment operating through Clan na Gael was a big factor in blocking an Anglo-American alliance under Roosevelt the First.

Comrade Sherman Stanley is correct in demanding a scientific and exhaustive study of the Irish question but I’m not sure such a study wouldn’t bring him pretty close to comrade Morgan. If the Irish Republican Army should become a valuable revolutionary force in the future it will be in some degree due to the sympathetic efforts to understand their problems and to guide them of such as comrade Morgan. Casual cracking-down on them for failure to work in accordance with principles of which most of them have never heard would merely tend to drive them towards fascism.

Before I go any further I want to assure comrade Stanley that the I.R.A. has no relations, ambiguous or otherwise, with De Valera or Franco nor can I imagine what led him to suppose otherwise.

My own credential for writing on Irish affairs, particularly matters regarding the Border dispute between Eire and Northern Ireland, is as follows. I was born in Northern Ireland of Down Protestants. 1 was brought up in Tyrone and East Donegal among a mixed Protestant and Catholic population, and I learned the Irish language living among the native Gaelic-speaking peasantry of West Donegal. My Presbyterian paternal great-grandfather fought against the British in Down in 1798 as a member of the United Irishmen, their aim an Irish Republic with “The Rights of Man” as their textbook and I fought in the Irish Republican Army, retiring from its reserve seven odd years ago as a protest against the action of G.H.Q. in court-martialling and expelling Charlie Gilmore (another Ulster Protestant by birth) for, without official authorization, using firearms to defend Communist party headquarters in Dublin against a gang of “Catholic Action” hoodlums. For the past twenty years I’ve lived and worked on and off in Dublin and I served with the I.R.A. in the West, so I reckon to understand both the Catholic and the Protestant, Eire and Northern Ireland side to the Border issue, and I try to look at it as a socialist.

The New International is not a military technical journal, but some appreciation of Ireland’s strategic position is necessary for understanding of Britain’s desire to hold Ireland, of Hitler’s desire to meddle in Irish affairs. Look at any map of the world and you’ll see that Ireland, most westerly point of Europe, lies athwart Europe-North American sea and air routes; that Ireland’s deeply indented western coastline from Cork to Londonderry affords several magnificent deep water harbors, some almost completely land-locked, in which fleets of the largest battleships can ride at anchor and scores of hide-outs for submarines, hydroplanes, and fast surface boats; that Ireland’s saucer-like central plain fringed by mountain ranges is potentially a vast aerodrome; that could a hard-pressed British Government shift key personnel and key industries to the West of Ireland they would be shifting them no doubt only a few hundred miles further from Continental air bases but, nevertheless, putting another belt of sea-crossing in the way.

Ireland as ally would be a hell of an asset to Britain in war. But no matter what bargains Mr. de Valera may strike, so long as Ireland is partitioned and is denied full international recognition as an independent republic a big section of Irish folk is going to consider the British Government Enemy No. 1, is going to adopt passive resistance and sabotage the moment war breaks out and—face it frankly—is likely enough to go the whole hog, facilitate and link up with landing in Ireland of anti-British forces wherever they come from. In point of fact rt would be easier for the British to deal with an independent Ireland run by a hostile Government if that Government joined forces with the Axis Powers, the British could then walk in and squelch opposition by overwhelming military force. Instead they face a situation in which it is hard for them to distinguish between friend and foe and they fear to alienate the former by cracking down on the latter. And Mr. de Valera knows very well what he is up against from his own folk — the present strategy of the Eire Army is based, not upon danger of enemy air raids, but upon danger of enemy landings on coast supported at point of landing by I.R.A. and by I.R.A. risings in the rear.

Ireland unfree is not going to be an ally of Britain, so far as the plain people are concerned irrespective of their Governments, and what socially-conscious folk ought to try to stop is the likely progress of rank-and-file Irish nationalism from being rightly and naturally anti-British Empire to being ignorantly and shamefully pro-fascist.

The vast majority of Irish industrial workers and many professional workers are fully organized in labor unions which are linked into one organism by the Irish Trade Union Congress. A weakness is the rivalry between native unions and British unions which operate here but are affiliated to the T.U.C.

In point of fact for an industrially backward country Ireland has been remarkably progressive as regards labor unionism and has sent missionaries abroad as potent in their way as were the Irish Christian missionaries of early mediaeval days — Bronterre O’Brien and Feargus O’Connor of the Chartist movement, James Connolly and James Larkin are names that spring to mind.

Labor unionism here is remarkably poor in theory but strong in practice. By that I mean that the Irish workers, while economically illiterate, tend in practise not merely to fight sectionally for better wages and conditions but as a whole show a high standard of class solidarity. There is no worse insult to an Irishman than to call him “scab”. Class solidarity is equally noticeable among the peasantry.

Economically illiterate, the majority of the Irish workers believed that the war against the British in 1920-1921 would, by bringing self-government, bring about a kind of Utopia here. The still-potent organisation of unskilled workers, Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, reached its highest level in numbers and influence at that period, but the political side of the labor movement, became of real importance under Connolly prior to his execution in 1916, was swamped in political nationalism.

That political and industrial labor organization received a setback from which it is still recovering was due to the disillusionment which spread to all departments of life in Ireland, but very specially to the Pontius Pilate role which the Irish Labor Party leadership adopted from the beginning of that crisis when they might instead have assumed leadership of a genuine revolutionary movement.

Today the labor union movement is definitely on the upgrade and is likely to learn from experience what it has failed to learn from textbooks. The same cannot be said of the Irish Labor Party which continues to play an opportunist, cowardly, vacillating and evasive role, though, and this cannot be too strongly emphasized, it contains very good elements in the shape of Connolly veterans, clear-headed young folk and I.R.A. who have had their viewpoint widened by experience. The Dublin branches in particular contain a number of sincere, intelligent and hard-working socialists who are trying to get past their leaders a message to the masses which is Marxist in essence, and in bright contrast to the collaboration with the so-called democratic governments preached by the Communist party of Ireland.

The record which earns condemnation for the Labor Party leadership is this. In 1922, instead of giving a revolutionary lead, it vocally condemned both parties to the Civil War on quite arguable premises but gave material support to the pro-imperialist side. Today that leadership is vocally as violently nationalist as the I.R.A. itself but has not regained the confidence of the nationalist masses. It shrieks to the high heavens in protest at fascist aggression in Austria, Czechoslovakia and China, but it remained silent while fascism crushed the Spanish workers. It piously condemns the bureaucracy of the U.S.S.R. but ignores that of the U.S.A.

Only last month, to secure the support of the petty-bourgeois elementary teachers’ union it agreed to discard the first plank in its own platform and the very slogan on which James Connolly based the Irish labor political movement—that its aim is the establishment of an Irish Workers’ Republic — Dublin, June 6, 1939

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