Dec 31 2011

THREE REVIEWS OF ALLAN ARMSTRONG’S ‘FROM DAVITT TO CONNOLLY’ (with replies)

Below are three reviews of Allan Armstrong’s book From Davitt to Connolly. The first one, written  by Jim Monaghan, appeared in Saothar (the journal of the Irish Labour History Society); the second one, by T.R. appeared in Socialist Voice (the monthly journal of the Communist Party of Ireland) and third is from Ted Crawford, who helps to compile the Marxist Internet Archive. A link is also provided to two other reviews by Chris Gray, in Permanent Revolution and Tara O’Sullivan in Red Banner.

        

This is an interesting, polemical, and well-researched book. Its first thesis is that Davitt supported alliances with progressive forces and mass movements, whereas Parnell settled for alliances with ruling class parties in Britain, usually the Liberals, though one with the Conservatives. The author characterises Davitt’s approach as ‘internationalism from below’ –  the necessary strategy for working class and oppressed populations. To prove his point, the author gives a potted history of the parallel lives of Parnell and Davitt. In doing this, he very much takes Davitt’s side, seeing him as being on the right track until he took the anti-Parnellite side in the leadership crisis of 1890-91.

Davitt was largely responsible for the greatest mass movement in Ireland since O’Connell’s time. With an agreed strategic turn by the Fenian movement, dubbed the ‘New Departure’, the Irish National Land League was set up in 1879. Its great impact in Ireland prompted agrarian agitation in Wales and Scotland, and spurred the development of early labour and trade union bodies. In the process, there was a breaking down to some degree of the hold of sectarian religious attitudes where these held sway, especially in the North of Ireland and the islands of Scotland.

Parnell is represented as a charismatic, bonapartist figure, presiding over both the Home Rule party and the Land League and manoeuvring between different factions, the Catholic church and the bourgeois parties of Britain, so as to be seen as indispensable by everyone. In spite of his rhetorical phrase, ‘no man has a right to set the boundary to the march of a nation’, he took care to distance himself from Fenianism, which provided the sinews of the movement. Once major disagreement between Davitt and Parnell was over land nationalisation. Davitt wanted the land nationalised while Parnell, backed by conservative elements and by the Catholic church, wanted peasant proprietorship. Davitt was defeated in part by a cynical assertion by his opponents that nationalisation meant ownership by the British state.

The Kilmainham treaty is seen as one of the decisive junctures where Parnell’s strategy won out. Here the author sides with Parnell’s sisters, whose Ladies Land Legue was dissolved as too radical. The mass women’s movement, set up to replace imprisoned male leaders, had the potential to become an early feminist movement. Parnell also moved to set up reformist labour movements to weaken and sideline the more radical bodies supported by Davitt. There is some mention of the American reformer Henry George, who visited Ireland and Britain in the early 1880’s and campaigned actively on the land issue. A now forgotten figure, George was probably more influential than Marx and Engels during this period, being one of the key figures in creating the atmosphere that led to the early labour movement in the English-speaking world.

The book’s second thesis is that, through James Connolly’s work and influence, ‘internationalism from below’ was developed into a fully-fledged strategy. With Connolly, seen as a Marxist successor to Davitt, ‘internationalism from below’ became a key part of the strategic orientation of the working and allied classes. In one detail, this reviewer disagrees with the author with regard to Connolly’s romantic vision that primitive communism existed in Ireland and the Scottish islands up until the seventeenth century – it was not a feudal or a capitalist society that was found in these places, but a pre-feudal form of class society.

Be prepared for many acronyms. The book packs a lot of history; more than fifty years, in a book of 204 pages which includes a good bibliography. It should persuade some readers to reread biographies of Davitt, Parnell and some of their contemporaries. And I would agree with the author’s approach, which is to look at these struggles through a different prism, that of ‘internationalism from below’.

The author is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party, which experienced its own Parnell scandal, in which the career of a leader was destroyed and former friends became enemies after the fallout.

To end, a book well worth reading.

 Jim Monaghan (in Saothar, Journal of the Irish Labour History Society)

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This is an interesting but unusual book. It is not a sequential history of the lives and times of the two men in its title but, as the title suggests, a thesis on the social developments of these islands during their times. They were, however, the best examples of leadership in what the author calls “internationalism from below”, mainly for their advocacy of mass actions but also because the causes they championed helped undermine the constitutionality of the British imperial state.

The author writes: “An internationalism from below approach better appreciates the impact of the constitutional monarchist, unionist and imperial UK state (and later a divided Ireland) upon class struggles. It recognises the political and social signifiance of the national democratic movements which have contested the UK’s union-state constitution. It is also more able toaccount for the class struggles which emerged and influence each other in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.”

Michael Davitt is not as well known as James Connolly – in fact he has come to be neglected in recent years – yet he played a formidable role in the shaping of modern Ireland. As a teenage Irish emigrant he lost an arm working in a mill in Haslingden, Lancashire. His experiences in the “dark satanic mills” led to his radicalism, and he joined the Fenian Brotherhood (IRB) in 1865. Imprisoned, like many Fenians, he went on to become the main innovator of the ‘New Departure”. This was a strategy for co-ordinating the three strands of resistance to British hegemony over Ireland: the Fenians’ conspiratorial work for a republic, the parliamentary campaigns for a devolved Irish parliament under Parnell, and the mass organisation of tenants and landless farmers.

Davitt’s advanced social position – “the land for the people” – and his seeing beyond “home rule” ran counter to clerical interference, Orange sectarianism, and the fears of the men of property of the movement.

While the mass movement of the Land league did eventually break the back of foreign landlordism, it did not lead to what Davitt believed in – the nationalisation of the land – but rather to settlements that mainly favoured the middle and upper strata of Irish landowners.

On the political side, the British establishment, aided and abetted by reaction in Ireland, blocked the hopes of any settlement of the “Irish question” by destroying Parnell and his party.

Davitt, unfortunately, took the wrong side in the bitter dispute that divided nationalist Ireland, and it took another generation to restore confidence.

The book traces the other influences of Davitt within the intertwining of the social and political struggles in Britain. The Land League had set up branches in Britain, and as land reform was an issue there, common links were forged, particularly in Scotland. This reviewer, while living in Manchester in the early 1960s, remembers visiting buildings in Lancashire that were still called Land and Labour clubs and were then used as Irish and working men’s social clubs – including the one in Haslingden.

Davitt was an integral part of the diverse and radical formation of the early British labour movement as it sought to distance itself from the Liberal Part’s influence. The book traces these and later the entrance of Connolly into the Scottish scene, which shaped his Marxism.

The other great influence from this ferment of ideas and actions was the birth of “new unionism”, which eventually arrived in Ireland in the person of Larkin and Connolly.

As all epochs had a defining point, new unionism was that pivotal moment. Basically, trade union organisation had grown out of the city guilds and mutual aid societies into unions exclusively for craft workers. While at moments of tension in society and employer offensives they could be combative. they largely tended to be self-protective and sectionalist. They were breeding grounds for illusions in empire and belief in the permanence of the capitalist system. From them grew social democracy, with its achievements and its failures.

At the turn of the century, with the spread of socialist ideas came the vision of an alternative system, called socialism, and the notion of class solidarity. Such leading figures as Tom Mann, Keir Hardie and Ben Tillett urged the unskilled workers to rise out of their poverty by bypassing the craft unions and building new, open unions. Unions of dockers, gas workers and carters soon grew and challenged the employers by militant strike actions. Like all movements organic in their origin, the message was repeated elsewhere, with the Wobblies (IWW) in the United States and in Canada, Australia and elsewhere. The wave was brought to Ireland and had its apex in the general strike in Belfast in 1907 and in the Dublin Lock-Out of  2013.

Armstrong in his short book tries to show all these related struggles: for the independence of Ireland, Labour’s independent representation in Parliament, the attempt to gain supremacy for Marxism in those early battles of ideas, and the quest for the formation of mass support and its organisational forms. he calls this “internationalism from below” and credits for our consideration Davitt and Connolly with being its main protagonists. Let’s not quibble about terms but rather attempt to fit the concepts into our epoch.

While he touches on current themes and problems, he has promised to write further volumes, and in these time of debate about Scottish and Welsh independence a convergence of ideas, activity and solidarity throughout the labour and radical movements in these islands is indeed timely.

 TR, Socialist Voice (monthly publication of the Communist Party of Ireland), April 2012

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Some Comments on Davitt and his role arising from reading From Davitt to Connolly by Armstrong

Let me make just a few points about this book though you will doubtless think I am too traditional a Social Democrat seeing the national problem as too simply just a social one. I am guilty of a Luxemburgist deviation perhaps.

This is that Armstrong, like most sympathetic to Irish nationalism, is in his book looking at this in too political a way, or if you like super-super structural way. The decline of what you might call Davittism and the shift to the right can be seen as a result not just of Parnell and a few traitors plus the Church, but of the real and very considerable reforms, reforms from above it is true, imposed by a cunning ruling class. I do not include the abolition of tithes earlier and Irish disestablishment 1869 which must have neutralised at least one aspect of the opposition of the Roman Bishops to the Ascendancy.

A real popular front type movement with a mass following was created by the Land League in 1879 but became increasingly difficult and eventually impossible to sustain or develop. Davitt’s own call for land nationalisation was, I think never really on. As far as I know it has not been carried through or had any support among any wide section of the rural population anywhere in the world, neither Russia during the revolution, South Asia, Latin America nor elsewhere. I stand to be corrected. Even Maclean thought only of a good system of co-operatives as an immediate demand for the crofters, while collective farms were, even for him, a more distant prospect.

The reforms were, apart from the very important concessions to tenants on rents, the first Land Bill 1881, when ¾ of the purchase price of the land was to be advanced to tenants if they wished to purchase, next 1885 the Ashbourne Act, when 4/5 of purchase price could be advanced. Many landlords sold up, and there was a big transfer of land. As perhaps a typical example my g-grandfather Major RGS Maunsell, Limerick with 134 acres (rental value £323) seems to have sold up then in 1886. (With 134 acres the family were not so grand but had grand distant relatives.) Finally the Land Purchase Bill of 1890 advanced the whole price of the farm to tenant purchasers. All of this was guaranteed by the Treasury enabling a low rate of interest to be paid and thus valuing the property at vastly more than what it would fetch in the open market (See Davitt 1890 http://www.marxists.org/archive/davitt/1890/05/garrison.html) No wonder Maunsell and many like him jumped at the chance.

When you add to this the advent of refrigeration, 1882 onwards, and thus swiftly growing imports of meat and butter to add to existing imports of cereals, hides and wool to the U.K., there was a catastrophic change to the position of the Irish landlords (and Welsh ones) and a sharp falls in land values. They just could not screw out any more rent, had to make do with much less and if they were big boys probably with huge debts, mortgages, marriage settlements etc. Though this reform was designed to benefit rich London money-lenders rather than poor Irish peasants at the expense of all tax-payers, it rapidly changed the whole Irish social structure. The whole was rounded off by the final land reform in 1903. And politically Armstrong does not give enough emphasis to the Third Reform Act and the secret ballot + local government reforms, all similar to those in the rest of the UK, which meant the political power of the Ascendancy melted away like snow in summer. Earlier reforms like the First and Second Reform Acts were not applied to Ireland in the same way as the Third but Radical pressure and perhaps the G.O.M. insisted on these political changes.

So there was nothing left of the Ascendancy in the countryside. If you want to use Hayek’s categories of “spontaneous order” they were almost instantly (25 years) replaced by a cohesive society dominated by the larger Catholic farmers socially and politically tightly controlled by massive clerical power. In Ireland the ratio of the clerics to population in the census of 1911 has never been higher and was higher than in any country in the world before or since. The Northern Protestants who were pissed off by the Ascendancy because of tithes, large landholders, lack of recognition of the “Ulster Custom” etc were also satisfied by these reforms but had the advantage of a growing heavy industry enclave to absorb population growth. So they had NO joint interests, unless working-class ones, with which to agitate with the southern oppressed layers. And there was sufficient truth to the cry that “Home Rule was Rome Rule” to whip up a quasi-fascist agitation often responded to in a similar quasi-fascist way it must be said. (What was objected to though seldom – for decency – put in print, they were Victorian hung-up Evangelicals after all, was the thought of another man in the confessional interrogating a woman about what her husband got up to in bed.) And this was before contraception etc became an issue.

Of course the call for a joint English, Welsh & Scottish agitation against the landlords for land  reform also tended to die away after 1873 as the “Great depression” weakened the power of the landed classes and the labouring classes flooded out of the countryside. Thus Sassoon in “Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man” recalls the sylvan and peaceful English countryside after the more wretched proles have all been cleared out a generation before. The English nobility swiftly got rid of the Irish estates if they had alternative sources of income while keeping the odd castle perhaps. The Welsh landlords did not get a land reform act so the smaller landowners there were buggered even if sometimes large landlords benefited because of economic growth from coal mines, slate quarries and urban rents etc as in England. The smaller Welsh gentry were not able, like my great-grandfather, who left Ireland to emigrate to Bournemouth where he could tyrannise over their dependants and become good friends with the 1920s British Fascists etc, while living off his sale money. Not much was left for the children of course. (My father thought he was an awful old sod since he did not have to admire his wife’s family after all.) And as far as I know there has been little work on the sociological connection of the numerous Irish Ascendancy emigrants and the far right in seaside southern England in the early inter-war period.

There are some interesting international comparisons such as the destruction of French Royalism in the election of 1884 as a result of the phylloxera devastation of the vineyards and the replacement of the old gentry by radicals and freemasons above all in the south. Or the disappearance rather later 1900-1910 of the mass of dangerous rural vagrants etc in France analogous with the departure of the most marginal and oppressed part of the English rural population to the towns earlier.

Ted Crawford (contributor to the Marxists’ Internet Archive)

 

For other reviews see:-

http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2011/11/07/a-new-review-of-from-davitt-to-connolly-by-tara-osullivan/

http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2011/06/20/review-of-from-davitt-to-connolly/

 

A REPLY AND SOME OBSERVATIONS ON THE POINTS RAISED BY

JIM MONAGHAN, CHRIS GRAY, AND TED CRAWFORD

 

“In one detail, this reviewer disagrees with the author with regard to Connolly’s romantic vision that primitive communism existed in Ireland and the Scottish islands up until the seventeenth century – it was not a feudal or a capitalist society that was found in these places, but a pre-feudal form of class society.”

Jim Monaghan, review in Saothar (Irish Labour History Society)

“it is marred only by an uncritical reference to Connolly outlining “the role of primitive communism in Ireland up to the seventeenth century” (p. 161). Alas, this view of Connolly’s finds no support at all in the Irish law tracts. The subject is ably discussed in Andy Johnston, James Larragy and Edward McWilliams, Connolly: A Marxist Analysis (Irish Workers’ Group, 1990).

Chris Gray, review in Permanent Revolution, no. 20

see Chris’s earlier review posted at:- http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2011/06/20/review-of-from-davitt-to-connolly/

 

I can only thank both Jim and Chris for their very sympathetic reviews of my book. Their sole criticism focuses on the same point, as can be seen above. These quotes refer to my own reference to Connolly. “Influenced by contemporary Irish historians, he outlined the role of primitive communism in Ireland up to the seventeenth century” (1).

Although I did not make it clear in the first edition, this was meant to be an observation rather than a point of agreement with Connolly about ‘primitive communism’. So, Jim and Chris have provided me with an opportunity to clarify my meaning.

Nowadays, most historians (including those whom Chris helpfully refers us to) agree that, whatever the degree of communal landholding, which was tribally held in Ireland by the seventeenth century, this was far from being ‘primitive communism’. Such communal landholding supported a distinctly hierarchical society with tribal chieftains and petty kings with their armed retinues, and a number of levels of ‘free’ and dependent men and their families.  Furthermore, this tributary tribal order was already giving way before more centrally imposed feudal elements.

Yet, sometimes those making a valid criticism of outdated romantic historical notions do so to point to what they consider to be the historical inevitability of ‘progress’ through a sequence of feudal and capitalist economic development. This observation in no way implies that either Jim or Chris would adhere to such a viewpoint, but it does provide me with an opportunity to address an issue that is also of contemporary interest.

Earlier Socialists, including Connolly, did not have access to Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks. These only became available during the 1970’s (2). Instead they often took their lead from Engels’ much better known, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (3). They thought his invocation of an earlier ‘primitive communism’ “opened up the prospect of Socialists being able to re-establish a communist society, but based upon a higher level of economic and social cooperation” (4).

In contrast, Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks showed that he was certainly aware of the class society that had developed in Ireland on the basis of tribally owned land. Nevertheless, later in Marx’s life, including the writings in these notebooks, he questioned his own earlier acceptance of a unilinear model of economic progress. He began to think that the still existing communal landholding, found in many areas of the world, could form the basis for a future communist order, provided this was done in conjunction with the industrially based economies bequeathed by capitalism (5).

Today, we can see the staunch resistance being put up to capitalist land seizures, particularly by indigenous peoples. This has been highlighted by the Zapatistas’ struggle in Mexico against continuing capitalist ‘primitive accumulation’. This underscores the contemporary relevance of Marx’s own distinct later understanding of global development as a multilinear process, opening up the possibility of different revolutionary paths. Such thinking would be opposed by today’s ‘capitalist inevitabilists’.

 

(1) Allan Armstrong, From Davitt to Connolly, p. 161.

(2) see Lawrence Krader, The Ethnolgical Notebooks of Karl Marx, (Van Gorcum, 1972, Assen, Netherlands)

(3) http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/index.htm

(4) Allan Armstong, op. cit.

(5) see Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins – On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies (The University of Chicago Press, 2010, Chicago & London)

 

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“Davitt’s own call for land nationalisation was, I think never really on. As far as I know it has not been carried through or had any support among any wide section of the rural population anywhere in the world, neither Russia during the revolution, South Asia, Latin America nor elsewhere. I stand to be corrected. Even Maclean thought only of a good system of co-operatives as an immediate demand for the crofters, while collective farms were, even for him, a more distant prospect.”

Ted Crawford

 

Here, Ted raises an interesting wider issue, suggesting that land nationalisation policy never really had a chance, given its wider historical failure. Now, my own book does point out the problems that Davitt had with this particular policy, and suggests that it would perhaps have been better if he had followed “Engels {who} highlighted a similar problem in Germany. To deal with it, he advocated community control of the land, and the promotion of agricultural cooperation, to win over the majority of small peasants” (p. 56). As Ted observes, some Marxists later took up this suggestion, including MacLean in Scotland.

However, I would not write off the historical possibility of land nationalisation under certain socio-political conditions. After all, most of the land in the USA was initially nationalised  (albeit after being seized first from the Native Americans). Yes, it was later sold on to pioneering farmers and land speculators. Yet, there is still a quite extensive area of remaining federal state owned (i.e. nationalised) land in the form of  National Parks like Grand Canyon and Yosemite.This is in contrast to National Parks in the UK and Ireland, where the land remains privately owned.

Now, it is certainly the case that, by the period of the late nineteenth century covered in this book, any communal landownership in the UK had long given way to direct capitalist ownership or landlordism.  Yet, particularly in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, and in the west of Ireland, many small tenant farmers still retained elements of communal cooperation in their work. This contributed to their strong belief that they were, or should be, the real owners of the land that they worked.

From this initial shared experience, the socio-economic trajectories in the Scottish Highlands and Islands and the west of Ireland followed different paths. Class differentiation amongst the tenants in large areas of rural Ireland had accelerated after ‘The Great Hunger’ and the subsequent evictions of tenants. The idea of individual proprietorship took greater hold. Although, even here, this notion meant something different to small and medium-scale arable farmers than it did to the owners of large-scale ranches. The ranchers were attacked for using their control of land to replace people with animals. Charles Parnell pushed strongly for a peasant proprietorship, which conveniently glossed over this divide, in his political battle against fellow Land Leaguer, Michael Davitt, who supported land nationalisation.

However, despite the much longer standing capitalist landlordism and accompanying commercial farming found in Scotland south of the Highland Line, crofters living beyond this continued to resist the idea of peasant proprietorship. Here, Highland Land League candidates, who declared their support for land nationalisation, were able to win seats at Westminster. As it turned out, when  the state was not prepared to concede land nationalisation, the crofters settled for token rents, after the Crofters’ War. The majority of crofters resisted the option of peasant proprietorship, when it was raised again in the 1970’s and ’80’s. Today communal forms of land ownership have been making considerable strides in the Highlands and Islands after recent land reform legislation.

Furthermore, although, crofter notions of ‘land for the people’ had relatively little purchase south of the Highland Line, the Crofters War did directly inspire the coalminers, who formed a large section of the Scottish working class. Sometimes their demands took the form of taxing mineral royalties (inspired by Henry George’s land tax proposals); other times land nationalisation (inspired by contemporary Socialist thinking).

Therefore, the widely accepted idea that land nationalisation (or possibly forms of communal land ownership) never had a chance in Ireland, should perhaps be re-examined. It would be interesting to see to what extent the ultimately triumphant peasant proprietorship in Ireland depended on the political role of Parnell in the Irish National Land League and later his National League. Such a comparative enquiry could also highlight the value of the all-islands historical approach.

 

I was fascinated by Ted’s comments, using his past family as an example,  about the attraction of British fascism for ‘exiled’ members of the one-time Ascendancy members in Ireland. Some other figures, like William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw), also seem to have been attracted to British fascism, after their attempts to oppose Republicans during the Irish War of Independence, by supporting the Black and Tans.

If I had been writing a rounded history of the impact of the Land Leagues, I would have made more of the measures Ted mentions that the British ruling class took to marginalise the challenge they faced. I do mention the impact of the ‘Gorta Beag’ (page 32) , which was one manifestation of  the ‘Great Depression’ Ted refers to. I take the agricultural depression up more specifically in the Introduction to the second edition of my book (p. 9-10). However, this is looked at from the point of view of the tenants, and how this contributed to their resistance. Ted’s mention of the Local Government Reform Acts lies outside the time-frame of my book (although you will see a passing reference to their later impact in my footnote on page 152).

Yet, no matter  how much the deteriorating economic and political situation undermined the Ascendancy’s (the Anglo-Irish landlords) position, I do not see much evidence that this weakened the wider British ruling class and UK state attempt to hold on to Ireland. Their preparedness to resort to extra constitutional pressure (up to the  army officer mutiny at The Curragh) to stop Irish Home Rule, right up the First World War, argues against this.

The purpose of my book, though, has a somewhat different focus than providing a rounded history of land reform in the UK. Ted’s apparent concentration on objective economic pressures facing the Asecndancy landlords, as opposed to what he terms my “super super-structuralist” approach, has the effect of airbrushing out class struggle – and class struggle on a fairly epic scale at that! Now, I’m fairly sure that if Ted was making his own rounded contribution, he might acknowledge that class struggles did play their part.

However my book is dealing with the political ideas which motivated those involved in the great class struggles beginning with the Irish Land War and extending to the wave of ‘New {trade} Unionism, and how this created considerable difficulties for the British ruling class’s ability to maintain its UK state. One of the problems they faced was trying to hold together the inherited unionist form of this state. This is  a major reason why a significant section of the the British ruling class turned to Home Rule. This was their response to  the  ‘internationalism-from-below’ strategy, which originally emerged amongst social republicans like Davitt in Ireland and Radicals like John Murdoch in Scotland. Furthermore, my book also shows that the Land League struggles had a huge impact on the infant Labour (and Socialist) movements throughout these islands (which were then the whole of the UK).  In the light of the material I have provided on this I just don’t think Ted can sustain his claim that “a call for joint English, Welsh & Scottish agitation against the landlords for land reform also tended to die away after 1873.” The Crofters War (directly inspired by the Irish Land War) of the 1880’s, which radically changed the social relations in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, would be just one example, which undermines his argument here.

What I would accept is that the measures taken by the British ruling class, in the face of these challenges from below, were able to contain things, at least for a time. In addition, as Ted mentions, the serious depopulation of rural areas did undermine the significance of land-based protest. However, it did not eliminate this. Small farmer based Republican resistance in the Irish War of Independence, and later Land Raids in the Highlands and Islands, showed that rural protest continued to represent a real challenge. These experiences also fed directly into such working class protest as the prolonged slate quarry workers’ lock-out in North Wales in the early 1900’s (and the similar smaller, but nevertheless deeply rooted actions by slate quarriers at Balluchulish in Argyll).

Furthermore, one of the main points my book makes is that the focus of ‘internationalism from below’ became more centred on the working class. This could be seen as a product both of the limitations of Davitt’s politics and of the declining social significance of the rural farming population. It was James Connolly who moved the political basis of internationalism from below’ from Daviitt’s social republicanism to his own socialist republicanism. John Maclean adopted this strategy too, but only after 1919.

I hope to take these arguments forward in a follow-up volume – ‘From Connolly to Maclean’.

 

P.S. Yes, I do think Ted is  “guilty of a Luxemburgist deviation”! I have a lot admiration for a much of what Luxemburg wrote. This can still inform our struggles today. However, I think her approach to the ‘National Question’ was misguided – even more so that of her neo-Luxemburgist successors in the Bolshevik Party (such as Bukharin, Pyatakov, etc).

One indication of Ted’s ‘Luxemburgist’ thinking in this regard is when he writes, “that Allan Armstrong, like most sympathetic to Irish nationalism.” My whole book is designed, not only to oppose British unionist thinking on the one hand, but also Irish (and Scottish) nationalist thinking on the other, and especially their Left unionist and Left nationalist variations. These have done so much to disorientate Socialists throughout these islands. That is why I  argue for an internationalist alternative – only not the bureaucratic ‘internationalism from above’ politics focussed on the existing UK state (which in reality is just used to cover up an intrinsic British nationalism), but ‘internationalism from below’,

Luxemburg’s approach to the ‘National Question’ is not able to make the distinction between a recognition that there is national oppression, and the fact that nationalists, not surprisingly, try to take the lead of any opposition to this for their own class ends. As a result, national oppression and opposition to it become conflated in ‘Luxemburgist’ minds – they are both ‘nationalism’. Thus, anyone addressing the issue of national oppression is just dismissed as being a nationalist. Such an approach rules out the possibility  of  developing a distinctive Socialist strategy to address the specific forms of oppression being faced.  An analogy, would be those people (e.g. Belfort Bax in Davitt’s and Connolly’s time), who can not distinguish between a recognition that there is women’s oppression, and the fact that bourgeois feminists will try to lead this for their own class ends. Such Socialists have tended to dismiss anyone addressing the issue of women’s oppression as just being a bourgeois feminist. Oppression and resistance to oppression become conflated with ‘feminism’. Similarly, ‘Luxemburgist’ thinking, in regard to specific forms of oppression,  does not possess  the categories needed to deal with the issue being addressed. Therefore, it is hard to become involved in a more meaningful debate, just as it would be difficult to get somebody who is colour blind to appreciate the difference between red and green.

 

Allan Armstrong, 14.3.12

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Oct 10 2011

2nd REPUBLICAN SOCIALIST CONVENTION, LONDON, FEBRUARY 13th, 2010


Due to an oversight this report was not placed earlier on the Emancipation & Liberation blog

 

The second Republican Socialist Convention was organised by the Socialist Alliance [1] in London on February 13th.  In its initial conception it was ambitious. With a General Election looming in the UK, the organisers attempted to bring together figures from the Left who might be offering an election challenge this year.  Those invited included Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT and someone from the Socialist Party, both involved in the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition [2], Robert Griffiths from the Communist Party of Britain (and formerly of No2EU), Peter Tatchell of the Green Left, and Colin Fox, co-Spokesperson for the Scottish Socialist Party (as well as Tony Benn, now seen as somewhat of a ‘national treasure’ by the British Left). They were all to be asked how they saw the relevance of campaigning on political or democratic issues, especially the demand for a republic. The series of apologies given, some undoubtedly genuine, whilst others more probably sectarian in motivation, highlighted the over-ambitious aims held by the organisers.

The Convention Chair, Steve Freeman, introduced Peter Tatchell as a ‘republican in spirit’. He made a useful contribution to start the debate. Peter outlined his proposed ten points for the republican reform of the British constitution. As with most of the British Left, the ‘Six Counties’ was missing from Peter’s contribution. He did think, though, that a federal Britain could solve the National Question in England, Scotland and Wales.

There was a formalism about the republican principles Peter advocated. This was because Peter had not analysed the real nature of the British unionist and imperialist state we were up against, and the anti-democratic Crown Powers it had its disposal to crush any serious opposition. Nor did Peter outline where the social and political forces existed to bring about his new republic. In particular, he did not really consider the role of republican challenges to the UK state, emanating from Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Unfortunately, Peter had to leave for another meeting, whilst time for further discussion was curtailed, so Colin Fox was then left to put the SSP’s socialist republican case in somewhat of a vacuum.

Colin pointed out how the MP’s expenses scandal has shown how unrepresentative they have become. James Connolly reminded those who aspire to represent working people ‘Rise with your class not out of it’. Some 650 MP’s or ‘representatives’ are elected to Parliament. So why are they so unrepresentative? It has been subverted by the neo-liberal consensus. Being an MP has become a career not a cause. Parliament is full of lawyers, businessmen, bankers, accountants and lecturers and that’s just the Labour side!

In 2005, the Queen opened her new £440m Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood in Edinburgh. The SSP MSP’s decided not just to boycott the event, but to organise an alternative. The SSP gave its support to the Declaration of Calton Hill. Socialist republicanism is at the heart of the SSP’s politics.

The Convention then moved quickly on to the last morning session, introduced by Mehdi Kia (co-editor of the Middle East Bulletin). Medhi provided an overview of the events in Iran over the last 8 months. Initially he addressed some of the myths surrounding the recent presidential election and provided reasons for rejecting them. These included suggestions that the election was not fraudulent, that the protestors are mainly middle class, that this is another “velvet” revolution orchestrated by the US, that it is led by the reformists, and that the Iranian regime is in some way anti-imperialistic.

He went on to point out that the protestors come from a variety of backgrounds, the slogans are continuously changing and becoming more radicalised, the movement is in its very essence democratic and anti-imperialist, and within it is a growing secular republican movement (rejecting the Islamic republic) with increasingly radical slogans. He concluded that under the immense repression of the regime the tactic of street demonstrations has only limited potential and unless the various movements (women, youth, nationalities and workers) co-ordinate more effectively and adopt different tactics the movement will not succeed in its more radical aims.

The afternoon session was meant to introduce the perspective of ‘Internationalism from Below’ – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales – which had united the contributors to the first Republican Socialist Convention held in Edinburgh on the 29th November, 2008. The SSP International Committee had to apply some pressure for this issue to be taken seriously by the London organisers. They accepted, given the prevalence of Left British Unionism in England, that a debate was indeed needed between representatives of this tradition and speakers from both Left Nationalist and ‘Internationalism from Below’ viewpoints.  A mixture of the shortness of time, the lack of non-English contacts held by the Left in London, and various apologies limited the scope for this debate on the day.

Instead, Steve Freeman spoke about whether there was a National Question in England, beginning by considering the flags and anthems at the 1966 world cup, the Scotland-England rugby match in 1990 and the Euro football in 1996 when the flag of St George became prominent. The National Question involves issues of political institutions (parliaments etc) and identity. Whilst the National Question was recognised for Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the Left had not examined the related situation in England.

Steve considered that a British nation had been created after 1707 through the wars with France in the 18th century. He saw the UK as one nation and four tribes – the British-English, British-Irish, British-Scots and British-Welsh. Now the political institutions and the identity of the British English were being questioned. There was no British-English National Question in the past but now there were signs of an emerging crisis of politics and identity. From this a new English politics and identity could emerge. How should the Left relate to this?

Allan Armstrong, from the SSP’s International Committee (and a member of the party’s Republican Communist Network platform), then outlined some of the lessons socialist republicans could learn from the decades long republican struggle against the UK state in Ireland. He pointed out that there was now a National Movement in Scotland that is wider than the SNP. Indeed the SNP, like its equivalent parties in Quebec, Catalunya and Euskadi, is increasingly settling for Devolution-Max, and pushing the interests of local business within the existing corporate imperialist order.

Today, the British, American and EU ruling classes are united against any move towards Scottish independence. This is why any movement to win Scottish self-determination must be republican from the start. It must be prepared, in advance, to confront the Crown Powers that will be inevitably utilised against us. Because genuine and democratic Scottish independence represents such a challenge to British imperialism and the UK state, we need allies in England, Ireland and Wales too. We need to be committed to a strategy of ‘internationalism from below’. We are socialist republicans and link our political demands with social and economic campaigns. This was the course advocated by two great socialist republicans born in Scotland – James Connolly and John Maclean.

This session prompted the most debate, which has now continued on the RCN [3] and The Commune [4] websites, and in the pages of the very Left Unionist, Weekly Worker. It was a pity that enough time wasn’t given to air this debate more thoroughly on the day.

The last session was a bit of a damp squib, since the SA had obviously seen it as an opportunity to get the same sort of unity around demands over democratic issues in the forthcoming General Election, that the Left can sometimes achieve (on paper anyhow!) over economic issues. Instead it was left to Colin Fox for the SSP and Joseph Healey, for the Green Left, to outline the nature of their parties’ proposed electoral campaigns. The absence of the other Left forces contesting the election meant the SA’s aims could not be achieved in this respect.

It was good to have a Republican Socialist Convention organised in England. It was traditional Left in its mode of organisation (platform and audience), even when there were only about 20 present, but everybody who contributed did so in a constructive manner  – yes, including those from the ‘Brit Left’! I feel that more could have been gained though if the Convention had concentrated on the debate between Left Unionism, Left Nationalism and ‘Internationalism from Below’.  Maybe the next time!

 Allan Armstrong (member of SSP International Committee)

 


[1]             The Socialist Alliance is the small organisation still left in England after the  defection first of the Socialist Party and then the Socialist Workers Party.

 

[2]             TUSC is the latest Left electoral grouping formed after last year’s short-lived No2EU/Yes2Democracy electoral alliance.

 

 

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