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London Group, Communist Federation of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)

Criticism of the CFB Resolution on Ireland

First Published: Marxist-Leninist Quarterly No. 11, 1976
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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In May 1974 the CFB passed a resolution which analysed present events in Northern Ireland as a National Liberation struggle.

It is not enough in a Marxist-Leninist organisation to win a simple majority and leave it at that. Ideological struggle must go on until complete victory is won behind any policy, so that it can be carried out by all members of the organisation with conviction and militancy.

In the months since the passing of the resolution on Ireland, the London group remains convinced of the weakness of the national liberation line. The resolution has not given an adequate explanation of developments in Ireland and has not given adequate guidance for our work. London’s objections have still not been answered.

The present divisions in the CFB on this question should not be allowed to continue without active attempts to overcome the contradictions through principled struggle. We therefore make the following criticisms.

If they are wrong we must be shown where they are wrong and we will make a self criticism. If they are right it will be the supporters of the majority line who will have to make the self criticism.

The CFB resolution is vague and ambiguous on many critical questions. But a strategic resolution just as much as a tactical resolution, must be clear about the line it is putting forward. It is not enough to sound vaguely progressive.

1. Vague Description of the Catholic Movement.

The resolution states correctly that the present day Catholic struggle started “with a movement of democratic civil rights in 1969”. It then follows with a vague statement that “it is fighting the British State politically and militarily”. This side steps the question of whether this struggle is basically a continuation of the fight for democratic civil rights, or whether it is, as the Provisionals believe, a struggle for national liberation. Such ambiguity is characteristic of the resolution as a whole.

2. Inadequate Analysis of the Protestants.

The resolution was debated on the weekend of the Protestant Ulster Workers strike, and before the results of this strike had become fully apparent. In the light of this strike we can see that the only sentence in this resolution about the Protestants is inadequate: “The majority community, consisting of descendants of colonial planters and led by comprador capitalists and landed gentry stands for the British Crown in opposition to the minority.”

The phrase ’stands for the British Crown’ has no precise meaning. It is also incorrect in this case. One of the aims behind the Ulster Workers Strike was opposition to the Council of Ireland and other schemes of the British ruling class for a peaceful united federal Ireland under its economic control. In this respect the Ulster Workers Strike had progressive features, and cannot be said to ’stand for the British Crown’.

While it is true that most loyalist organisations are reactionary and under the leadership of bourgeois and petty bourgeois chauvinists who fan sectarian feelings against the Catholics it is wrong to condemn the Protestant working class as totally politically reactionary. Yet this is what the resolution implies. Despite their predominately sectarian stand, certain progressive tendencies exist within thus class which arise from its basic objective conflict of interests with the British bourgeoisie.

These tendencies can be seen from time to time not only in opposition to schemes such as the Council of Ireland, but also partly in the opposition to internment from some sections of the Protestant working class, in the contacts that have on occasions been made between Protestant and Catholic working class forces, and in the good record of the working class in Northern Ireland fighting the Industrial Relations Act under the last Conservative government even though this act was not enforced in Northern Ireland.

Although these progressive features are at present politically only the secondary aspect of the Protestant working class, they never the less exist and are important. Because they arise from the objective position of the Protestant workers as victims of capitalist exploitation we believe as Marxist-Leninists that these progressive features will persist when the more superficial effects of sectarianism and religious ideology have passed away.

The resolution does not make clear these important points about the Protestant working class.

Its analysis is very different from what appeared in the pages of Struggle less than a month after the General Meeting. In the June issue an editorial article on the Ulster Workers Strike said “the mass of the Protestant working class now confront the British Government and many face the strike-breaking British army”. The same article criticised the “T.U.C. who sent General Secretary Len Murray to Belfast to scab on the strike”. An editorial article in the July issue of Struggle said “The principal aspect of the Ulster Workers Council Strike is that it signifies a real move to the left amongst large sections of the Protestant working class.”

3. The “Colonial” Nature of the Economy of Ireland.

There is similarly an unprincipled vagueness in the resolution about the nature of the Northern Ireland economy.

The supporters of the resolution devoted a substantial proportion of it to economic questions, correctly so in view of the fundamental importance of economics in Marxist analysis. As Lenin said in the “preliminary Draft of Theses on the National and Colonial Questions”, 1920, “The Communist Party must base its policy in the national question too, not on abstract and formal principles, but firstly, on an exact estimate of the specific historical situation and primarily, of the “economic condition”.

Although at times the resolution makes points about the North and the South separately, on the major points it tries to lump them together. Yet economically the North and the South are not a single closely-integrated economy. Only about 10% of the trade of the Republic is with Northern Ireland. Each case has to be shown separately to suffer a specifically colonial form of exploitation. This has not been done.

The major contradiction in the CFB on the question of Northern Ireland is not about the Republic but about the present position of Northern Ireland. Yet the resolution does not concentrate on and clarify the analysis of the status of Northern Ireland.

It vaguely states that “the relationship between Britain and Ireland has been between exploiter and the exploited for the last 800 years”. This does not clearly explain what is the present nature of the exploitation of Northern Ireland – national exploitation, or class exploitation.

In paragraph 5 the resolution states in regard to Northern Ireland “in essence the basic nature of British exploitation is neo-colonialist”. The vagueness in the use of the words “in essence” is not accidental. How it can be implied (it could never be stated outright) that Northern Ireland is a neo-colony when it has been under direct rule for the last 100 years is not capable of explanation. (Even in paragraph 1 it is described as “British annexed”.)

If the supporters of this resolution want to argue that Northern Ireland is a colony or a neo-colony of a ’special type’ let them do so, but do so in a systematic and rigorous way, not by using vague formulations about the exploitation being ’in essence neo-colonist’.

Some of the evidence actually brought forward in the resolution in fact explains why the formulation had to be kept vague.

It states “the ownership of the means of production in the North is almost exclusively in the hands of British big business”. This is apparently included as an illustration of ’neo-colonist exploitation’.

Yet in the preceding debate in the Federation it was clearly shown on the basis of detailed analysis that for at least one comparable county of England a slightly higher proportion of businesses were owned outside the area than was the case for Northern Ireland (see MLQ 4, p.26). Under conditions of advanced monopoly capitalism, the fact that ownership of the means of production in a particular area is concentrated in the hands of finance capitalists operating from the metropolis, does not in any way automatically imply that the area in question is a colony. So what was this point in the resolution supposed to show?

The resolution tried to substantiate a “neo-colonialist” analysis of Northern Ireland in other ways. It talked in paragraph 5 about “the backward economy dominated by agriculture”. Yet in paragraph 3 it admitted when talking about “the uneven development of industrialisation in the north east and in the rest of Ireland” that Northern Ireland was an industrialised economy.

Again in paragraph 5 the resolution refers to the decline in traditional industries in the North. Yet there are many in England with traditional industries that have substantially declined, such as Cornwall or Tyneside. How does this prove exploitation that is specifically neo-colonial rather than class exploitation?

The resolution refers to the so-called subsidies to Northern Ireland (really subsidies to the capitalists there) as neo-colonial aid, as if similar subsidies were not made in other depressed parts of the British state, including Wales, Northern England and Scotland.

As for the “devastated population” the population of Northern Ireland was under 1,750,000 in 1841, about 1,400, 000 in 1851 and over 1,500,000 in 1971. It has increased with every census since 1926, which cannot be said of Scotland. Yet are we to start arguing that Scotland is suffering from neo-colonialist exploitation? A stagnant or falling population is a fairly common feature of outlying parts of capitalist markets.

There is not a single valid argument in the resolution in favour of a neo-colonialist analysis of Northern Ireland’s economic position.

The handling of the economic situation, on which as Lenin said, our policy should primarily be based, is loose and unprincipled.

4. The Origin of Partition.

The explanation given of the origin of partition of Ireland, and of the present significance of Irish Unity is confusing. The resolution points to the existence of two bourgeois groups in Ireland. In paragraph 2 it refers to imperialist exploitation “creating rival bourgeois groups”, and in paragraph 6 it says that “the competing bourgeois groups in Ireland were divided before the present administrative partition”.

What then were they competing for? This question is not answered in the resolution.

In MLQ 5, TS, who supported the resolution in May 1974, wrote that by the beginning of this century “the bourgeoisie in the north.... east” could only survive on the basis of the British market”.

As we know, the backward bourgeoisie of the South, with its less developed and smaller productive machinery, wanted the Irish market to itself and protection from British competition. Thus the two bourgeoisies had quite different interests. The southern Irish bourgeoisie needed to produce for the imperial market because of the larger size of its units of production.

The different bourgeoisies had different economic needs and took the people of their areas in quite different directions. The British ruling class was split on its policy. Hence partition came about.

The resolution is also ambiguous about whether partition was imposed from Westminster – from on high as it were – or whether it developed out of the contradictions between the two “bourgeois groups”. Paragraph 1 talks about “British annexed Northern Ireland”. But paragraph 6 implies that local forces were the principal cause of partition: the insistence by the British on a united Ireland would have resulted in Britain losing the North to the propertied classes there”.

Yet T.S. says “the bourgeoisie in the north-east... could only survive on the basis of the British market”. So how could the Northern Irish bourgeoisie have ever left the market, and Britain have lost the North to the propertied classes there, as the resolution says was possible?

The explanation given in the resolution for the origin of partition is grossly confused and cannot provide the basis for a correct policy on the question of present day Irish unity.

5. The Northern Irish Bourgeoisie .

Fundamental to an analysis of partition is an analysis of the Northern Irish bourgeoisie. But here the resolution is hopelessly contradictory.

In paragraph 2 we are told that the ownership of the means of production in the North is almost exclusively in the hands of British big business. That is to say there is virtually no separate local bourgeoisie owning any of the means of production in Northern Ireland.

Yet in paragraph 1 there is said to be comprador capitalist class in Northern Ireland; and in paragraph 7 there are said to be “northern propertied class” which do not desire unification.

So is there a local bourgeoisie or isn’t there? Do the supporters of this resolution in fact know?

The statement that “insistence by the British on a united Ireland would have resulted in Britain losing the North completely to the propertied classes there” implies that there was a Northern Irish bourgeoisie and implies that it was a comprador one. This is implied but is characteristically not stated clearly.

In fact there is no declaration in the resolution that states clearly whether there is or not a national bourgeoisie in Northern Ireland although the existence of a national bourgeoisie is fundamental to any national struggle. The complete absence of a national bourgeoisie implies that the economy has been assimilated into a larger capitalist market and state.

So confused is the resolution on the two Irish bourgeoisies that it is impossible to untangle its line.

It is however clear what the resolution was trying desperately not to say that the northern Irish bourgeoisie were assimilated into the British bourgeoisie. This is the only basis on which historical developments in Northern Ireland can be understood and a clear line developed on the national question.

6. Irish Unity.

Because the resolution cannot explain the causes of Irish partition it cannot give guidance on whether it is important and progressive to reverse that partition.

Just as it fails to analyse the position of the local bourgeoisie so it is ambiguous about the position of the British ruling class on the Irish unity.

The resolution implies that the British bourgeoisie divided Ireland: it talks of ”the imperialist solution of a divided Ireland”, of “British-annexed Northern Ireland”, of the “present administrative partition”, and of how a partitioned Ireland ensured Britain the major political control over both parts.

On the other hand the resolution implies that only the opposition of the bourgeoisie in the North prevented Britain setting up a united Ireland under Home Rule. It says that “Britain’s exploitative interests can be prolonged only with a united bourgeoisie in Ireland”! Furthermore Britain, it says, is trying to aid Irish unity through the Council of Ireland.

So what are the interests of the British ruling class on the question-of Irish unity? The resolution is unable to say.

The resolution cannot clearly explain the class interests of any group in Ireland. It is therefore unable to state which of the various possible future developments are progressive and which reactionary.

Irish unity brought about by the North joining the South would certainly help the British ruling class rationalise its control over Ireland. Yet the resolution failed to state clearly that this is not a progressive solution, although many people are attracted by the idea and are in need of clear leadership on the question. Why can we not have an explicit statement on this point?

What of the possibility of a “unilateral declaration of independence” by Northern Ireland? The resolution does not give guidance on this possible outcome either, or make clear which class interests would be served by it, and whether or not it would be a progressive development. Which would be the ruling class in such a state? The resolution cannot say.

A single state in Ireland may indeed be desirable in the long term, but this resolution is quite unable to handle the question of Irish unity in the short term in a concrete and practical manner.

7. Working Class leadership of the Struggle.

The two resolutions passed at the General Meeting in May 1974 do state a fundamental principle on the question of Ireland – the need to develop working class unity. The second resolution refers to the “necessary development of unified class action”. The first resolution says that “the divisions that have been created among the Irish working class constitute the main obstacle to progressive political advance in Ireland.”

But the statement should not stop at that. Even if the CFB believes there is a genuine national liberation movement in Ireland, history has shown that for national struggles in the era of imperialism just as for socialist struggles, the working class must not only play an important part but must play the leading part. All other classes vacillate and compromise with the enemy on fundamentals.

If it is said that we in Britain must not interfere with the Irish struggle and must not make statements on such points we reply that this resolution was an internal one to the CFB and the question of whether to publish it in full or not is another matter. What is important, particularly in view of the fundamental errors that have retarded the struggle in Northern Ireland, is for us at least to be clear in our political analysis of what has happened and what, from previous historical experience, has to happen if the revolution is to succeed.

Why can we therefore not have a clear statement that the working class must lead the progressive struggle in Northern Ireland?

8. Coercion of the Protestant Working Class.

In building working class unity a fundamental question is whether this unity can be achieved by coercion. The position for Marxist-Leninists is , or should be, clear – such unity can only be built on political class consciousness.

The progressive forces must certainly struggle against the present “loyalist” bourgeois and petty bourgeois leaders and against their policies. But at the same time they must build a united front from below with the Protestant working class.

Certainly the Catholics must defend themselves against sectarian attacks and must continue the struggle against oppression and discrimination, but they must not attempt to coerce the Protestant working class to do what it does not yet understand.

On the contrary in order to build working class unity it is essential to make clear that workers cannot coerce workers on the national question.

Yet the resolution does not state this.

Even the Provisional IRA declares this principle: “the aim of the present campaign is not to force any section of the Ulster population into a united Ireland”, “it is wrong to force a million Ulster Unionists to become something they are not”; “It making the Ulster Unionists a dissatisfied minority in a 32 County Ireland is no solution” (Irish Republican Information Service, published in An Problacht, 17 Jan. 1975).

Why can the CFB resolution not state this clearly?

9. No Assessment of the Provisionals.

The Provisionals have been the leading group in the Catholic community for the last four or five years, and the nature of the struggle and its lack of success have been substantially affected by the dual nature of the Provisionals their positive and their negative features.

Yet the resolution does not analyse these. Again such passages need not necessarily have been published in full by the CFB, but they are essential to our political clarity.

10. Running together of the Stages of Revolution.

The resolution is opportunistically vague about distinguishing between the bourgeois democratic stage of revolution and the proletarian revolution.

It states “The democratic movement that has continued since 1793 has been rejuvenated with anew and last phase”. It speaks of the present struggles against British imperialism and the ”fight to throw off the domination of all foreign imperialism and to help achieve a socialist republic.”

Certainly the bourgeois democratic revolution prepares the ground for the proletarian revolution but it is a Trotskyist error to confuse the two. For Marxist-Leninists the distinction is fundamental.” Lenin made the distinction in the three different programmes he drafted up to 1917, during the 1917 bourgeois Kerensky government, and after the 1917 socialist revolution. Mao also makes the distinction in many works, including ’On New Democracy’.

The key question is that of uniting all available progressive class forces against the main enemy.

In the phase of the bourgeois democratic revolution the main enemies are feudalism and foreign imperialism. Only when these have been overthrown does the main enemy become the bourgeoisie, and does the struggle become that for a socialist revolution.

The fact that it may be necessary to fight for full bourgeois democratic rights (as is the case now in Northern Ireland), cannot be allowed to confuse the question of the basic stage of revolution, which is related to who is the main class enemy. (“The forces that determine the character of a revolution are the chief enemies on the one hand and the chief revolutionaries on the other.” Mao, Selected Works, Vol.4, p.208).

Indeed lack of full democracy for the people is a feature of all bourgeois states and is an increasing tendency as capitalism collapses further into its decadent monopoly capitalist stage.

Therefore to attempt to hold back the struggle to a bourgeois democratic stage solely because it includes a fight for full democratic rights is a tailist error.

On the other hand if there genuinely is still a feudal class and a foreign imperialism to be overthrown by a broad alliance of progressive classes including the patriotic national bourgeoisie, then it is adventurism to attempt to make the revolution into a specifically socialist one.

Mao said “it is a utopian view rejected by true revolutionaries to say that the democratic revolution does not have a specific task and period of its own but can be merged and accomplished simultaneously with another task, i.e. the socialist task(which can only be carried out in another period)”. (Selected Works, Vol. 2, p.360).

This resolution opportunistically fails to make clear this important distinction.

11. Slogans and Immediate Policies.

In the final paragraph, the only prospect the resolution holds out for overcoming the serious divisions in the working class in Ireland is that the CFB as part of the international working class movement will work to develop links with the working class forces throughout Ireland”.

Obviously this is a completely inadequate answer; is over optimistic about our ability to influence the situation and in view of our small size and other commitments is over optimistic about our ability to establish links at all (no links in fact have been developed by the CFB since the resolution was passed). Of course we should indeed establish links but the formulation here is obviously grossly erroneous and the result of particularly hasty drafting.

The paragraph ends “We demand that the British state sever all imperialist connections with both parts of Ireland.” Leaving aside the question of whether the connection with Northern Ireland is in fact imperialist, this formulation is hopelessly abstract and general when we consider the need for Marxist-Leninists in this country to give a decisive lead in the critical situation in Northern Ireland.

To call on your own bourgeoisie to stop behaving like a bourgeoisie (for that is what the statement means) is so general that it cannot be used as a demand. A demand is something that sums up and focuses the mass struggle on a specific target. This sentence in the resolution says “the revolutionary thing” but does not tell us specifically what to do.

The second slogan “Solidarity with all forces in Ireland fighting British Imperialism” is a similarly abstract generalisation. It stresses subjective identification with allegedly “revolutionary forces” rather than campaigning among the British working class on specific issues to which we can pin down the British ruling class and thereby give concrete rather than imaginary aid to progressive forces in Northern Ireland. Besides some of the forces with which the resolution calls on us to show solidarity have substantial negative aspects (consider for example the consciously anti-communist elements in the Republican Movement).

However the resolution does correctly call for British troops out of Northern Ireland.

What else should it say to focus the struggle specifically now?

It should put our opposition to the presence of British troops in Northern Ireland not in the context of an out of date national liberation struggle, but in the context of a state-wide campaign against the violence and oppressive nature of the bourgeois army.

It should state clearly our opposition to any schemes that increase the power and authority of the police and army of the bourgeoisie over the working class.

It should call for the different communities to be able to settle their affairs free from military interference by the British state, and demand the right for the different communities to police their own areas.

It should warn clearly against the possible “Ulsterisation” of the conflict with the British Government preparing to hand over to a reactionary loyalist regime. The resolution should therefore call on people to be ready to go into action in a campaign against the British ruling class giving any support, financial, military, or political to a loyalist regime which oppresses the Catholics.

* * *

The CFB resolution has given little guidance to Marxist-Leninists working on Ireland. This is the result of its opportunist vagueness, both on questions of detail and on fundamental questions of Marxist theory. We have enumerated its major political errors and omissions:
1 Vague characterisation of the movement among the Catholic community;
2 Incorrect characterisation of the Protestant working class;
3 Loose economic analysis of Northern Ireland;
4 Confused explanation of the origin of partition;
5 Indecision about the Northern Irish bourgeoisie;
6 Lack of guidance on the question of Irish unity;
7 Failure to state the importance of working class leadership; Failure to state that working class unity cannot be built by coercing the Protestants;
8 No critical assessment of the role of the Provisionals;
9 Confusion of the stages of revolution; and
10 Impractical slogans and immediate policies.

Why is this resolution so weak? We believe this is for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it is not based on any consistent theoretical understanding of what constitutes a nation and of the development and decline of nations. It reflects a weakness therefore also in the CFB’s ability to make clear criticisms of the petty bourgeois nationalists springing up in Wales and Scotland.

Secondly, there was not enough rigorous struggle between the different lines in the CFB in the polemic leading up to the general meeting. Some comrades contented themselves with believing that the minority line was “social chauvinist” and the criticisms of the national liberation line were not rigorously answered.

Thirdly, the other groups in the Federation maintained a relatively liberal and passive attitude to the polemic, did not join in and struggle for a correct line sufficiently and did not study the problem systematically enough.

* * *

The situation continues to develop in Northern Ireland. As a result of incorrect leadership the progressive forces are in some ways in a weaker position than they were three years ago. It is increasingly clear that there is no basis for a successful national liberation struggle in Northern Ireland. The Troops Out Movement is in urgent need of a clear line if it is to build a campaign that can prevent the British ruling class achieving a significant victory over the progressive forces.

We call on all groups in the Federation to criticise the resolution of May 1974, clarify the major questions and develop a correct line to guide our practice on the question of Ireland.