On Rethinking Republicanism


By Jim Slaven

There has recently been a very welcome debate about where Irish republicanism finds itself and the best way to advance the struggle. Much of this debate has, understandably, focussed on the continued use of armed struggle and its efficacy at this juncture. There has also been an increase of republican groups and individuals signalling their intentions to stand in forthcoming elections. This debate on strategy is essential if we are to rebuild a credible republican alternative. Indeed as republicans learn to live with history the need to draw the correct strategic conclusion from our political history is essential. We find ourselves at a challenging political and economic conjuncture. Republicanism’s critique of the UK state’s occupation of the Six Counties remains valid as does our solution of national democracy and the establishment of the Republic envisaged in the 1916 Proclamation. However the revolution has been halted. For those of us who remain committed to the view that republicanism, for all its current flaws, still holds the revolutionary key to changing Ireland for the better our task is how to remake the revolution today.

Republicanism is emerging from a long, dark tunnel. For anyone with even a basic understanding of Irish history there is a sense of deja vu in the current situation. Following the most sustained period of armed resistance to British state occupation republicanism finds itself not on the verge of victory but deeply divided and politically marginalised. The UK state’s strategy of, in Anthony McIntyre’s memorable phrase, inviting republicans into Government but leaving republicanism on the outside has succeeded in destroying what was once the major threat to state power on these islands.

A standard reading of Ireland’s political history is essentially the story of a series of indigenous uprisings against foreign occupation stretching back 800 years. More pertinently for republicans since the United Irishmen’s rebellion of 1798 Irish history is a series of revolutionary republican episodes ending in military and political defeats. Throughout this history these defeats are followed by a period of reorganisation and re-commitment to advance towards the republic. In other words each generation seeks to advance an age old struggle for self government and the establishment of the Republic. This teleological view of political history, the idea that history is advancing to a specific end point (for republicans the establishment of the Republic), is as common as it is problematic.

According to this interpretation of militant Irish republicanism our history is a unity of successive revolutionary ruptures ending in political representation. In other words our weakness lies in replicating the very structures of representation (and exclusion) that exist in the state structures. This is one explanation for why republicanism has historically been led by leaderships which turn towards constitutional nationalism. The revolutionary praxis being used by republicans contained an error. This error, the belief that minor changes by the state signified progress towards the Republic, coupled with the view that victory was somehow inevitable has proved fatal for successive generations of republicans. There is nothing inevitable in political struggle.

We can see the result of this thinking all around us today. We are repeatedly told that some subtle reforms by the state at the behest of the representational group are in fact political progress and another step towards the Republic. In other words it is argued that state reforms for certain sections of the community are transformational when in actual fact they leave untouched the structural problems of British occupation and capitalism. Rather than advancing to the Republic such forms of political representation only make it easier for the state to incorporate these groups in a way which allows state power to continue unabated.

This also serves a crucial ideological role for the state. As the republican struggle is explained not in revolutionary terms but in terms of some ongoing negotiation for equality by one section of the community. The state is no longer the cause of conflict but now is seen as the remedy. Indeed many Nationalist politicians now seek to describe the IRA’s campaign in terms that make it sound like it was the military wing of the Civil Rights movement. Of course such a non analysis of the state ignores the fact that state apparatus are not politically (or class) neutral. Rather than an advance to the Republic this signifies an acceptance of what I have described elsewhere as The British Ideology.

The recent Haas talks offer a perfect example of how this works. While the participants return to their communities, puff out their chest and point to the never ending negotiations as proof of their relevance in fact the opposite is true. What was most striking about this charade was how weak and irrelevant the political parties looked. They represent not state power or a challenge to (or analysis of) state power. There was no discussion of UK state occupation or any of the abuses of power, or denial of Irish rights, which flow from it. Significantly, this was because the parties themselves (not the state) had drawn the parameters so narrow. Their inability to not only solve Ireland’s political problems but even to be able to think in those terms has been exposed again. They are destined to never ending talks about the symptoms not the cause of the problem.

However our preference for participatory forms of politics over representational formations does not mean we object to working class people being better represented or that we oppose electoral interventions per se. Indeed I stood as a candidate for the James Connolly Society in the 1994 council elections in Edinburgh. This campaign, against the state ban on the James Connolly commemoration, was effectively an independent republican campaign as Sinn Fein objected to our standing and refused to support our candidature. (This is only one of many strategic disagreements we had with the party of the last 25 years but which (until now) remained private). The important point about an electoral intervention is that it is part of a broader political (revolutionary) strategy. The problems in working class communities is not that the local councillor, MLA, MP, TD etc is useless (although they may be) or that they represent parties which are useless (although they may be). Rather the problems in our communities are structural and related to capitalism and the UK state occupation.

The task for republicans in 2014 is to devise new strategies for advancing the struggle. One familiar alternative to representational formations is for republicans to turn to the use of armed struggle. The continued use of this tactic has come in for increasing criticism as 2013 ended with many former IRA volunteers joining Nationalist politicians in demanding an end to republican violence. Prominent among these calls was Anthony McIntyre who recently argued

“So what do republicans do? They can state clearly never again to use arms in pursuit of their goals. Without in anyway acquiescing in the partition principle and by refusing to become co-opted into the British administrative system that manages the North, they can acknowledge that the Irish people have spoken.”

 While perhaps sympathetic to the spirit of what is being argued here it goes too far. The idea that republicans (or socialists or working class people) should cede to the state a monopoly on the right to the legitimate use of force is unreasonable. It also seems to exclude the question of everyday state violence against working class communities under capitalism. In other words it deals with the issue of violence on the (liberal) state’s terms. In order to understand the continued use of political violence by republicans we must assess this violence in republican terms. That is to say we must ask whether it is doing anything to resolve the problem identified by republicanism, namely, to remove UK state occupation and establish democratic relations in Ireland.

The issue of republican violence exists only in the context of state violence. Without the UK state’s occupation of Ireland and the denial of Irish rights the question of republican violence has no meaning. The question is not whether republicans have the right to use arms to resist the UK state occupation. Indeed if success was guaranteed no one would doubt revolutionaries have the same right to use force as the state. But of course success is not guaranteed and intentions are not enough so the correct question is does the use of violence at this juncture constitute a political (revolutionary) act. In other words does the use of this tactic advance a broader political strategy? It does not and the use of armed struggle at present can best be described as a tactic in search of a strategy.

A key quality found in revolutionaries is their ability to live in the present and the future not in the past. In other words revolutionaries are prepared to give up (at least potentially) their future for the future of others. They strive in the present to alter the future but also contained within the revolutionary dynamic is the ability to alter our collective understanding of the past. Revolutions must be self referential. They must stand and fall on their own actions and rationality. Or put slightly differently the decision to follow a particular course of action will be judged on whether this can be justified by an objective analysis of the conditions at the time. Political violence in 2014 cannot be justified because James Connolly thought it was the correct tactic in 1916. Arguing that killing a cop in 2014 is a correct tactic because the IRA thought it was a correct tactic in 1974 will not lead to revolution but rather indicates a form of monomania.

So if the path of representational politics leads to constitutional nationalism and incorporation and the path of armed struggle leads to a dead end of marginality and cynicism how are republicans to advance in this period? The key lies in drawing the correct theoretical and practical conclusion from our political history. Both the paths followed by republicans, while antithetical in many ways, have something in common they both rely on hierarchical structures which mirror those of state structures. Both representational forms and military forms of republicanism up until now have replicated top down structure. Such anti democratic political forms create the same forms of exclusion as we find in state structures (ie sexism, exclusion of minorities, silencing of dissent, leadership elitism etc etc). This inherent weakness leads to an inability to sustain revolutionary sequence beyond intermittent, isolated ruptures. Central to a republican revival will be developing new forms of organisation based on horizontal and democratic structures. The days of political parties (or armies) telling the people what is best for them are over. For revolutionary groups to advance in the twenty first century they must be on the side of the people not engaging in vanguardism, eltisim or representational politics.

For republicans this must mean a multi-centred approach to struggle which prioritises strategies which place the people (particularly working class people) at the centre of our work. We must be clear the struggle is not about creating a new political party, or new political elite, rather it is about shifting power away from the state and to the people as envisaged in the Proclamation. To paraphrase Greek theorist Nicos Poulantzas, the Republic will be established democratically or it will not be established at all. Only through the exercise of Irish national democracy can the re-unification of the nation occur and the establishment of the Republic envisaged in 1916 become a political reality. While the UK state continues to bolster its repressive apparatus through increased role of MI5, continued mistreatment of political prisoners, ever more intrusive and draconian legislation etc etc it has also altered its strategy as the political terrain has shifted over the last 20 years. The struggle has moved from the (predominantly) military field to being (predominantly) an ideological battle. This requires republicans to rethink all that has went before.

We must also seek common cause with others in struggle. Historically solidarity for republicans has meant a one way process of people responding to demands of the movement. For republicans to broaden our struggle (and build our political strength) we must engage other groups and individuals who are out there struggling for societal change. That means developing channels of mutual solidarity which recognise that people are motivated to political activism for different reasons. The struggle against racism, or gombeenism, or banksters, or drugs is also the struggle for self determination. Of course we know that but our task is to convince those people motivated primarily through these individual campaigns, rather than the national question, that republicanism is with them. To succeed we must develop a participatory strategy. This means building unity-in-struggle with non-republicans. Yes, there are people out there that are not republicans and they are not the enemy.

Republicanism’s opposition to UK state occupation and the struggle for re-unification remain central to our work. But it can no longer be the single front of struggle. The point here is that republicans do not have the political (or military) strength for a full frontal assault on the UK (or 26 County) state. In order to build political strength throughout the island (and the focus must broaden out to the whole island) we need to develop alliances which will allow us to positively create space for an alternative to be built. Of course, we must also be realistic about what such an intervention can achieve. We cannot, as Louis Althusser pointed out, ‘put bourgeois society in parenthesis in order to create the future in its midst’. However what we can do with such a positive, inclusive strategic development, is open up new vistas for republicans to begin work (with others) on building the new society envisaged in the 1916 Proclamation.

Twitter: @JimSlaven


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