Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line


Some Points of Self-Criticism on Ireland

First Prepared: November 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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EROL Note: This is an unpublished internal RCLB document written by the former National Secretary of the CFB(ML).

We are united in wanting to aid the struggle of the Irish nation against British imperialism, and we have also accepted the importance of paying particular attention to the development of the substage of this national democratic revolution in northern Ireland.

The following are some interim points of self-criticism about previous positions I have held on the Irish struggle. Although not self-flaggelatory or sweeping they will aim to be accurate. They do not attempt to be complete as our review of our line is not yet completed and we are still in the middle of a process of deepening our understanding.

Previous Positions

Since school I have been strongly committed to the justice of the historic Irish struggle. As regards the present struggle my positions have been motivated since 1971 by the desire to maximise to the full our aid for that struggle by striving to understand the strategic line which could unite the mass of the people in a successful revolution against the British ruling class. In the course of pursuing this goal I fell into and promoted certain seriously one-sided and erroneous positions.

In 1972-74 in the London group of the CFB I played a leading role in the formation of a line that the stage of revolution in northern Ireland required a strategy of socialist struggle in which a democratic struggle against the oppression of the Catholic minority was an important component feature. This line denied the possibility of a successful national revolution in the north, although comrades holding it did do concrete work in the Troops Out movement.

After the unification of the CFB I reserved this minority position and urged that our publications continue exposing the British ruling class until we could thrash out a more consistent line. Prior to the founding Congress of the RCL in 1977 I made a self-criticism for not understanding the possibilities of a national struggle for independence within an advanced capitalist economy, played the leading part in urging the line adopted in the Manifesto.


I have to emphasise that while I believe that the erroneous positions were harmful, they did not arise out of a lack of desire to aid the Irish struggle; if anything the reverse was the case. The Irish struggle involves a number of extremely difficult practical and theoretical questions such as the stages of revolution and the transition between them, the formation and significance of national movements in relation to different phases of imperialism, the relationship between the struggle for reforms and the struggle for revolution, the differentiation of contradictions among the people and contradictions with the enemy, and others. Understanding these is a process of cognition, which is still going on for us, moving from the one-sided to the more all-sided, and in this process mistakes of one-sidedness are inevitable. In view of the general sloppiness of the Left in Britain which wraps all these questions up in a superficially neat slogan of a “Socialist United Ireland”, I think we should not be too apologetic for some errors of one sidedness in travelling along the road towards a more scientific and precise understanding of the laws of the Irish national revolution. Nevertheless the errors of one-sidedness once made should be identified and corrected as soon as possible.

–The view that a struggle for national liberation is not possible in an advanced capitalist economy:

On the basis of investigation and study, I and other comrades had discovered figures showing that whereas 30.2% of the population of the south were self-employed, only 10.9% of the population of the north were self-employed. In interpreting this the argument was then put forward that

The industrial revolution has not yet been completed in the South of Ireland and the agricultural petty bourgeoisie forms a sizeable section of the people. Thus the class forces there are not yet fully ready for socialist revolution.
Therefore the struggle in Southern Ireland to unite the people against the enemy should at the moment mainly be for national liberation and independence rather than for socialist revolution.
In Northern Ireland the industrial revolution is basically completed and the great majority of the population are workers. Therefore the class forces there are basically ready for a socialist revolution.

As well as the relative weakness of the petty bourgeoisie in northern Ireland, the difficulty of identifying a national bourgeoisie was also held to be a reason for believing it was not possible to analyse the strategic stage as that of a national democratic revolution.

Although I and other comrades strongly believed in the importance of opposing Trotskyite attacks on the necessity of a national democratic stage of revolution in third world countries, really this view still conciliated with Trotskyism, and by the strictest standards of criticism must be called a Trotskyite view. The question of the justice of national struggles in capitalist countries is a difficult one which we have only understood better in recent years in the context of the three worlds theory. However the sort of view described objectively shares with Trotskyism a refusal to unite with and mobilise those nations and national groupings oppressed by imperialism for the sake of the more rapid overthrow of the imperialist system. This refusal is under a leftist line which regards socialist class struggle as the only revolutionary form of struggle.

A factor which contributed to this Trotskyite error was a dogmatic attitude to writings of Lenin and Stalin before 1920 when the national question was treated more as an obstacle disrupting working class unity than an opportunity for winning another ally against the imperialist bourgeoisie. (See Foundations of Leninism for a description of this shift of emphasis.)

In a desire to criticise Trotskyite muddling up of the stages of revolution, I and other comrades fell into a dogmatist one-sided insistence that the new-democratic revolution – and the socialist revolution must be – completely distinct and we were unable to see the process linking the two. It is true that the masses must be rallied from both communities in northern Ireland through work that anticipates the socialist revolution but this should be seen as an aspect of the national democratic revolution and not as requiring a strategy of pure socialist revolution and nothing but socialist revolution. The correct dialectical relationship is indicated for the first time in the CC working resolution (section C).

A very strong influence behind the line that I and other comrades adopted was a correct belief that any revolutionary strategy in northern Ireland had to be one that could win over or at least neutralise large sections of the protestant masses. However in fighting the widespread opportunist tendency to ignore this vital question, we one-sidedly insisted that the question of Irish unity could not be raised at all and that northern Ireland could not be called a colony because some people used this term as an argument for ignoring the need to do mass work among the protestants. This one-sidedness on both sides can only start to be resolved by drawing a distinction between contradictions among the people and contradictions with the enemy, which is also pointed out for the first time in the working resolution.

In opposition to those who automatically equated republican activity based on the special oppression of the Catholic community in northern Ireland with a liberation struggle based on the Irish people as a whole, I and other comrade one-sidedly treated the democratic movement against catholic oppression as completely separate from the overall national struggle, and saw it only as an issue in the socialist strategy. It should indeed be seen as a distinct democratic campaign, but one which is linked both by history and by overlap of interests with the overall national democratic revolution. It should in fact be seen as one of the most important democratic aspects of the national democratic revolutionary struggle in northern Ireland at the present time.

Against the view that jumbled up the circumstances of the struggle on both sides of the border, I and other comrades insisted so much on analysing the particular nature of the concrete conditions in the two halves of Ireland that we ended up by talking about two separate revolutions. Aspects of this error continued in the line of the Manifesto.

In opposition to those who refused to take a stand on what was going wrong in the struggle against British oppression in northern Ireland on the grounds that it was a separate state, I and other comrades argued that we should build the party there, and dogmatically insisted that this was the only permissible perspective for Party-building in northern Ireland. This line also affected the Manifesto.

In opposition to those who idealistically argued that the division of Ireland was purely the result of political machinations and the influence of ideologies, I and other comrades so stressed the economic basis of the forces tending to assimilate northern Ireland into Britain as to deny the possibility in changed circumstances of organizing against them. (Here I must say I still believe these economic forces were indeed very strong, and that without the existence of the EEC transforming the economic significance of the national question, it is arguable whether northern Ireland could unite with the south in a successful national democratic revolution.)

Again in opposition to left sloppiness about Irish unity at a time when the “enlightened” wing of the British bourgeoisie was promoting ideas of a neo- colonialist Irish federation, I and other comrades one-sidedly and dogmatically refused to admit that under certain circumstances the unification of Ireland under bourgeois and imperialist rule could be a positive step towards complete liberation. This made a leftist fetish out of rejecting reforms.

In opposition to left idealist support of terrorism: I and other comrades so insisted that the balance of forces was not suited to armed struggle and that what was essential was political work in conformity with the mass line, that we forgot the correctness of defensive armed struggle as an auxiliary feature in opposing the oppression of the catholic minority.

In opposition to the unscrupulous opportunism of the Provisional leadership and to those left forces who tail behind them merely gesticulating, I and other comrades failed to pay attention to uniting with the desires of the Irish people and to the mass of honest comrades.

We had spent very many hours on the Irish struggle not out of social-chauvinism but out of the reverse – out of a desire to see the struggle against the British ruling class carried forward on the basis of mass struggle. In view of the very difficult theoretical and practical questions any attempt to start being systematic was bound to involve mistakes. This is not wrong in itself. Nevertheless the failure to unite with the mass of comrades was a bad error which disrupted the process of winning unity and disrupted the process of winning clarity.

The one-sidedness which distorted a number of positions I adopted, despite the fact that these positions were sometimes based on long investigation and study, was not accidental. From one point of view it was a technique: – in approaching a very important but complex problem which could not be grasped in one go, to make progress by chipping away particular errors in the position taken by other comrades. Economical in energy and relatively productive to a limited degree, it nevertheless could only produce a fragmented picture – parts of which could look quite strong in themselves but which would somehow not really hang together.

From one point of view it was a personal technique. From a broader point of view it was the influence of Lin Biao and the gang of four. In particular it was their idealist and sectarian line that the process by which an organization comes to a viewpoint is exclusively one of two-line struggle, rather than at least to a substantial degree a collective process of seeking truth from facts.

This approach was supposed to work well on the assumption that if everyone participated in it equally everyone would get the corners knocked off their one-sidedness and the collective result would be the truth. But the trouble was that not everyone would participate exactly equally. Nor does reality consist only of what a limited number of people at any one time can express in the form of neat concepts.

In mitigation of my errors on this erroneous approach it is necessary to point out that I felt the absence of really systematic debate a serious weakness. The positions I argued were always subjectively intended to be contributions to a debate, and I was disappointed when I felt other comrades did not get to grips with the points effectively. Despite becoming national secretary of the CFB in February 1976 and taking part in an Executive Committee with two other comrades who shared the same “socialist struggle” line, I urged prudence about pushing this line because I was hoping that a better lead on Ireland would come from elsewhere. No major initiative came from another comrade with the result that a year later within a few months before adopting a Manifesto, we had no clear line to include on Ireland, and I felt it necessary to give the best lead I could. After the founding Congress I tried to ensure we took what opportunities we could to strengthen our line on Ireland and I tried to encourage comrades on the CC holding a minority position to be prepared to speak out.

The one-sidedness did not stem from social-chauvinism, nor from an anti-democratic attitude, but it was significantly exacerbated by a left idealist concept of all struggle and no unity in inner party debates. While the dangers of liberalism are still considerable in thrashing out a clear orientation on the Irish struggle, this sectarian error should be taken to heart by me.

It is also an idealist error. By treating truth as something found in between one concept and another, it failed to treat the criterion of truth as social practice. Its spirit of failing to unite with the subjective sentiments of the mass of honest people opposed to British imperialism was therefore fundamentally very idealist.

Without being self-flagellatory or attempting to be comprehensive at this stage in the debate I have tried self-critically to distinguish between mistakes of analysis which cannot always be avoided in an individualís contribution, and an error of approach which should be learnt and taken to heart by me, and may perhaps be instructive by negative example for other comrades.