Peter Sedgwick

A Note on Ireland

(May 1972)

From the International Socialism, Internal Bulletin, May 1972, pp. 15–16.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford, September 2012.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The following thoughts have come to mind after reading of Bas Hardy’s Marxism or Chauvinism in the April Bulletin.

1. It is virtually useless nowadays to quote Marx or Lenin as a support for any particular argument on the ‘national question’. The question, for example, of whether Marx would have made his criticisms of the 19th century ‘Provisionals’ (the Fenians) public or not is not a political one, since Marx had no Socialist perspective for Ireland. His programme for Ireland after political independence has no reference to working-class demands, he simply assumes that an independent Ireland would be capitalist and would need tariff barriers (which, he actually agrees with!) to protect native bourgeois industry from capitalist Britain. Consequently Marx was not in competition with the Irish bourgeois-nationalists and did not need to venture into a public attack on their political or tactical method.

The position nowadays is of course fundamentally different. Public political differentiation from the IRA (which must show how their tactical errors flow from their political orientation) is indispensable for Marxists. I am afraid that there can be no question of tact in this kind of work: we have to be tactless, and there is no tactful way of being tactless. It is rather fantastic that the International Socialists always kept their cool when other groups bent over backwards to be accommodating to Castro, or Ho Chi Minh (often on the spurious grounds that, since the bourgeois press was attacking Cuba or the NLF “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”: and yet now, in the first challenge that is made to our own revolutionary independence in a real situation of British imperialist politics many comrades are saying: criticise the IRA in private; don’t criticise them this way (which is all right, if only these comrades would publicly attack the IRA in some other way); or – as in Bas Hardy’s article – both at once.

2. Most of Lenin’s writings on the attitude of Marxists in the epoch of imperialist colonialism, when political self-determination was the key question, are of very little help today. We are now after all in the epoch of neo-colonialism, when the politically-independent state is usually the economic pawn of an imperialist power: Ireland was the first country, indeed, to pass from colonialism into neo-colonialism under the aegis of the same imperialism as before. (Lenin’s teachings on national self-determination still retain their validity, of course, when a demand for political independence still gets raised, as in separatist movements like those of Biafra, Bangla Desh and Quebec, or Wales and Scotland.)

In particular, the right to national self-determination is not an absolute right, and can be forfeited when the interests of the working class compete with this national ‘right’. (The notion of a ‘right’ is probably anti-Marxist anyway - all Lenin’s talk about the ‘rights’ of nations can probably be rephrased in terms of the duties of revolutionaries). Thus, in a capitalist country like Ireland (Republican and North-Eastern), class interests have advanced to the fore over any national consideration. There can be no talk of a ‘national’ right of Catholic workers to co-opt Protestant workers into a bourgeois or a workers’ republic; nor of any ‘national’ right of Protestants to opt out. The interests of the working class, which are for unity across ‘national’ and sectarian boundaries, override these classic rights.

Nor can we suppose that the programme of ‘a United Socialist Workers Republic of Ireland’ exhausts the possibilities of working-class unity. The Irish and the British revolutionary processes have always been intimately linked, by migration and by common causation, and may eventuate in a Socialist Republic of the North-West European Islands (incorporating what is now Britain and what is now Ireland). To avoid any misunderstandings that this might be Marxist chauvinism again, one might add that the capital city of such a venture should certainly be Dublin.

3. The criticisms of the IRA that have been formulated so far have been isolated and therefore liberal-sounding (liberalism being the mentality disintegrates principles into issues and analysis into topics), we cannot run our journalism on Ireland in terms of our feelings towards the last atrocity that somebody committed. (We are all guilty of this tendency but it must be resisted.) In all the talk about ‘terrorism’ versus mass action, regrettable ‘civilian’ versus valid ‘military’ targets, etc., etc., something has been forgotten: namely, five cleaners. We are trying to win cleaners into militant trade-unionism and Marxism even if the IRA is not, and we are perfectly entitled to signal out and denounce any terrorism directed against workers, be it at Aldershot or in the beating and tarring-and-feathering of the North, or the settling of political scores by murder in the South. Criticism of the IRA must always carry a class dimension, as its main axis, and where appropriate an anti-clerical quality as well. (The fanatic Catholic puritanism of some ‘Provisional’ elements which led to the beating-up of a woman on drugs prescribed by her doctor, is a major evil which must be combated again and again, in public, so that firmness and clarity in revolutionary Socialist ideas can be conveyed.)

Among Protestant workers the specifically evil aspects of Protestant religious bigotry would also have to be exposed: here an anti-anti-clericalism, since the anti-Papism of the Orange Order is so irrational and divisive, would have to be emphasised.

It would tend to follow from the above that our attack on British imperialism in Ireland should also be couched in terms of class rather than national oppression. The Bogside massacre and the horrors of the Long Kesh and Armagh are British capitalism’s means of suppressing crucial sections of the working class: our reaction to them, in our journalism as in our theory, cannot be the liberal horror which says ‘People got killed: innocent people. Fancy that!”

4. How evident is the contrast between the tentative, apologetic criticisms of the IRA in our press and the bold, rational attacks made by Trotskyists (and even International Socialists of former days) upon, e.g., the POUM and the NLF who were, in their different ways, much more impressive in their record than any wing of the IRA hitherto. It needs to be understood, and sometimes to be said, that a Socialist working-class movement, in Ireland as in Britain and elsewhere, has four possible futures before it: to be defeated physically, to collapse into smallness, to sell out, or to win. But the IRA has only the first three of these alternatives available.

Our knowledge of this truth cannot for a moment deflect our energies from the tasks of solidarity with the IRA, which is unconditional as regards its confrontation with British imperialism.


Peter Sedgwick


Last updated on 15.9.2012