The launch of Saoradh in the Canal Court Hotel in Newry is the latest republican project to have emerged but is it a fresh departure a break from past mistakes or just simply a re-packaged version of the pre ceasefire Provies?
Since its inception, Saoradh has faced increasing state repression on both sides of the border as it has attempted to establish itself. Many will look upon this crackdown as evidence of a real threat to the status-quo and therefore acclaim the revolutionary potential of Saoradh's version of republicanism, confusing revolution with the reality that the state will always repress those who they perceive question their monopoly over violence.
With the exception of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) and Republican Sinn Fein (RSF), most new republican groups emerged after the historic signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement or the decision by Sinn Fein endorse the PSNI, so it remains unclear whether they offer anything new on the table in terms of learning from past mistakes in relation to militarism, organization and long term goals.
The dominance of authoritarian, statist and hierarchal organizational praxis on ‘dissident republicanism’ that have emerged from the Provisional movement where loyalty and discipline was placed more highly than critical debate and internal democracy is a re-occurring legacy within all shades of republicanism.
As Bernadette McAliskey learned during with her brief involvement in the IRSP in the late 1970s - she resigned after failing to make the army subordinate to the party:
The building of a working-class movement requires mass organization on an open basis, with decisions being reached by rational argument and full discussion, policy coming from the rank and file and being reflected by the leadership. Because of its clandestine and militaristic nature, participation in ‘the Movement’ demanded the exact opposite. Since the survival of the organization, the safety, at times, of its members, depended on personal loyalty, secrecy, unquestioning acceptance of directives from above, it was virtually impossible to envisage the development of a democratic mass organization from within. (1)
After all there is a short distance between the ‘democratic centralism’ of the Leninist model to the military centralism of the IRA.
These problems flow from the failure to build of a different type of organization built on popular self-management and direct democracy from below that removes top down centralized control. This is linked to an analysis of the transformation of the Provisional Republican Movement from poachers to gamekeepers as the result of a ‘sell-out’ or a ‘betrayal’ of republican objectives implying that a better set of leaders could of done better.
Something Alexander Berkman rejected when he argued:
nothing is truer than the means you use to attain your object soon become your object … There is a deeper reason for this constant and regular betrayal [than individual scoundrels being elected]… no man turns scoundrel or traitor overnight ... It is power which corrupts … Moreover, even with the best intentions Socialists [who get elected] … find themselves entirely powerless to accomplishing anything of a socialistic nature … The demoralization and vitiation [this brings about] take place little by little, so gradually that one hardly notices it himself … [The elected Socialist] perceives that he is regarded as a laughing stock [by the other politicians] … and finds more and more difficulty in securing the floor … he knows that neither by his talk nor by his vote can he influence the proceedings … His speeches don’t even reach the public … [and so] He appeals to the voters to elect more comrades … Years pass … [and a] number … are elected. Each of them goes through the same experience… [and] quickly come to the conclusion… [that] They must show that they are practical men… that they are doing something for their constituency… In this manner the situation compels them to take a ‘practical’ part in the proceedings, to ‘talk business,’ to fall in line with the matters actually dealt with in the legislative body… Spending years in that atmosphere, enjoying good jobs and pay, the elected Socialists have themselves become part and parcel of the political machinery… With growing success in elections and securing political power they turn more and more conservative and content with existing conditions. Removal from the life and suffering of the working class, living in the atmosphere of the bourgeoisie… they have become what they call ‘practical’… Power and position have gradually stifled their conscience and they have not the strength and honesty to swim against the current… They have become the strongest bulwark of capitalism. (2)
Behind this logic is the idea that a new leadership or small armed groups can take on the might of the British state which has the military power and technology to wipe out a whole cities in hours. This fails to examine the strategic paralysis that republicanism finds itself in between a hard rock and insanity which Albert Einstein describes as, ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ While any serious revolutionary movement should have the capacity to defend itself, armed struggle in the current context is counter-productive and strategically futile playing into the hands of the status-quo and their partners in crime, Sinn Fein.
An armed minority with a minority simply cannot take on two states-or even one. Only by building up explicitly socialist, working class organisations, that engages a wide variety of tactics and is the champion of the oppressed in preparation and as a catalyst for a revolution can socialism win and Imperialism be uprooted.
Irish Republicanism remains a significant tradition and a attractive mobilizing force within a limited section of Irish society compared to other left forces offering short term solutions to global capitalism, its cross-class nature and battle between two tendencies remains a significant shortcoming.
Although historically militant, the republican movement does not offer a radical approach to politics or solutions to the crisis that is capitalism. National Liberation is the sole common denominator of the republican movement, meaning all other concerns, those of labour, women's rights etc, must be pushed to the side under the call for ‘unity’. Effectively this means that the status quo of the capitalist order will be maintained even in the highly unlikely event of a successful national liberation struggle.
Republicanism has ideologically and intellectually exhausted itself due to its flexible contradictory nature and constant competing tension between group/personal identities based on Irish nationalism and Catholicism to more of an anti-capitalist angle. In other words, stuck between a more universal internationalist outlook and more conservative insular aspect of its communal base which poses significant questions regarding its viability as a revolutionary project.
To date, left republicanism has failed to fully articulate and implement the struggle for national and social liberation. While left republican forces participate in everyday struggles of the class, too often this merely been a ‘populist’ measure thrown in to make the republican project relevant again during times of crisis, a means to an means to an end rather than a central component of revolutionary struggle. When push comes to shove the call for ‘unity’ among republicans is heard and ‘labour must wait’-again, social and economic issues are pushed to the side in favour of the lowest common denominator - national liberation.
Eoin O’Brien shines a light on this contradiction in his book, Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism when he discusses the politics of the influential left republican activist Liam Mellows during the War of Independence:
His radicalization did not come from an understanding of the relationship between capitalism and Empire, from readings of socialist literature or involvement in working-class struggle, but from the disappointment at the outcome of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. What became clear to Mellows, while in jail, was that when the independence movement split, it split as much on class lines as anything else. His response was to encourage the mobilization of the country’s dispossessed to the cause of the republic. For Mellows, socialism was a means to an end, namely nationalist revolution. (3)
The 1960s also represented another leftward turn within Irish republicanism with the Provisionals originally rejecting the leftward turn of the Official Republican movement. As conflict erupted on the streets in the North, sections of republicanism to some extent drifted into a ‘catholic defenderist’ mode, the protestant working class were merely labeled as dupes of Britain and completely dismissed as reactionary with ‘Brits Out’ was back on the agenda and everything else recuperated under nationalism. The weakness of republicanism is not in its failures but in its successes because success requires building nationalist unity, whether that be military as during the War of Independence or political as in the Peace Process. The price of such unity is constant - the marginalisation and removal from the agenda of any prospect of social revolution.
While the Provisional movement has shifted on this framework of struggle to a more ‘rights based agenda’ based on ‘equality’ and ‘national reconciliation’ depending on a Northern or Southern context, other sections of republicanism has gravitated towards left republicanism again. Apart from ambiguous references to the political objective of a ‘Socialist Republic’ it remains unclear whether this is a genuine attempt to forge the struggle for national and social liberation or just another means to an end. How do we make the ‘unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter’ of the 1798 United Irishmen relevant in the 21st Century? How relevant or practical is ‘national self-determination’ in the true meaning of the word in a globalized capitalist system run by Imperialist powers?
Means and Ends
For anarchists the means in terms of how we organize in the present must be consistent with the principles with the society want to create in the shell of the old. Revolutionaries that embrace “means” that are in contradiction with the kind of society they wish to create will consistently fail to create that society. Instead of wasting time, money and resources on elections, we believe it is essential to build and cultivate a culture of resistance because an organized and empowered community based on direct action and self-management in all aspects of struggle is stronger than depending on some party or leader to fix things for us.
We should have learnt by now that political parties may say they are fighting for your rights and your interests, but their central aim is to build for their own interests and election campaigns resulting in a pervading cycle of disempowerment and powerlessness. Direct action such as the rent and rates strike in the North in the 1970s, to the more recent campaign against the water charges in the South, teaches us to control our own struggles while building a culture of resistance that links with others in struggles in struggles. Solidarity and mutual aid find real expression and as our confidence grows so too does our ability to change our society.
Central to this debate is whether the state can be utilized as an instrument of working-class emancipation and liberation. As the last century proves the state cannot be captured by the popular classes, used by the working class to revolutionary transform society, because it is a centralized institution of minority class rule, inextricably allied to the private corporations and a bureaucracy with its own in interests. This means that any left-wing republican party, aiming at state power, is a dead-end, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter its size, no matter its program or rules. Imagine if all the time, resources and finances wasted into a getting a few crumbs from the masters table was instead put into building a our own institutions of mass, collective self-organisation in our housing estates, communities and workplaces replacing the rule of governments, landlords and bosses. After all, the establishment of No Go Zones in the early 1970s when entire communities took back control for a short time was probably considered more of a threat to the authority of the British state than armed struggle.
Unfortunately, the outdated Leninist mode of organization and vision continues to dominate some anti-imperialist movements and the republican left but this is slowly changing. Movements like YPG show an important way to fight for national autonomy and a social revolution of radical, participatory - democratic and progressive programme, where dominating relations based on gender and ecology are equally challenged.
We need to recognize Imperialism is not only rooted in capitalism but is a particular mode of the state structure. Thus, most left nationalist movements that have achieved their goals have turned on the working class once in power, crushing leftists and trade unionists with equal vigor like their former masters because using bourgeois methods simply results in bourgeois ends.
Like Cuba and the former USSR, the ‘workers state’ won’t and can’t wither away as held by classic Marxist jargon. All ruling minorities have an interest in maintaining their position as such and the failure of previous left republican projects to recognize this is apparent. A newly installed ruling minority will use its power and authority to further justify and entrench its own power and authority. As Ron Taber states:
The very revolutionaries who claim that they are against the state, and for eliminating the state …see as their central task after a revolution to build up a state that is more solid, more centralized and more all-embracing than the old one. (4)
Key to the neutralizing of radical movements and instituttionalization process is the deployment of ‘soft power’ and ‘manufacturing consent’ in a Gramscian manner. This has been particularly successful in the North through the enormous ‘peace industry’ and the funding of community groups where republican activists were gradually pulled into state-funded community projects and recast as ‘political entrepreneurs,’ resulting in the movement gradually becoming materially invested in the perpetuation of the status-quo. A process that does not just take place overnight rather the logical conclusion of trying to use the master’s tools to bring down the master’s house.
As one former member of Sinn Fein described:
How many good sincere activists will be destroyed, buried in the bullshit of parliamentary politics, trying to get the odd pot-hole filled whilst the whole show goes on as before and past dreams of social revolution slowly ebb away to "a favour here or there" and a few dry empty commemorations of past deeds. (5)
What’s the alternative?
Anarchists don’t have all the answers or a blueprint, but as a former republican I believe it offers a rich revolutionary tradition from across the world that built mass movements of social transformation involving millions of people, that disaffected republicanism can learn from in terms of organization, strategy and vision.
While there are many republican activists doing great work on the ground and involved in a range of progressive struggles, remaining more influential and numerically stronger in Ireland than anarchism, it has no revolutionary outlook in terms of fundamentally changing the oppressive conditions of capitalist society in the 21st century. After all, anarchist communism emerged from the historical limitations of Republicanism and took its core tenets to the next level.
As Mikhail Bakunin correctly pointed out well over a century ago:
while we prefer the republic, we must recognise and proclaim that whatever the form of government may be, so long as human society continues to be divided into different classes as a result of the hereditary inequality of occupations, of wealth, of education, and of rights, there will always be a class-restricted government and the inevitable exploitation of the majorities by the minorities. The State is nothing but this domination and this exploitation, well regulated and systematized….. The fundamental difference between a monarchy and even the most democratic republic is that in the monarchy the bureaucrats oppress and rob the people for the benefit of the privileged in the name of the King, and to fill their own coffers; while in the republic the people are robbed and oppressed in the same way for the benefit of the same classes, in the name of “the will of the people” (and to fill the coffers of the democratic bureaucrats). In the republic the State, which is supposed to be the people, legally organised, stifles and will continue to stifle the real people. But the people will feel no better if the stick with which they are being beaten is labeled “the people’s stick. (6)
Anarchists wish to create a free and equal society where no one person can exploit another for their own gain, and so the stepladder to power that is the state must be knocked over so that it can’t be reassembled — Not left to stand, and certainly not used to govern with a pessimistic fear that the people necessary to the revolution’s success are incapable of creating a new society through their own organizing efforts.
Any unfinished revolution must include the struggle to remove all forms of relations based on domination and exploitation because if there is anything we should take from the last century is that those who make a half revolution dig their own graves.
1) McDonald and Holland 2010, pp. 103–41)
2)Alexander Berkman ABC of anarchism - https://libcom.org/library/abc-anarchism-alexander-berkman
3) Ó Broin 2009, pp. 294–5
4) Taking a Critical Look at Leninism by Ron Taber.
6) State and Anarchy