The Red Plough
Vol. 2-No 3
The United Left Alliance and the North-Some thoughts!
On Saturday June 25th 2011 in Liberty Hall, Dublin there was a coming together of over three hundred political activists under the banner of the United Left Alliance.
The ULA first emerged late last year when a number of groupings came together to form a bloc of revolutionary socialists as a response to the economic crisis facing capitalism. The response by all the main stream electoral parties to that crisis and their unity in accepting the dictates of the European Band and the IMF mean that there was little or no opposition to the cosy consensus of capitalism. All agreed that the burden of saving the banks and the financial institutions of Capitalism must fall on those lest able to bear the pain and with no responsibility to that crisis- the working class. The ULA fought the recent elections in the South and won five seats to the Dail including members of the People Before Profit (SWP mainly) the Socialist Party(SP) and the WUAG based mainly around Tipperary. While this was not a great victory it has encouraged many non-aligned activists that maybe there is a change in the wind and a serious mass left party may well emerge.
That is why there was good turn out at the forum in Liberty Hall. During the course of the day it was clear there were a number of demarcation lines between the groups. The SP wanted the word socialist to be central to what the ULA was while the PBP wanted a much looser formation.
In a recent important interview1 Tommy McKearney asserts that the reason for this was to appeal to the middle classes. This critique that has often been thrown at in particular the SWP. In appealing to wider sections outside the working classes it is often alleged that they are prepared to water down their politics.
There was an air of politeness that seemed to permeate the whole conference Nobody seemed to want to offend or rock the boat. Only on the issue of the North did tempers rise with the Socialist Party under attack for their position on the UVF invasion of the Short Strand. Unfortunately some comrades took umbrage at this and seemed to resent the raising of “controversial” issues. Surely it is better to explore key issues and understand the different positions of both individuals and groups. And what is wrong with a bit of passion at meetings?
The SP do not want the ULA to organise in the North at this moment in time while the rest were in favour. Correctly the SP pointed out that at the first sectarian clashes in the North the Alliance, if it included the Socialist Party, would face great difficulties. So they say the time is not ripe for the ULA to organise in the North. They are correct in this because they are wrong in their approach to the North. It takes some doing to be consistently wrong on the North for years but the SP have managed this.
Yes, they may have a formally correct marxist analysis about violence and class divisions but in actual practice they err always on the side of not offending the unionist sensitivities of the protestant working classes. They apply blame equally on the two sections of the working classes when sectarian clashes occur forgetting that usually, but not always, the driving force is orange or loyalist sectarianism.
Would the Socialist Party give a bye ball to the KKK in the USA? If not why do they give the UVF a bye ball in the North? In their explanation of why there was “riots” on Monday and Tuesday of June 20th and 21st 2011 the SP called the invasion of Short Strand by hundreds of UVF volunteers an “orchestrated attack”2 But they then tried to balance that by attacking the involvement of so called “dissident republicans” in wounding two protestants and a journalist (obviously journalists don’t do religion). Let us not forget that the SP in the past gave a platform to the PUP’s Billy Hutchinson while refusing to take republican speakers from the floor at the same meeting.
Needless to say the vast majority of the residents in the Short Strand saw the situation slightly differently. Having endured regular invasions from gangs of unionists lumpen proletariat over the course of the last two centuries they saw the “orchestrated attack” as a dry run for ethnic cleansing or an attempted pogrom.
The nationalist community in East Belfast is only a small fraction of the overall population in East Belfast and have been regularly held to ransom for the “good behaviour” of other nationalists in the north. The UVF attack on Short Strand could be liken to the Black Hundreds attacks on the Jewish people in Tsarist Russia.3 It is no wonder that in the face of actual real moment attacks some republicans immediately resorted to the use of arms in defence of the area.While that action was unwise this writer is certainly not going to condemn armed self-defence of working class areas. The North has a long and bloody history of armed incursions into nationalist areas resulting in deaths, mass evacuations and burnt out districts. Perhaps those Republicans who entered into the British controlled decommissioning process have now had second thoughts.
In 2001 the SP in an attempt to show their even handedness in their explanation of the events surrounding the Holy Cross Blockade wrote as follows,
“But the sectarianism is not all one way, despite the misleading attempts by some nationalists to portray it as such. Sinn Fein recently published a centre page in An Phoblacht listing the attacks on Catholics. This is a deliberately one sided approach ignoring the attacks that have also taken place against Protestants.”.4
However the SP fails itself to outline the attacks against protestants which would have been the sensible thing to do and show how there is widespread sectarianism in the Northern society. If truth be told the approach of the SP is itself one-sided and is designed to create a myth of sectarianism as an all embracing disease equally affecting both sides.
Let us be clear there is no equivalence between loyalism and republicanism.
One is the essential belief in domination, supremacy, and retains all the trappings of the remnants of Imperialism. Like the Black Hundreds they act in defence of the ruling classes.
The other is an expression of resistance by an exploited dominated and oppressed people. One can argue about the relevance of each to the 21st century but the violence of the oppressed is not the equivalent of the violence of the oppressor.
“We do not and never have put all wars on the same plane. Marx and Engels supported the revolutionary struggle of the Irish against Great Britain, of the Poles against the tsar, even though in these two nationalist wars the leaders were, for the most part, members of the bourgeoisie and even at times of the feudal aristocracy . . . at all events, Catholic reactionaries. When Abdel-Krim rose up against France, the democrats and Social Democrats spoke with hate of the struggle of a “savage tyrant” against the “democracy.” The party of Leon Blum supported this point of view. But we, Marxists and Bolsheviks, considered the struggle of the Riffians against imperialist domination as a progressive war. Lenin wrote hundreds of pages demonstrating the primary necessity of distinguishing between imperialist nations and the colonial and semi-colonial nations which comprise the great majority of humanity. To speak of “revolutionary defeatism” in general, without distinguishing between exploiter and exploited countries, is to make a miserable caricature of Bolshevism and to put that caricature at the service of the imperialists.)”5
These words of Leon Trotsky must be well know by the comrades in the Socialist Party. Why then do they allow themselves to become the working class equivalent of the middle class Alliance party with their even handed “plague on all your houses” approach?
This is not in any way to condone justify or excuse sectarian attacks. Regardless of who engages in them they are wrong. The Red Plough fundamentally disagrees with the use of armed resistance to British Imperialism at this juncture of time and believes it vital to build bridges to workers from what ever section of the working class they come. But we will not do that at the cost of denying the existence of Imperialism. Nor should any self respecting socialist shy away from solidarity with those who are indeed victims of that Imperialism.
To those “progressive loyalists” (and there are indeed progressive loyalists on some issues) we would say claim not the reactionary elements of Britishness such as Imperialism, monarchy, British Army wars of aggression etc, but the positive elements that evolved within British history such as the Levellers,6 the Chartists,7 the struggle for the vote, the welfare state, feminism trade unions and so on.
As early as 1872 an Isabella Tod established a society called the North of Ireland’s Women’s Suffrage Committee and the Irish suffrage movement also included the Unionist Women’s Franchise Association. So there is a huge democratic and progressive hidden history within the working class traditions in Britain and Ireland that regardless of their perceived nationality workers today could learn from.
Take for example the case of a Roberta Black, born in Larne in 1904. During the 1930’s she was active in the Belfast Peace League becoming its secretary. Apart from her involvement in that campaign she was also active in the Nursery School movement. In a newspaper interview she said of herself:
'I am a Socialist because I believe in equality of opportunity for all human beings regardless of birth, creed or colour. I feel any exploitation of man by man, class by class or nation by nation to be morally wrong. My ideas came from my home background, which was Christian Socialist, and later working in nursery schools in industrial areas in the 1930s I was shocked by the consequences of insecurity, unemployment and illness.’
She was was one of the founders of Edenderry Nursery School, off the Shankill in 1938 and Frederick Street Nursery School, close to York Street in Belfast in 1941. In both of those working class areas there was widespread poverty and deprivation. and she acted as honorary secretary for both of these Belfast schools. She was also on the Management Committee for the Northern Ireland Fever Hospital.
When she went to Coventry with her husband in 1957 she joined the local Labour Party and served as Secretary to the Cheylesmore Ward Labour Party. For the next decade she wrote to various parliamentarians, particularly Labour MPs, about the chief political issues of the day such as the Vietnam War. Her return to Belfast in 1972 did not break her links with the Labour movement. Indeed, she joined the Northern Ireland Labour Party and acted as canvasser, polling agent, etc, during parliamentary and council election until her death in 1975.8 She is but one example of the hidden history within the wider protestant working class. It is a history that needs to be reclaimed.
After the 2nd world war there was a strong communist vote and the Northern Ireland Labour Party had a strong presence in industrial areas and at one time was seen as a major threat to the unionist party’s control. Sadly the NILP could not face up to the challenges thrown up by the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement and following the outbreak of the armed conflict in the early 1970‘s members of that N.I.L.P. ended up in the armed ranks of republican and loyalist groups.
However traces of that progressive history are still evident today. After generations of conflict there are many ex-republican and loyalist activists now working hard in working class communities to bring down sectarian attacks and reach out to the “other side”. They may not be in the trade union movement; they may not be in “left groups”; but night after night particularly during the “marching season they work hard to reduce tensions and yet their contributions will rarely be recognised. Some of those from a loyalist background admitted that the protestant working class should have supported the Civil rights movement and that they were also exploited by the “big house protestants”. Some Republicans have come to recognise the sectarian nature of some of their actions of the past. Indeed they now recognise that it is the class question that is central to the needs of the working classes in Ireland.These are not matters of insignificance. These people were and some still are leaders in their respective working class communities.
That creates a possibility of progress especially as the current economic crisis shows no sense of ending. Unemployment is rising, benefits are being cut the state sector is been diminished and families are struggling to survive. Capitalism world wide is facing its greatest ever economic challenges. To survive it needs to claw back from the working classes the gains of centuries of struggle.
This has created an upsurge of class struggle throughout Europe. Working class resistance to the economic penalties being imposed in places like Spain, Italy and Greece has been widespread. So there is no better time for the left to come together and push the positive messages of Socialism which can unite the working classes. But it can not be done by hiding softening or denying the actual realities of Imperialism. Sadly some on the Left have not learned the lessons of history
Over 100 years ago the same issues arose in Belfast when the Irish Socialist Republican Party tried to organise there. Although subject to attacks from the Orange Order and other loyalists the ISRP’s main problem was other Belfast socialists organised in the Belfast Socialist Society.
They held their noses as they dismissed the ISRP as a Irish nationalist organisation rather than what it was, part of the wider internationalist socialist movement.
“The Belfast socialists held a rather abstract view of internationalism, believing that any talk of the “national question”in Ireland was little more than a distraction from the “real” class issues. They believed that any potential unity between Catholic and protestant workers along class lines would be jeopardized by any discussion of issues relating to Irish sovereignty and independence from the British Empire”9
Sounds very familiar does it not? All those brave young people attracted to the type of politics espoused by organisations like the SP and the SWP or its many fronts need to realise that Imperialism does exist. It is operating in Afghanistan, Iraqi, and Libya. And it operates in Ireland. Of course it does not show it true face most of the time as British Imperialism uses various tactics honed over the years to keep the natives on side. Their biggest achievement in recent years was to persuade the Sinn Fein (Provisional) leadership to accommodate and collaborate with its plans for Ireland.
But when it shows its brutal face, such as the use of torture, shoot to kill brutalisation of political prisoners etc, all one will get from some on the left is formal denunciations on paper but no actual appearances on the streets along side republicans. No. That is a step too far. Better to hold the noses and hope they will go away with their flags sit down marches etc against injustice. It might interfere with the “class question”which is winning masses of workers especially protestant workers over to the ranks of socialism! Might it. Ahem!!
Such a stance, this writer affirms, is against all that socialists like Connolly, Lenin, and Leon Trotsky stood for, wrote about, or lived their lives in struggle for.
What was noticeable at the ULA conference was the steady stream of speakers carrying their party allegiances into each and every speech and never deviating in the slightest from their perceived party line. There was little sense of real engagement or self doubt. Our line is correct. End of story. That closed mind syndrome is critiqued by McKearney as follows
“-I would argue with so many of the Trotskyist groups, is people coming in from beyond the working class believing that they can interpret what the working class needs. It’s an old problem with Trotskyism for many, many years and it remains.. They hold on to bourgeois instincts, that they think of themselves as so much superior in many ways, its almost as if they are a religious sect, where they alone have the answers in some sort of bible.”10
It has always been the easy way out for republicans to denounce Trotskyists especially when some groups claiming affinity to the ideas of Trotsky act in a superior fashion. In the late sixties the leadership of the Republican movement regularly denounced those within their ranks who disagreed with the leadership as Trotskyists or right wing catholics. After the foundation of the IRSP even Seamus Costello denounced Trotskyism even though there were many individual followers of the ideas of Trotsky who joined the IRSP. Trotskyists were the hate figures for the Official Republicans/Workers party heavily influenced by the totalitarian ideas of Stalinism.
But Tommy McKearney’s words could easily be directed at other organisations. For example the Provos themselves have always had an elitist attitude. They have always had an instinctive distrust of the masses. Since their foundation that which they can not control they seek to destroy.Tommy should well remember in the 1970’s when armed Republicans treated those involved solely in politics with contempt. Also for many years the leaderships of the organisation to which Tommy gave allegiance to, considered themselves the legitimate Government of Ireland and indeed their current leadership acts as if it is! The classic example of Republican elitism is to be seen in the writings, behaviour and attitudes associated with the leadership of Republican Sinn Fein who consider themselves and themselves alone, as the only true republicans!!
So elitist attitudes are not confined to so called far left groups.It has permeated all the republican groups. Indeed it was in response to that very elitism that Ta Power wrote his seminal document11 on organisation.
But of course arguments rarely change people’s attitudes or opinions particularly if they are in the confines of a tightly knitted group bound by loyalty and discipline. No, it is the actual course of the class struggle that changes things.
The current world wide crisis of capitalism does not manifest itself in simple easy understood ways. The crisis of Southern capitalism and the attacks on the living standards of the working classes has heightened awareness among advanced sectors of the working class. The emergence of the ULA is a manifestation of that as is the increase in the vote for PSF and the increase in independent TDs.
However the North has not yet suffered the same drastic cuts yet as the south partially due to the large state sector and the ability of the current Stormont administration to put of painful decisions for as long as possible. The divided working class look to their respective parties to look after their interests So left republicans and left socialists do not yet feel the need for a clear unified response. The pressure from below is not yet coming through. But our function ,( i.e. those of us on the left,) needs to be to shatter the illusions that the masses have in their political representatives. In the last analysis they are simply the agents of capitalism administrating things in the interests of the ruling classes and ensuring the continuing exploitation of the working class of all and no religions.
Therefore it would be better if the left apart from increasing its agitation and propagandising and mobilising advanced sections of the class kept channels of communication with all other groupings of the left. That does not mean agreement, nor watering down our politics but it does leave open the possibilities of a strong left eventually emerging. In the last analysis it will be power of the working class that creates the conditions for the emergence of a genuine revolutionary body
So the emergence of the ULA is an important event. It may open up new opportunities for the left. Is the left mature enough to seize the opportunities? Time will tell.
Minutes of the general sessions
Programme of ULA
James Connolly Archive http://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly
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