Mar 30 2013

RIDING TWO HORSES AT ONCE – The SWP and Scottish independence

Scan copyThe following extended review of Keir McKechnie’s pamphlet, Scotland – Yes to Independence: No to Nationalism, was started before the most recent crisis in the SWP became public. Until the SWP resolves this crisis, its political interventions are likely to have more limited impact on the Left than in the past. Socialists should support those SWP members who are rebelling against their party’s bureaucratic and sectarian regime. The whole of the Left will benefit when the shared need for a democratic, non-sectarian and anti-sexist culture is accepted.

But, whichever way the party crisis is eventually resolved (or not), it is still useful to address the specific arguments raised by Keir in his pamphlet, because many have a wider resonance on the Left.  As the SWP moves away from its recent Left Unionist approach to the ‘National Question’ in Scotland, it appears to be following others in adopting elements of a Left Nationalist approach.

However, with the SWP being at an early stage in this transition, Keir’s pamphlet shows elements of both Left Unionism and Left Nationalism. The fact that these two political approaches can live in a symbiotic, and not always conflicting relationship with each other, makes it worth devoting the space to showing some of these connections.

Continue reading “RIDING TWO HORSES AT ONCE – The SWP and Scottish independence”

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Mar 18 2013


The article below highlights the state harassment of eirigi activist, Stephen Murney from Newry. Eirigi is a legal socialist republican organisation with members in both parts of Ireland. This article shows how the British state is determined to marginalise all criticism of its current Northern Ireland set-up, by going to elaborate lengths to create the illusion that any  criticism it objects to is  ‘terrorist activity’.

Demonstration in Newry in support of Stephen Murney

Demonstration in Newry in support of Stephen Murney

On the morning  of February 21st, in Newry court-house, éirígí activist Stephen Murney faced additional charges following his removal from Maghaberry prison by the PSNI the previous day and his subsequent detention at Antrim interrogation centre. Half an hour before the actual hearing, the court-room had been filled to capacity by Stephen’s family, friends and party comrades.

These latest charges directly relate to other charges against Stephen and demonstrate an attempt by the PSNI and Six County prosecution service to bolster what is widely recognised as an already weak case solely initiated as a blatant and crude attempt at political censorship.

The new charges included one relating to a single photograph, which Stephen has already been charged with possessing. On the basis, that having taken a photograph with which he had previously been charged with possessing last year, the prosecution now accused Stephen of “collecting information which may be of use to terrorists and possession of articles which may be of use to terrorists”.


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Jan 10 2013


James Slaven of the James Connolly Society updates us on the situation arising from the Loyalist flag riots in Belfast and their attempts to link up with Scottish Loyalists and other neo-fascists.

Loyalists show their allegiances- Union Jack, Red Hand of Ulster and the Saltire

Loyalists show their allegiances – Union Jack, Red Hand of Ulster and the Saltire

The unionist protests across the Six Counties over the decision of Belfast City Council to reduce the number of days the union flag is flown over City Hall are now in their second month. The most serious trouble has centred on parts of Belfast where the UVF have been orchestrating a campaign of riots and sectarian terror directed at areas such as the Short Strand. While much of the media has ignored or downplayed the seriousness of the rioting (the BBC has insisted on calling them protests not riots) it is worth exploring the significance of recent events.

The catalyst for the latest unionist violence was the democratic decision of Belfast City Council to stop flying the union flag over City Hall every day. Instead councillors voted to fly the union flag only on designated days such as Betty Battenburg’s birthday. This decision merely brought the Council into line with other cities and indeed with Stormont. One fact that seems to have been overlooked in the furore is that Sinn Fein voted in favour of flying the British union flag over Belfast City Hall on the designated days.


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Aug 19 2012


We are posting two articles on the recently agreed merger between three  of the physical force Republican groups. The first is by Tommy McKearney, former IRA hunger striker, and now in  the Independent Workers Union . The second is by John McAnulty of Socialist Democracy (Ireland).  John was a Peoples Democracy councillor on Belfast City council, during the Hunger Strikes .


Organisations with strong centralised and hierarchal structures, especially the conviction driven, are usually prone to splitting or the breaking away of factions. Often this occurs at periods of significant political development or societal transformation when direction-changing decisions are required. This happens in religion, in sport and with unending regularity in the world of militant Irish republicanism. Three of the largest parties in the present Irish parliament, for example, had their origins in bitter divisions within the country’s republican milieu. Such a history, therefore, makes the news of a merging of certain forces within the present day republican underground, an interesting and indeed surprising development.

A small number of journalists were briefed on Thursday 26th July that three strands of what is sometimes referred to as the ‘physical force’ element of Irish republicanism had amalgamated. The Real IRA (best known to British readers for carrying out the 1998 Omagh bombing), a vigilante group called Republican Action Against Drugs and a low profile group of armed republicans still calling themselves ‘the IRA’ have united under the, hardly original, title of the Irish Republican Army. In its communiqué to the press, the group repeated its commitment to militarism when it spoke of the ‘… necessity of armed struggle in the pursuit of Irish freedom …’

In spite of its newsworthiness, this development should be kept in perspective. In the first instance, this new IRA group will be confronted with a challenge experienced by every revolutionary organisation; that of maintaining security and secrecy in the face of energetic surveillance by the state. There is little doubt that this merger will simplify MI5’s task of monitoring and foiling the new group’s activities.

Secondly, there are two other bodies, still calling themselves the IRA that remains outside this merger. Therefore the fractious and divided nature of armed Irish republicanism remains as poisonous and debilitating as ever. The particular school of Irish republicanism represented in this new group is often more certain of what it opposes rather than what it stands for. This makes it difficult for them to build the type of broad support base necessary to influence the political process.

Most pertinent of all, though, is the fact that the new formation is unlikely to change significantly the balance of forces within Northern Ireland. Trying to estimate membership strength for the various militant groups is difficult because the level and depth of support can fluctuate widely depending on the time and circumstances. One of the anomalies of the current situation is that while Sinn Fein voters are strongly opposed to further armed action, many are unwilling for historical reasons to cooperate with the authorities. Acceptance for all aspects of policing remains ambiguous within most republican circles.

Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland are opposed to any resumption of the violent battle of the final quarter century of the 20thcentury. Every election since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has returned, from within the wider republican constituency, an overwhelming majority in favour of ending armed conflict and an equally strong rejection of those indicating any intention of recommencing insurrection. While there is no mechanical correlation between electoral support and ability or capacity to carry out direct action, the presiding officer’s count provides its own message. When people are unwilling to vote in secret for an insurrectionist candidate, they are unlikely to endure the unavoidable hardships and risks of war against the state. In practical terms there is insufficient water in which armed radicals can swim in Northern Ireland of the present day.

This low-key assessment notwithstanding; there is a message to be taken from a coming together of previously separate entities. It is rare for divisions in republican Ireland to be repaired or for groups to coalesce in this fashion. The significance of what has happened may not lie, therefore, in the new group’s potential for increased military capacity (and that is questionable hypothesis by any assessment) but in the fact that there is a new strategy in play and the process is towards unity rather than remaining separate.

Bear in mind that all is not well in Northern Ireland. Global recession is embedding economic and social hardship in areas that have experienced little improvement in their level of material prosperity over the last two decades. Sectarian divisions remain at a toxic level, especially in working class districts. Local devolved government performs a basic function of any parliament in that it is a substitute for civil war, yet it hardly makes any other obvious difference in the population’s day to day lives. Ominously, this new IRA is concentrated in the very areas where deprivation is most acute.

There is, in a nutshell, a space for dissenting voices to question the status quo and Irish republicanism is, after all, more a response to material conditions than it is an aspiration to a form of government. Five years ago a sense of estrangement manifested itself in France with youths burning property in the suburbs. Last year something similar happened in Britain when rioting broke out across urban centres.

Protest in Ireland sometimes follows an indigenous pattern and therein lurks the one great unknown factor in this latest ‘new departure’. Is this a huddling of desperate men determined to hang together rather than hang separately or is it an indication, even subconsciously, of a societal change that is encouraging direction-changing decisions?

Tommy McKearney




Another signpost in the decay of the Irish settlement

The announcement that a number of disparate republican organizations had regrouped under the banner of the Irish Republican Army drew a storm of condemnation from the great and the good in Ireland and Britain.

Much of the criticism is justified. Essentially the IRA want to take up armed action from where it left off. They do not accept that a militarist ideology was bound to fail and that it was the insufficiency of militarism and of the politics of revolutionary nationalism that led directly to the capitulation of the Provos and their participation in the local administration.

One must also add that the participating groups draw upon the tactics of the Provisional IRA when they were already in decline – the real IRA are linked to the Omagh atrocity and RAAD try to gain popularity by a local police function that includes shootings and killings of those they identify as anti-social.

This was always the fatal flaw of republicanism. The physical force at the centre of their methodology was always cutting away the possibility of mass and class action on which revolutionary change would have to be based.

There is another side to the coin.

As the republicans themselves point out, the Northern settlement is a phony one. The new Northern state resembles nothing more than the old sectarian state. The triumph of the Royal handshake, followed by the triumph of the Orange marchers, has created a burning resentment among former supporters of Sinn Fein. Only the most loyal of Sinn Fein apparatchiks now talk of progress to a united Ireland.

In a colonial, sectarian, partitioned statelet there is, of necessity, an IRA. In a period of austerity where the diplomatic sectarianism that pervades society could turn to conflict, it is not impossible that the IRA will grow.

It will not be enough to point to the failures of the past 40 years. It will not be enough to point to the lack of perspective today.

The only thing that will be enough is an alternative – a socialist movement able to represent the anger of the oppressed, able to present a root and branch rejection of the sectarian society imposed on us, a movement that, unlike the actually existing movement today, is not content to play the role of the loyal opposition or draw an equals sign between the Orange bigots and their victims.


John McAnulty, Socialist Democracy (Ireland), 11.8.12

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Jun 16 2012



The RCN is posting four pieces as a contribution to the debate on a socialist republican the Diamond Jubilee.

1. Socialist Republicans and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee

2. Republicanism Socialism and Democracy

3. The Crown Rules Britannia

4. The Queen: Floating in the Stink



“Maud Gonne joined with James Connolly in preparing the anti-Jubilee demonstrations. To counter the loyal displays, she secured a window in Dublin’s Parnell Square from which lanternslides could be shown on a large screen…. Daniel O’Brien made a large black coffin on which were inscribed the words ‘British Empire’, and to lead the procession which was to accompany it through the streets Connolly procured the services of a workers’ band… Maud Gonne then set to work tuning out black flags which were embroidered wit the facts of the famines and evictions which had marked Victoria’s reign.

On Jubilee Day… a rickety handcart… draped in the semblance of a hearse… was pushed by a member of the Irish Socialist Republican Party. Maud Gomme and W. B. Yeats joined the procession and quickly distributed black flags. They all moved down Dame Street to the sound of the Dead March.

As soon as the police realised what was happening reinforcements were rushed from the Castle. Baton charges began to disperse the dense throng of spectators. Connolly, at the head, had reached O’Connell Bridge when the fighting became exceptionally fierce. With a flash of inspiration, he ordered the coffin to thrown into the River Liffey and the whole crowd took up in chorus his valedictory words, “Here goes the coffin of the British Empire. To hell with the British Empire!”

The Life and Times of James Connolly, C. Desmond Greaves, pp. 89-90


Queen Victoria’s Jubilee

James Connolly in Workers Republic

“The great appear great to us, only because we are on our knees:

Fellow Workers,

The loyal subjects of Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India, etc., celebrate this year the longest reign on record. Already the air is laden with rumours of preparations for a wholesale manufacture of sham ‘popular rejoicings’ at this glorious (?) commemoration.

Home Rule orators and Nationalist Lord Mayors, Whig politicians and Parnellite pressmen, have ere now lent their prestige and influence to the attempt to arouse public interest in the sickening details of this Feast of Flunkeyism. It is time then that some organised party in Ireland – other than those in whose mouths Patriotism means Compromise, and Freedom, High Dividends – should speak out bravely and honestly the sentiments awakened in the breast of every lover of freedom by this ghastly farce now being played out before our eyes. Hence the Irish Socialist Republican Party – which, from its inception, has never hesitated to proclaim its unswerving hostility to the British Crown, and to the political and social order of which in these islands that Crown is but the symbol – takes this opportunity of hurling at the heads of all the courtly mummers who grovel at the shrine of royalty the contempt and hatred of the Irish Revolutionary Democracy. We, at least, are not loyal men; we confess to having more respect and honour for the raggedest child of the poorest labourer in Ireland today than for any, even the most virtuous, descendant of the long array of murderers, adulterers and madmen who have sat upon the throne of England.

During this glorious reign Ireland has seen 1,225,000 of her children die of famine, starved to death whilst the produce of her soil and their labour was eaten up by a vulture aristocracy, enforcing their rents by the bayonets of a hired assassin army in the pay of the –best of the English Queens’; the eviction of 3,668,000, a multitude greater than the entire population of Switzerland; and the reluctant emigration of 4,186,000 of our kindred, a greater host than the entire people of Greece. At the present moment 78 percent of our wage-earners receive less than £1 per week, our streets are thronged by starving crowds of the unemployed, cattle graze on our tenantless farms and around the ruins of our battered homesteads, our ports are crowded with departing emigrants, and our poorhouses are full of paupers. Such are the constituent elements out of which we are bade to construct a National Festival of rejoicing!

Working-class of Ireland: We appeal to you not to allow your opinions to be misrepresented on this occasion. Join your voice with ours in protesting against the base assumption that we owe to this Empire any other debt than that of hatred of all its plundering institutions. Let this year be indeed a memorable one as marking the date when the Irish workers at last flung off that slavish dependence on the lead of ‘the gentry,’ which has paralysed the arm of every soldier of freedom in the past.

The Irish landlords, now as ever the enemy’s garrison, instinctively support every institution which, like monarchy, degrades the manhood of the people and weakens the moral fibre of the oppressed; the middle-class, absorbed in the pursuit of gold, have pawned their souls for the prostitute glories of commercialism and remain openly or secretly hostile to every movement which would imperil the sanctity of their dividends. The working class alone have nothing to hope for save in a revolutionary reconstruction of society; they, and they alone, are capable of that revolutionary initiative which, with all the political and economic development of the time to aid it, can carry us forward into the promised land of perfect Freedom, the reward of the age-long travail of the people.

To you, workers of Ireland, we address ourselves. AGITATE in the workshop, in the field, in the factory, until you arouse your brothers to hatred of the slavery of which we are all the victims. EDUCATE, that the people may no longer be deluded by illusory hopes of prosperity under any system of society of which monarchs or noblemen, capitalists or landlords form an integral part. ORGANISE, that a solid, compact and intelligent force, conscious of your historic mission as a class, you may seize the reins of political power whenever possible and, by intelligent application of the working-class ballot, clear the field of action for the revolutionary forces of the future. Let the ‘canting, fed classes’ bow the knee as they may, be you true to your own manhood, and to the cause of freedom, whose hope is in you, and, pressing unweariedly onward in pursuit of the high destiny to which the Socialist Republic invites you, let the words which the poet puts into the mouth of Mazeppa console you amid the orgies of the tyrants of today:

But time at last makes all things even,

And if we do but watch the hour,

There never yet was human power

That could evade, if unforgiven,

The patient hate and vigil long,

Of those who treasure up a wrong.



The following two articles come from the RCN’s pamphlet of the same name, published in 2008, and now out-of-print.




The role of communists is to develop an awareness of the utility and necessity of democracy – Victor Serge

As long as democracy has not been achieved, thus long do communists and democrats fight side by side – Frederick Engels


Republicanism in the United Kingdom describes the movement from below for a radical and militant democracy.  For socialists, republicanism addresses those immediate democratic issues faced by the working class in the here and now.  It seeks to develop a programme for expanding democracy under capitalism as far as it will go.  It concerns itself with progressive and in some senses transitional demands. To the extent that we achieve our democratic demands these strengthen our class and weaken the ruling class and its allies.  It is a necessary and unavoidable part of the struggle for socialism.

This democratic struggle is called republicanism in the UK because it highlights that we live in an undemocratic, constitutional monarchy.  The term republicanism also connects us to our own radical history.

Republican struggles in these islands provide a red thread going back to the Levellers in the English revolution, the Cameronians (radical Covenanters) here in Scotland, the struggle of the United Irishmen, the Chartists, and the prospects of Workers Republics raised by James Connolly and John Maclean.  The rise of capitalism and the struggle of the emerging bourgeoisie against the feudal state and church led to a false association between capitalism and the spreading of democracy.  In reality wherever they have achieved power, the bourgeoisie have sought to narrow, limit and impoverish democracy, for the majority of the population.  Consciously or unconsciously they have recognised in the proletariat their future gravediggers.  Hence they have sought to block any democratic path to a genuine republic because, in a truly democratic republic, the bourgeois and their system, capitalism, could not flourish.

Socialists see republicanism today as directly linked to the struggle for the socialist republic tomorrow. However, Republicanism is not a sentimental attachment to yesterday’s struggles.  It helps us develop a strategy and tactics to directly oppose today’s oppressors and exploiters.  To declare for the democratic republic is to declare war against the existing bourgeois state.


Republicanism in Action

Republicanism in the workplace or trade union means spreading action outwards and upwards from the origin of the conflict or from its most militant site.  It is not about waiting until your faction has won the position of the General secretary-ship of the union or a majority on the party executive.  Industrial republicanism recognizes the sovereignty of the members in their workplaces and branches and not the sovereignty of the Union head office or full-time officials.  Neither is its main purpose to reform the capitalist state and its laws, although it may produce useful reforms such as the legal right to strike or to take secondary action.

Republicanism endorses direct action in the community.  It is not about waiting to ‘win power’ in local or national elections where power is in the hands of the elected few.  Republicanism is about the maximum level of participation in any action with democratic control at the grass roots level. For republicans, contesting local and national elections is not an end in itself. We stand in elections to offer an ideological alternative to capitalism and to challenge the state under which we live.  When the Tories tried to impose their hated Poll Tax in Scotland, tens of thousands (some say hundreds of thousands) took action to resist.  This resistance was spread further, by activists, to England and Wales.  A struggle initiated  in the housing schemes of Muirhouse and Pollok was fought to a famous victory. Tens of thousands of protestors defied the state in Trafalgar Square on March 31st 1990

When socialists put up candidates for the local elections it was to legitimize actions being taken or considered e.g., campaigning in Council elections on a ‘Don’t Pay the Poll Tax’ slogan. During that titanic struggle millions moved from protesting against an unjust tax to breaking the law and organizing to prevent the rule of the state operating as it wished.  The most militant areas became no go areas for Sherriff’s Officers and representatives of the Labour Party (who’s councils were imposing the tax). This is republicanism in action.

Sometimes latent republican struggles in the community become conscious republican struggles.  In 1969, tens of thousands demonstrated for Civil Rights in (e.g. equal voting and access to jobs and housing) in Northern Ireland.  Their resistance was met by British paratroopers in Derry on Bloody Sunday, January 30th 1972, when 14 peaceful demonstrators were shot down. This was followed by internment without trial.   The republican struggle against the UK state took off.


Seeing Struggles Through a Republican Lens

A republican perspective politicises issues and illuminates a democratic path that leads us beyond capitalism.  It is an energising principle, which brings with it a personal responsibility to think and act like an active citizen rather than a submissive subject.  It allows us to come to grips with the enemy state and thus provides an antidote to passivity in socialist organisations and society at large

Thus campaigns against homelessness and for the building of more council houses are not just about the demand for more homes.  It is an argument about collective rather than private provision of services and about democratic accountability, councillors are elected, Housing Association executives are not.  This then becomes a political not just an economic demand. Similarly the struggle around the defence of asylum seekers challenges the state’s ability to create and control borders and restrict the free movement of people (in contrast to capital, commodities and profits).  Another example is foxhunting.  This can be opposed on the grounds of cruelty to foxes or on the basis of who should control the land.  These examples indicate the militant ways in which revolutionary republicans fight for reforms.

Republicanism is about releasing the latent power of the people, and it means recognising the legitimacy of democratically agreed, direct action taken by ourselves at whatever level.  In short, republicanism is putting the ‘sovereignty of the people’ into action in the here and now.  Republicanism challenges not just the ruling class but also their knowing collaborators in and out of parliament (e.g., trade union bureaucracies)  and their unknowing collaborators (those left organisations that want to restrict class action until it – ‘the chosen party’ – considers the time and tactic is right).  Connolly, for example, acted in true republican fashion when he threw the weight of the Irish Citizen Army behind the Easter uprising despite personally judging the wider organization to be ill prepared.


Making our own organizations democratic

Republicanism is fundamentally about the highest form of democracy.  That is democratic control held by the basic units of the society – workplaces and effective networks within communities.  Elected representatives must always be accountable and subject to recall and dismissal.  If elected representatives are paid, then they should receive no more than the average skilled workers’ wage. This is a vital weapon against careerism and will help eliminate those powerful forces that drive a wedge between the elected and the electorate, the union member and the full timer.

It is imperative that socialists lead the struggle within society to extend absolute democracy to all areas of our lives. To achieve this it is absolutely essential that our own organisations are democratic. This must include trade unions and socialist parties.

The Republican Communist Network’s insist on the importance of republicanism and a democratic constitution within the SSP because we recognise this as the most effective method of decision making i.e. it maximises our ability to produce correct answers to problems we face.  It leads to collective decision making through mutual education and debate.  An active, living democracy allows us to harness the creativity of the membership and honestly reflect on the results of our practice and to quickly amend it in the light of this learning.

A democratic party allows the working class to express itself through its structures.  It is essential to foster a democratic structure that recognises the value of minority views being expressed.  Socialists support elections being conducted on the basis of proportional representation (PR). This is an indispensable demand, both within and beyond our own organisations.  It ensures that minority opinions are always heard and are not silenced, and allows debate between differing points of view; the lifeblood of democracy.

This expresses the essence of the Marxist dialectic whereby our practice develops through the open clash of differing ideas on what constitutes the best way forward..This is an important corrective method for any socialist grouping.  Failure to allow this results in mistakes like the SWP dismissing the 1984-5 miners strike and the Poll Tax as unimportant struggles.  An error of a different nature was  CWI’s prediction of the Red Nineties i.e. that, as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, there would be a massive upturn in working class struggles and through these a politicisation of the class.  In reality the opposite happened.

In each of these cases the lack of an effective internal democratic structure reduced the ability of these organisations to adapt their strategies to deal with reality as it actually unfolded and disproved their earlier predictions.  This inflexibility made them less effective as vehicles to express the needs of the working class.

Ultimately democracy is a living thing.  It cannot be completely captured by constitutions etc.  It can however be enhanced or hindered by such things.  Republicanism embodies such characteristics as openness, egalitarianism and a long term perspective.  Further it recognises that adhering to principle may involve short-term losses.  Republicans within any political organisation will always contest the drift toward bureaucratic control of that organisation by dominant faction(s) whether that control is exerted through the power of their block vote, or via rigging the rules and constitution to stifle dissent.  Republicanism will always challenge those holding office who put their personal interests above those they are elected to represent.

Although republicanism is not communism or socialism it is difficult to imagine how either of these will be achieved without a strongly republican movement and thoroughgoing democracy to guard against the many temptations of managerialism, bureaucracy and totalitarianism.  The struggle for democracy has the potential to unite our class and points the way to revolutionary change and a new form of society.  Indeed socialism can only develop and be maintained under conditions of active, mass, democratic participation in the running of society.  In its absence we have by definition another, non socialist, form of society e.g. as in the former USSR.

Republican consciousness and practice brings the possibility of revolutionary change into the sphere of everyday life.  Revolutionary social change is understood as the culmination of an ongoing and developing revolutionary process rather than a one off event.

The Paris Commune and the workers councils (soviets) in the Russian Empire did not spring out of nowhere. They were the culmination of long struggles to assert popular and workers’ control over people’s lives. Today’s workers’ and popular struggles to retain control of our own organisations and to win and try to establish control over reforms which will improve our lives, are the bridge to this socialist or communist future.  The republican desire to assert our self-determination is but a step on the way to creating a society based on the principle, ‘From each according to their ability; to each according to their needs’.


Bob Goupillot





When people are asked what is meant by the word ‘republic’ they usually answer, “A country without a monarch”.  In today’s world this covers a great variety of states, including the USA, France, Germany, Russia, Israel, China, South Africa and Cuba.  At first glance, then, ‘republic’ would not appear to be a very helpful term for socialists, who want to distinguish between more or less progressive social and political systems.

Therefore, despite the fact that we, in the UK, live in one of the few remaining monarchies in the world, what significant difference could the ending of the monarchy bring about?  Certainly, the existence of the Royal Family helps to buttress a more rigid class system here, where class is understood in its older sense of hierarchical privilege, with upper, middle and lower classes.  The desperation with which some Labour politicians and trade union leaders pursue ‘honours’ is one indication of the hold of this old-style class privilege within the UK.

Nevertheless, a quick examination of the world’s most powerful republic, the USA, shows us that the lack of a monarchy is not necessarily a barrier to the promotion of huge income differentials between an obscenely wealthy elite and the downtrodden poor.  So, why should socialists consider themselves republicans at all, rather than just ignoring the monarchy until we have achieved our real aim, the creation of a socialist republic?  Answering this question means taking a closer look at the political nature of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The UK is a constitutional monarchy, which means, in effect, that the Queen exerts little power in her own right.  Yes, the Royal Family enjoys massive privileges in terms of property, income and status, but these are rewards given for its role in supporting and promoting the interests of a wider British ruling class.  The fragility of royal political influence was shown over the Windsors’ inept handling of the ‘Princess Di Affair’.  Diana was seen by the public to be much more in tune with the modern day, neo-liberal requirements of a celebrity monarchy.  Tony Blair perceived a ruling class need for a ‘New Monarchy’, and quickly labelled the late Diana, the ‘People’s Princess’.  The Windsors, however, were still seen by most to be, out of touch with the present-day world.  Since then, they have had to put a lot of effort into trying to repackage the monarchy.

So, does this mean that the longstanding infatuation of the British public with the Royal Family, which long prevented even the old Labour Party from challenging royal privilege, is at last waning?  It probably does, but that does not get to the root of the problem.  Far more important than the Royal Family itself, is the political system it fronts.  Despite the existence of a parliamentary democracy centred on Westminster, with its new devolved offspring at Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont, it still has very real limitations.  These lie in the state’s Crown Powers, which are wielded, not by the Queen, but by the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister has a wider circle of advisers, from the world of finance, industry and the media.  They help him to adopt strategies and form policies to promote their needs, without too much democratic scrutiny.  We can see some of those pressures in Gordon Brown’s handling of the Northern Rock collapse, where defence of City interests has been paramount.  If anyone thinks that defence of small investors is Brown’s first interest, just ask the victims of the collapse of the Farepack Fund, run by Halifax/Bank of Scotland.  Business leaders have also ensured that the bidding and contract details for the government’s many lucrative PFI contracts, amounting to billions of pounds of public money, are conducted in secret under the guise of commercial confidentiality.  This means that whole swathes of the UK economy, ostensibly under the control or supervision of Parliament, in reality lie way beyond any effective public accountability.  The results of this can now clearly be seen, with Brown and Darling’s paralysis in the face of the present economic crisis.  New Labour is in the pockets of big business, and no amount of Union Jack waving around our Olympic heroes and heroines can disguise this.

This unaccountable economic influence has to be supplemented by other anti-democratic political means.  This is why senior civil servants, judges, and officers and ranks in the armed forces, all swear their allegiance to the Queen, not to Parliament, and certainly not to the people.  The ruling class may require their services, acting, when necessary, against the interests of the people, or even Parliament.  Of course, it is not the Queen herself, who wields this power, but the Prime Minister, acting on behalf of the ruling class.  This is all done under the Crown Powers.

The UK’s constitution even has provision for the suspension of Parliament in ‘extreme situations’, with resort instead to direct rule by the Privy Council.  This very select band of former and existing senior government ministers is chosen for its reliability in upholding ruling class interests.  Its members all enjoy close contact with the world of business, whilst some have had direct dealings with military officers, MI5 and MI6.

The fact that SNP leader Alex Salmond is now a Privy Councillor shows that, beyond the exaggerated public disagreements, through which party political competition normally takes place in the UK, the British ruling class inner circle still consider him reliable enough.  Indeed, Salmond enjoys his own close links with the Scottish finance sector, which has wider British interests to defend.  More importantly, Salmond’s acceptance of a Privy Councillorship indicates that he will play the political game by Westminster rules, when he finally puts forward the Scottish Executive’s ‘Independence Referendum’.

Way back in the late 1970’s, before the British ruling class came to the conclusion that ‘Devolution-all-round’ (for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) was the best strategy to defend its interests in these islands and the wider world, key sections were still bitterly opposed even to the very mild devolutionary proposals put forward by the then Labour government. In the lead-up to the 1979 Devolution Referendum, the ‘non-political’ Queen was wheeled out to make a Christmas broadcast attacking Scottish nationalism.  Senior civil servants were told to ‘bury’ any documents, which could help the Scottish nationalists.  Military training exercises were conducted, targeting putative armed Scottish guerrilla forces.  The security forces became involved on the nationalist fringe, encouraging anti-English diatribes and actions, to discredit any notion of real Scottish self-determination.

However, unlike Ireland or Australia, Scottish nationalists did not then have to face the full panoply of Crown Powers.  It was not necessary, since the SNP opposition was so mild and constitutionalist in nature.  In the ‘Six Counties’ of Northern Ireland, the Republicans, and the wider nationalist community, felt the force of her majesty’s regiments, including the SAS, the UDR (with its royal patronage) and the RUC, and the Loyalist death squads, all backed up by juryless Diplock Courts, manned by Unionist judges, and by detention as required, in ‘her majesty’s’ special prisons.  Those sections of the state, which provide the ruling class with legal sanction to pursue its own ends, are prefixed ‘her majesty’s’ or ‘royal’.  Self-styled Loyalists include those who are prepared to undertake certain illegal tasks when called upon by the security services.

Back in 1975, Gough Whitlam fronted a mildly reforming Labour government, which wanted to keep US nuclear warships out of Australian ports.  He felt the long arm of the Crown Powers when the British Governor-General removed him from his elected office.  More recently the Crown Powers have been used to deny the right of the Diego Garcia islanders to return to their Indian Ocean home, when they won their case in the British High Court.  Unfortunately for them, Diego Garcia is now the site of a major US military base.  Current British governments are even more subservient to US imperial interests than they were in the 1970’s.  We should take seriously the warning from Lisa Vickers, the new US consul in Edinburgh, when she attacked the SNP’s formal anti-NATO policy.  “I don’t think you just wake up one morning and say ‘we are going to pull out of NATO’.  It doesn’t work like that” – a not so veiled threat!

Alex Salmond has finally come out and declared that the SNP is a pro-monarchy party.  As Colin Fox (SSP National Co-spokesperson) has said, Salmond wants the ending of the outdated 1707 Union of the Parliaments, only to return to the even more antiquated, 1603 Union of the Crowns.  Of course, there are still Scottish republicans to be found in the SNP. However, they are a bit like those ‘Clause 4 socialists’, once found in the old Labour Party.  For them socialism was a sentimental ideal for the future but, in the meantime, a Labour government had to be elected to run capitalism efficiently, in order to provide enough crumbs to finance some reforms for the working class.

Today’s SNP ‘independista’ wing passionately believes in a future independent Scotland, but believe the road is opened up, in the here and now, by an SNP government managing the local U.K. state in the interests of big business.  They are going to be disappointed as the old SNP turns into an ‘independence-lite’ ‘New SNP’, just like its counterparts in Quebec, Euskadi and Catalunya.  The SNP leadership is not going to challenge US or British imperial power, so it will not be able to deliver genuine independence.  This political measure will be strongly opposed by resort to whatever Crown Powers are seen to be necessary.  Being prepared to counter those Crown Powers has to be central to any socialist strategy, which opens up a prospect of real democratic advance, in the struggle for Scottish self-determination.

The Crown Powers have also been used by Prime Ministers to declare wars without parliamentary sanction, and to mobilise troops to break strikes when necessary.  Therefore, it should be clear why socialists have an interest in promoting republicanism – it increases people’s democratic rights, whilst undermining the anti-democratic powers in the hands of the ruling class. Socialists living under fascist dictatorships, or in countries with major restrictions on trade union rights, don’t say life would be no better under parliamentary rule, or with legally independent trade unions, because the ruling class would still run things.  Socialists place themselves at the head of the struggle for greater democratic rights, but don’t stop at the more limited forms compatible with capitalist rule.  Socialists see republicanism today as a part of the struggle for the socialist republic tomorrow.


Allan Armstrong




Steve Freeman and Phil Vellender of London Occupy live in the ‘heart of the best’. Here they highlight the difference between the Monarchy and the Crown Powers.


Behind the monarch lies the real power


Monarchy is only the string that ties the robber’s bundle – Percy Bysshe Shelley


The jubilee is an obvious time to reflect on the distinction between queen and crown. Many people think these terms mean the same thing. It is much better to see them as opposites, albeit interconnected – the monarch and the state. Louis XIV famously said, “I am the state”, which is a definition of absolute monarchy. In contrast we see a hint of separation when Queen Victoria used the royal ‘we’: “We are not amused.” This means two of them are not happy – the person and the institution – me and my shadow.

This distinction has its origins in the doctrine in the middles ages that the king has two bodies. One is the ‘body natural’ – the living human being. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” said Shylock in The merchant of Venice (Shakespeare’s reference to Jews also reminds us that monarchs are not deities). But the second body is the ‘body politic’ – the institution of monarchy, which never dies. The king is dead – long live the king. The English revolution of 1649 made that distinction sharper.

Today we live in a capitalist world when everything is business. So our distinction is between two enterprises – the Crown Corporation and Royal Family Ltd. The latter is called “the firm” by the Duke of Edinburgh and has its HQ at Buckingham Palace. These are separate businesses which go together like a horse and carriage. The relationship between them is more like ‘state capitalism’ than the much vaunted ‘free enterprise’.

The Crown Corporation – hereafter simply called ‘the crown’ – is, like any capitalist firm, a separate legal entity. It is the largest and most powerful multinational ‘corporation’ in the country. It has offices, or embassies, in nearly every country in the world. It has power not only in the UK, but the various tax havens or secret banking jurisdictions, such as the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, the Cayman Islands, etc. It also has a very extensive information-gathering network, which enables it to keep ahead of most of its rivals.

First the crown is the state, together with its various organisations: departments of state such as the treasury and home office, revenue and customs, armed forces, security or secret services, the police, Crown Prosecution Service, the courts and her majesty’s prisons, etc. But it is much more than this. It is the people in charge who direct these millions employed by the crown across its territories.

The power of the crown is concentrated in its board of directors, which can be called the core executive or the political class. The phrase, ‘The crown rules Britannia’, means that it is the political class that runs the place – certainly not parliament and much less the people. The crown is not a democracy. The political class includes senior civil servants, the prime minister and his key ministers and advisors, heads of the security services and the joint chiefs of staff. The prime minister is the chief executive reporting weekly to the royal chair of the board.

The political class is mainly made up of bureaucrats who have clawed their way up from their Oxbridge education or through the military, with which “the firm” has a special affinity. The chair of the board is an hereditary position. Then there are professional politicians who are chosen by the prime minister to serve as the key ministers of the crown. They do not have to be elected because of the back-door route through the Lords. But they all have to swear allegiance to the crown.

The crown is no more a democratic institution than Ford, McDonalds or News International. This is not to say that there is no democratic influence. This is not absolutism, but constitutional monarchy. But gone is the pretence that we elect the people who actually govern us. They are all chosen, although it helps if you have a seat in parliament (general elections do impact on the composition of the political class). However, a minister who is not trusted by the political class will always be an outsider and ‘not one of us’.

The crown, therefore, has a kind of permanence at its core. Its strategic role in governing the country transcends the vagaries of elections. We often hear of one government defending its reactionary policies by pointing out that it all began under the previous lot. So it did. The crown and its policies in reality hardly change from one election to the next. They are merely given a face-lift and painted blue or red and pushed more quickly or slowly. Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron follow the same line of policy and serve the same financial markets.

If we look inside the robber’s bundle we do not find the landed interests associated with aristocracy. We discover the City of London, its banks and financial markets with a long history of robbing people on a global scale. The crown has been their political instrument and the Bank of England their lever. The prime minister is the first minister of the City, whose priority is to protect and support them – for example, against a Greek default, the Tobin tax or European regulation. Today we are living through the ‘great bankster robbery’ carried on by the crown and the Bank of England, and fronted by the Tory-led coalition.

Crown and health

Since the defeat of the miners and the rise of Thatcherism, the crown has adopted the free-market philosophy. Governments come and go, but the same free-market strategy rolls on. Tory, Labour, Liberal Democrat – it makes little difference to the policies of the crown. Naturally, this sameness and consistency is echoed in the mass media, which generally promote the crown’s settled consensus of what are or are not the acceptable parameters for debate on any given subject.

Take the recent example of the NHS. The crown, in the guise of the department of health, has had a long-term plan to privatise healthcare and open it up as a market for competition. Private provision is now mainly responsible for the long-term care of the elderly. Privately run treatment centres set up by New Labour now control 5% of the profitable elective surgery ‘market’. The private finance initiative financed, at huge cost to the taxpayer, Blair’s hospital building plans. Now the private sector has taken over Hichingbrooke, the first NHS hospital run for profit, by Circle.

Whenever this has proved highly unpopular, ministers and civil servants have been prepared to retreat – and later return to the long-term game plan. Every government has taken it further. Now the coalition has taken a giant step forward with the Health and Social Care Bill. Tactical retreat may be necessary on some issues, as we have seen, but clearly ever more radical advances are in the pipeline.

Keep our NHS Public explained that “the health bill is the final stage in a 25-year privatisation project”. Ministers of the crown are “using existing powers to abolish PCTs [primary care trusts] and set up ‘pathfinder’, so-called ‘GP consortia’ and making arrangements with foreign private companies to take over NHS hospitals, while the government has pre-empted such debate as MPs are inclined to have” (No8, autumn 2011).

Whilst parliament was debating the bill, the crown was busily implementing its policies like some invisible coup. Crucial entities underpinning the privatising agenda were put in place before even the second reading of the bill. Through various crown regulations etc, ministers were able to ‘decree into existence’ Pathfinder GP consortia for over half the country. Funds were used to make staff redundant from the strategic health authorities and primary trusts. The old system was virtually demolished before the bill was on the statute book and 151 PCTs were put to the sword. Moreover, the new National Commissioning Board was empowered to appoint a chief executive, finance director and seven board members on salaries of up to £170,000. McKinsey and KPMG, who were consultants on the framing of the legislation, had been awarded big contracts to run GP commissioning.

Most of the left associate the crown with the queen and think that the latter is irrelevant to our increasingly difficult daily life. The opposite is the case. Whether the crown is taking us to war in Iraq or planning how to support the US-Israeli plans for Iran, or designing a privatised NHS or school system, it is a process largely impermeable to the needs of the people. Naturally, none of this is immutable or inevitable and the economic fragility of the economy is becoming ever more evident. Our political response to the crisis of the crown should not be another government of the crown, but another system of government altogether – one built on those truly democratic principles of popular sovereignty and accountability.

Queen rules the waves

Her majesty has a significant political role in this nation’s drama as the Great Distraction. The modern monarchy is a camouflage for the crown. We are so mesmerised by the continuous royal cavalcade and its pretensions of powerlessness and irrelevance to real life that we do not look in the opposite direction and notice the unaccountable power of the crown being wielded daily by the political class.

Monarchy is the UK’s national secular religion. Monarchy is the nation represented as a perfect world with a grateful people on their knees. Of course, the queen is not a god, but a living, breathing human being, dressed up for the job. Yet this ritual of worship, exemplified by the jubilee, idealises monarchy as a kind of living god which has come to walk among us mere mortals – or, most tellingly, ‘subjects’.

The jubilee will promote the queen as the nation’s grandmother. In her March 20 speech to parliament she spoke of “national qualities of resilience, ingenuity and tolerance”. It is surely inspiring to be praised by our national icon. She thinks we are great! We should surely reciprocate by welling up with pride.

The queen went on to say: “It is my sincere hope that the diamond jubilee will be an opportunity for people to come together in a sort of neighbourliness and celebration of their own communities.” We could all echo this sentiment as republicans, without hostility or any hint of cynicism. There is no reason to see her speech as anything other than sincere, for its contents explain why the motivation for the genuine affection which many of her subjects have for her is not simply rabid royalism.

However, shouldn’t we all wake up and smell the Darjeeling? Coming together for a crown-organised jubilee can never offer more than an illusion of unity in our class-divided society, in which rich and poor and those stuck in the middle are fighting for, or fighting to diminish, democracy and social justice. The monarchy is not neutral in this struggle, but the embodiment of a conservative, class-ridden society. With the queen, or her male offspring, safely enthroned in Buckingham Palace there will never be even the chance of substantive change. The subliminal message is: ‘Britain’s hereditary (ruling) class system has existed since time immemorial and will continue ever more – alongside its hereditary monarchs.’

In reality, the chief function of monarchy is not simply the nation’s enslavement to an ideology of a royalist-based patriotism. It is, rather, the Great Distraction – away from where the true levers of power are located within the structure of the crown. The crown not only governs the county and determines so much of our lives, but, moreover, in an epoch of its growing economic crisis, increasingly threatens our hard-won rights and liberties. The monarch ties the robber’s bundle precisely because the inherent danger to democracy of the unelected and unaccountable crown is concealed by the nation’s grandmother smiling sweetly.

Shelley’s was an acute observation. However, an enduring misconception concerning the crown and monarch goes some way to explain why republicanism is so weak. The left fails to distinguish between the Crown Corporation and Royal Family Ltd. This error produces a weak version of republicanism, one focused almost entirely on the queen and whether she ‘costs too much’ or arguing about how much of ‘our national income’ she generates through tourism.

The crown and the class it represents know they cannot put a price on the undoubted lift to the nation’s morale, brought low by an ever deepening recession, which the jubilee will bring. For, when the queen dispenses honours, waves, shakes hands, visits foreign countries or meets adoring crowds, she will distract both from the crisis that the crown is now presiding over, and, more importantly, our principal role in paying for it (and her!). Thus, as the crown’s leading player in this elaborate jubilee spectacle, the queen will once again execute her main role, which is to draw attention away from the power and nature of the crown itself, and the current fall in our living standards, by momentarily banishing the storm clouds of recession somewhere over the horizon.

No wonder Cameron, the crown’s current CEO, is smiling.

(This article appeared in Weekly Worker:-



 Barry Biddulph of the commune 

The cult of the Queen as a symbol of British unity is the illusion that she is somehow above and beyond corrupt and dishonest parliamentary politicians, and profit obsessed capitalists (1) To make Britain proud, she is jolly good at her job and has devoted her self to sixty years of selflessness in the stultifying boredom of public service.(2) Royal pageantry is not historical, but in the history of pageants the diamond jubilee, in the words of the Guardian, is important if not remarkable, but its only important because its rare.(3) As panic spreads throughout the world’s stock markets she is a useful symbol, keeping up the appearances of continuity and stability to stave off growing lack of confidence in the government’s austerity programme.

  1. There is no real or rational meaning in the state orchestrated worship of the Queen,(4) but that’s not the point. It’s a state religion bringing magic and glamour to transform the harsh reality of job cuts, benefit cuts, pension cuts and wage cuts into an emotional communal feeling of togetherness. However, there is a negativity or fearfulness in all this spirituality. What is the alternative to the carefully crafted tradition of the Windsor Family? It could be something worse.(5) Although the worship of state leaders was historically similar in Russia, China and in the present, North Korea; that is seen as state propaganda, whereas in Britain it’s the Queen’s assumed decency and general niceness which is venerated. It’s for a person not the state. This is mystical, she is obviously at the apex of the state.

    Appearances notwithstanding, the crown estates are not above shameless profiteering, far from it. Sir Stuart Hampson, chairman of the crown estates, has put the spectacular rise in property revenues from the estate down to entrepreneurial flair in the neo liberal market place. Rents have soared in Regent Street and other lucrative property. This has substantially boosted the Queens private Fortune.(6) She personally owns Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Balmoral estate. The unemployed from Bristol who were bussed into London to work for nothing, to steward the Royal Pageant, some of whom were left to sleep under London Bridge, own nothing but their ability to work.(7)

    Andrew Marr claims he was a republican, but from observing the hard work of the Queen, he is no longer a republican.(8) But what work is this? She has an army of servants and the nature of the work is never specified. How would she know she was on holiday? The royal yacht Britannia was an ocean going liner, which took the queen all over the world, especially in winter. Well, she had to get away from all that hard boring work, don’t we all? She could be one of us if you don’t think about it. But do think about it, having to wine and dine with all those important dignitaries in all those grand places? Nice work if you can get it. The most those unpaid Bristol stewards can hope for is some paid temporary employment at the Olympics. Another state event to help make us feel great as the great economic depression deepens. But why spoil the jubilee party? Why be a communist kill joy? Let’s celebrate. But it is not simply a party or a celebration. It’s celebrating the Queen: Sixty years personifying the state as the head of the British imperialist army and their barbaric wars. It was difficult to escape from the Royal pantomime, even when I went into my local pub where there is no TV. The pump clips on the real ale carried the union flag, the crown or an image of the queen. Except one obviously brewed by a republican, which had what looked like a toad in royal gowns getting soaked in the rain, with the words “A long reign”. And a good beer it was-but then again, I was celebrating being off work.

    1 David Hare, The Guardian 2/06/12
    2 Max Hastings, Financial Times 2/06/12
    3 The Guardian Editorial 02/06/12
    4 Polly Toynbee on the Andrew Marr show 3/06/12
    5 Tom Nairn, The Enchanted Glass, 1988, Picador London.
    6 The Financial Times 02/06/12
    7 The Guardian 04/06/12
    8 Andrew Marr, The Andrew Marr Show 03/06/12

    (This article first appeared in the commune at:-


    also see GREAT FROCK ‘N’ ROBE SWINDLE on:- 



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Dec 31 2011


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)


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


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 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:-





“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:-


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)


(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)



“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


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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