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Peter Hadden

Mass action not individual terror

(October 1979)

From Militant Irish Monthly, October 1979.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

The killing of Lord Mountbatten, among others, at Mullaghmore and the deaths of 18 soldiers near Warrenpoint have focused attention on the campaign, of individual terror being waged by the Provisional IRA. In Britain the popular capitalist press has foamed at the mouth in its cries for revenge. The Provos, on the other hand, have proclaimed these incidents as proof of their “invincibility” and as a vindication of their methods of struggle. Socialists, will evaluate these two incidents in a very different manner – in terms of the effect they will have on the class struggle In Britain and Ireland.


One of the theoretical foundations of Marxism is its opposition to the tactic of individual terror. In Russia, for example, the early Marxists sharpened their theoretical armoury in the unrelenting fight against this false method of struggle. At all times the Russian Marxists counterposed mass action by the working class to often heroic but always foolhardy methods of the terrorist groups. In 1917 history vindicated their stand. Marxism, in the form of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, placed itself at the head of a mass revolutionary upsurge and succeeded in accomplishing what decades of terrorist activity had failed to do.

In 1972 the first copy of this paper carried a major article headed: “Provisional IRA strategy will not defeat imperialism.” Today, while the dust raised by the Mullaghmore and Warrenpoint bombings, obscures the sight of many people, we entirely stand over our past analysis.

British Imperialism, which is an economic as well as military system, can only be overthrown by the united mass action of the Irish working class. Far from leading towards such action, the activities of the Provos and of their shadows in the INLA point in the opposite direction.

Class Struggle

Individual terror does not raise the sights of workers to the goal of a socialist revolution. Instead of demonstrating the need for activity by the working class the individual terrorist substitutes his “heroic deeds” for such actions. If anything is “demonstrated” it is that the working class and their organisations do not appear to be necessary.

But there can be no substitute for the class struggle. This iron law of history will not be bent as organisations like the Provos must learn to their cost.

Capitalism cannot be shocked into non-existence by the noise of explosions, no matter how loud. Nor will the loss of a few of its representatives near the downfall of the system itself. Those who applaud and rely on Provo style methods are blind to this fact. They confuse individual representatives of the system and individual blocks of property with the system itself.

The real legacy of their actions, unless and until they are superseded by the movement of the working class, is not the weakening but the strengthening of the apparatus of the state and the increase of repression. Invariably the ultimate fate of terrorist groupings is isolation from any mass support and, in real terms, military defeat.

Added to such arguments which weigh against the adoption of the tactic of individual terror in any, particularly any advanced capitalist country, is another factor which applies to Northern Ireland. This is the plain fact that the effects of the Provos’ activity is to increase sectarian tension and further divide the working class.

The death of Mountbatten and the killing of the soldiers actually underlines all these arguments against individual terror. A specially expanded edition of the Provos newspaper after the recent killings boasts that this campaign has been demonstrated to be succeeding. They quote the confidential British Army Document 37 as admitting that the Provos cannot be defeated. They hail the death of Mountbatten as a firm thrust into the flesh of Imperialism.


Marxists must soberly examine such claims. Lord Mountbatten was a former representative of Imperialism who presided over such “achievements” as the partition of India and the subsequent pogroms in which 200,000 people died. He was also a relation of the monarchy. But he was not the first establishment figure to have fallen victim to the bomb or the bullet of a guerrilla organisation. In 1881 the Russian terrorist group “People’s Will” blew to pieces, not a 79 year old of time retired representative of imperialism, blood related to the throne, but the self-styled, “semi-divine” ruling Tsar of all the Russians himself.

And what was the result? Another Tsar! Increased repression. The arrest of those responsible and a huge step towards the isolation of their organisations. If a Tsar is expendable how much more so is the occasional aged earl. If the system can afford an earl or two it will not be too severely weakened by the loss of a platoon of mere “foot soldiers”, even if they come from the elite of the army – the paratroopers.

Provos can’t win

It is perfectly true that the Provos can continue some form of operations for a long period. This was the evaluation given by the stolen army document. But whether Imperialism can quickly defeat the IRA is scarcely the main point. For those who support the Provos the real question is not so much whether they can be defeated but whether they can succeed in defeating Imperialism. The answer is firmly no. Not in 1979, not in 1980, nor should they continue until the year 2,000 and after will they succeed in this.

More repression

The real legacy of these defeat, bombings has been to provide the ruling classes, North, South and in Britain with an excuse to step up repression. The North is to have 1,000 extra police. In the South court operations are to be tightened so as to restrict the rights of the accused.

In addition, a firm platform has been offered to all shades of bigotry. A boost to divisive anti-Irish sentiment has been provided in Britain. In the North the immediate result has been the re-emergence of the death squads of loyalist para-militarism. Above all, these events have, very temporarily, stunned the rising movement of the working class just at a time when the attention of all workers needs to be focused on opposition to the policies of the Tory Government.

It has been left to the Labour Movement to “lift the bill” for these explosions.

There will, of course, be some Provisionals who would not lament a return to the bitter sectarianism of recent years. The Labour Movement can ensure that their ambitions and these of the loyalist bigots are thwarted.


In the North, despite these bombings and despite recent killings by loyalist bigots, the mood remains anti-sectarian. After the deaths at Warrenpoint there was a demonstration of over 1,000 people. This was called by middle class and religious elements but it was nonetheless significant in that it was probably the first demonstration of such size to have been held by the people of a predominantly Catholic area against the deaths of soldiers.

Equally, the call by the trade unions for a two minute silence on the day of the Mountbatten funeral, despite it’s no less pious nature and despite its being called jointly with the Confederation of British Industry, was significant. The call was well supported, with demonstrations held in some areas. Also, it was a call to workers North and South, probably the first simultaneous call to action throughout Ireland made by the union tops since the days of partition.

Unions must lead

Despite and in part because of the return to the streets of the killers the workers of the North are ready to respond to a call to oppose sectarianism. It is now up to the unions to give a lead and mobilise their ranks to action against sectarianism and against the poverty inflicted by capitalism. Mass demonstrations, surpassing those of the Better Life For All Campaign, could now be organised to oppose jointly the attacks of the Tories and the activities of the bigots.

Such mass action, along with socialist policies, can unite the Labour Movement throughout Ireland and point the way to the overthrow of capitalism, North and South, and towards the socialist reunification of the country. The methods of the Provos point to division, isolation, despair and eventual defeat. The real lesson of Mullaghmore and Warrenpoint is that these methods should be abandoned.

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