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Nationalism, Marxism and the Irish Question

[February 1994; a shorter version of this article appeared in Socialist Outlook 57]

All too often the study of historical documents and debates, whilst apparently pointless, allows us to look beyond current truisms and gain a view of the broader picture. So it is with the timely publication of The Communists and the Irish Revolution, edited by the Irish Trotskyist D R O'Connor Lysaght. The book contains an exhaustive collection of articles and excerpts by Russian revolutionaries, spanning the years 1899 to 1924.

Recent events have emphasised the scale of reaction that we face in the six counties of Northern Ireland. In England, Scotland and Wales we see the boots and clubs of the British National Party as a serious menace but in the North armed neo-fascist gangs roam the streets and kill Catholics at random. These gangs have links with the security forces and sections of the Unionist bourgeoisie. This bourgeoisie is the most reactionary section of the British bourgeoisie and yet commands the support of a large section of Protestant workers. The Northern Irish trade unions are in turn solidly right wing and have a tremendous backward influence on the British labour movement. Little is changed by the announcements and agreements of the last few weeks. This is indeed the 'carnival of reaction' that James Connolly predicted over 70 years ago.

The collection contains a wealth of information and insights on the struggle in Ireland, which can be grouped into three main themes. Firstly, Lenin's defence of the right of nations to self-determination prior to 1916, secondly the debate about the nature of the 1916 Dublin rising and thirdly the positions of the Soviet government and Communist International on Ireland after 1917.

Lenin's defence of self-determination prior to 1916 was aimed at refuting the positions of Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Radek from the Polish social-democrats and figures such as Nikolai Bukharin and Grigory Piatakov in his own party. Lenin drew heavily on the writings of Marx and Engels about Ireland in this defence, and in so doing, not only ably defended the notion of self determination but also showed how Marx's viewpoint was rooted in a concrete analysis of the political situation in Britain and Ireland, and hence changed with time.

Marx began by believing that Irish liberation would only be won through the victory of the British working class movement. But by 1847 he was expressing the view:

I used to think the separation of Ireland from Britain impossible, I now think it inevitable, although after separation there may come federation. [34*]

Marx argued that the British working class should make repeal of the union with Ireland a central part of its program. This change of views was based on the understanding that whilst the British working class had fallen under Liberal influence and was little more than a tool of the capitalists, a liberation movement had developed in Ireland, the Fenians, which had assumed revolutionary forms. Under these conditions it was the duty of British socialists to support Irish independence, not only in the interest of the Irish struggle but also with the aim of educating British workers in the spirit of democracy and national equality.

In advocating independence Marx's aim was not the permanent separation of Ireland, but a democratic federation, freely entered into by both sides. This predisposed a change of government in the oppressor nation, an event which he hoped would be greatly accelerated by a successful independence struggle. His remark that 'after separation may come federation' was always faithfully repeated by Lenin, who understood that the aim of independence was greater unity, on an equal basis, between the working people of both countries.


Self-Determination and Seperation

There is an important distinction between defending the right of nations to self determination and actively advocating that a given nation should separate. The example of Britain and Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century is an illustration of the conditions under which socialists should not only defend the right to self-determination but actively campaign for independence. This occurs when the working class of the oppressor nation is dominated by reactionary ideas and leadership, which prevent it from making common cause with the oppressed nation, whilst the national struggle of the oppressed nation has assumed a mass character.

Two further examples will serve to illustrate the point. After the defeat of the 1905 Russian revolution national movements emerged in a number of the oppressed nations within the Tsarist Empire and demands for independence were raised. The strength of national feelings influenced many socialists within these nations. Yet Lenin was opposed to supporting independence, he maintained that the Russian working class was not dominated by bourgeois or reformist ideas, and could thus be won to a common fight with the oppressed nations against Tsarism. By conducting such a common fight and sincerely opposing all forms of national oppression Lenin hoped that the Russian workers would win the confidence of the masses of the oppressed nations. This confidence would lay the basis for a genuinely free and equal unity with the Russian workers and peasants, within a common state.

In contrast, when national sentiment grew within the Ukraine in the 1930s, Trotsky actively advocated an independent Soviet Ukraine. He did do because he understood that the rise of Stalinism had shattered the national hopes of the Ukrainian people. The Ukrainian language was suppressed, local Communists were purged for the crime of 'nationalist deviation' and millions had died during the forced collectivisation of agriculture. Under these conditions, with the Russian working class atomised and crushed by the weight of the bureaucracy, Trotsky actively supported the Ukrainian struggle for independence. He hoped that such a struggle would act as a beacon to the Russian working class and help to awaken it to political life. But to postpone the struggle until this occurred, in the name of working class unity, would have been criminal.


The Test of Practice

Lenin was always ready to subject his ideas to the test of practice, and when the Irish rose in rebellion in Easter 1916 he seized the chance with relish. The opening shots in the debate were fired by Karl Radek, who saw the defeat of the rising as conclusive proof that: 'The Irish revolution [...] has come to an end'. For Radek, the Irish question was essentially a land question, which had been solved by the land reforms of 1903. This meant that the Irish farmers abstained from the rising, reducing the struggle to a 'putsch' by an isolated group of petty bourgeois idealists. In common with Luxembourg and Piatakov, he believed that the division of the globe amongst a few imperialist nations meant that the days of progressive national movements were over, since economic independence and the creation of new bourgeoisie states on the European model of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was now impossible.

Trotsky took a more sympathetic view of the rising and understood that the working class, as well as the petty bourgeoisie, had participated. But Trotsky also felt that the basis for an Irish national revolution had disappeared. It was left to Lenin to defend the rising. He did so by explaining that the division of the world between a few super-powers would exacerbate, not extinguish, national struggles. 'Imperialism breathes new life into the national question', he wrote in notes for a lecture on imperialism. Lenin understood that the question of self-determination was a question of political democracy, of a nations' right to decide which state it wished to be part of. Such questions of politics have a relative autonomy from economic questions.

Anyone who called this momentous event a 'putsch' was, he said, 'either a hardened reactionary or a doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of picturing a social revolution as a living thing'. Since precisely such abstract, doctrinaire socialism dominates the British revolutionary left, it is worth quoting his repudiation in full:

For to imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without the revolutionary outbursts of a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of politically non-conscious, proletarian and semi-proletarian masses, against landlord, church, monarchical, national and other oppression - to imagine that means repudiating social revolution. So one army will line up in one place and say, 'We are for socialism', while another will do so in another place and say, 'We are for Imperialism', and that will be the social revolution! Only from such a ridiculous pedantic angle could one label the Irish rebellion a 'putsch'. [62]

Our doctrinaire friends may still wish to mutter that this is irrelevant to Britain, where the working class overwhelmingly predominates. They should take care, we have national questions in Scotland and Wales. In addition it was Lenin himself who drew a parallel in later years between the alliance of the working class and peasantry which laid the basis for the October revolution and the alliance which would have to be built between the proletariat proper and the petty bourgeoisified, semi-aristocratic layers of workers in the imperialist countries, who would enter the battle 'with all their prejudices'.

In Lenin's eyes the mistake of the Irish was not in having risen, but in having risen prematurely. Even so, they had contributed by their actions to developing the experience and knowledge necessary for the 'general onslaught'. Subsequent history has shown that both Radek and Trotsky were wrong in dismissing the Irish national question. Lenin stood head and shoulders above them all in the depth of his analysis and his sympathy for the Irish movement.


Soviet Power

The third main theme of the collection is the response of the young Soviet government and the Communist International (Comintern) to the Irish struggle. The documents are marked by an uncompromising denunciation of British rule in Ireland. The example of Ireland is further used to expose the hypocrisy of the imperialist rulers, who demanded that the Soviet state unreservedly respect the right to self-determination whilst actively oppressing their own colonies. Trotsky is particularly pointed in his reply to the British Labour MP, Arthur Henderson, who had served in the War cabinet, and in 1920 was loudly demanding a Soviet withdrawal from Georgia. For Henderson, he said, the domination of one quarter of the human race by the British ruling class was not a question of politics, but a fact of natural history:

These democrats, with all their Fabian, emasculated [sic] and feeble socialism, have always been and always will be slaves of public opinion. They are thoroughly imbued with the anti-democratic exploiter, planter, and parasite views on races which are distinguished by the colour of their skins, by the fact that they do not read Shakespeare, or wear stiff collars.' [85]

The collection ends with an exchange of letters between Nora Connolly O'Brien, daughter of James Connolly, and Leon Trotsky, where Trotsky makes the following observation:

The revolutionary tradition of the national struggle is a precious good. Would it be possible to imbue the Irish proletariat with it for its socialist class-struggle, the working class of your country could, in spite of the numerical weakness of your population, play an important historical role and give a mighty impulse to the British working class now paralysed by the senile bureaucracy. [95]

Excerpts from the writings of Karl Kautsky and Joseph Stalin are then incorporated as appendices. The quotes include Stalin's stupid observation that British oppression in Ireland had worsened during World War I because 'power had passed to the landlords'. According to Stalin's schema, national oppression was a product of feudalism and landlordism, and hence, if it had worsened, this could only mean that the landlords were back in charge. A wonderful example of forcing reality to fit your theory, a method which all to often masquerades as Marxism.


Three Trends

This book illustrates very clearly that there are, broadly speaking, three historical currents amongst Marxists on the national question. The first, represented by such figures as Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Radek, denies the validity of the national question in the name of an abstract internationalism. Such national nihilism preaches an indifference to nationality which can easily lead to an indifference to oppression and to the national feelings of oppressed nations. To paraphrase Marx, those socialists of an oppressor nation who deny 'all nationality' often unconsciously understand the unity of nations to mean the absorption of other nations into their 'ideal' nation.

The second trend is that of national opportunism, which takes the guise of either denying the importance of the national question in order to draw nearer to ones own bourgeoisie (Kautsky) or elevating the national question above all others and imposing permanent national divisions on the workers (Otto Bauer). The third approach, that of Lenin, maintains the importance of the national question and of the need to struggle against all national inequality and national superiority. Such an approach accepts that nations may need to separate, in order to grow closer at a later date. It sees the need for working class unity but stresses that this unity must be built voluntarily, and must address the demands of the oppressed nations. At the same time it says plainly that national liberation is impossible within a patchwork of independent capitalist states, all of which face a world market dominated by a few oppressor nations. The key to liberation remains the socialist revolution and building a voluntary socialist federation.

Anyone interested in the Irish struggle or the national question will learn a great deal from this book. Above all else it illustrates how Marxist should proceed from the facts in analysing the national question, as in all others. Marx's call for Irish independence, resurrected by Lenin and the Communist International, was based on a real assessment of the state of the working class movements in Britain and Ireland. There is much to be learnt from this approach in our study of the many national struggles and conflicts which are proliferating today.



*All page numbers refer to: The Communists and the Irish Revolution, edited by D R O'Connor Lysaght, Literéire Publishers, Dublin, 1993. The book can be obtained from the publishers by sending a cheque for £7.99 to Brookside Publishing Services, 2 Brookside, Dundrum Rd, Dundrum, Dublin 14.


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