By Jim Slaven
The centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising has loomed large for several years and coincides with an increasing desire for political transformation across the island of Ireland. In Scotland 2016 represents the 30th anniversary of the James Connolly Society’s annual Connolly commemoration. The most significant event of its kind outside Ireland. The political landscape in Ireland and Scotland has changed completely since 1986 but the politics of James Connolly have never been more relevant.
Plans are already in place for various commemorations to mark the Rising’s centenary. Given the UK state’s continued occupation of the six north eastern Counties of Ireland and the increasingly rapacious nature of capitalism, North and South, it is not surprising that the political meaning of the 1916 Rising will be contested. The political nature of next year’s commemorations will be every bit as important as the fact they are taking place.
We are told by both states that the centenary of the 1916 Rising forms part of a ‘decade of centenaries’ which includes WW1, Ulster Covenant, Easter Rising, Battle of Somme, Dublin Lockout, Civil War and Partition. Furthermore we are implored to make this a ‘decade of shared remembrance’. This last appeal coming, significantly, from constitutional nationalists. Of course there is a huge difference in what we, as republicans, are commemorating in 2016 and what the states want to commemorate. However, it is worth exploring the philosophical, political and ideological significance of what is a stake for republicans and why the politics of next year’s commemorations are crucial going forward.
‘Even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious’ – Walter Benjamin
First it is important to be clear about what the ‘decade of centenaries’ and notions of ‘shared remembrance’ are all about. They are clear attempts by the state to seize control of the narrative. To use the centenary of 1916 to reinforce state ideology and underpin British hegemony on these islands. The reason why the 26 County and UK states would wish to do this is obvious. For both states the decade between 1912-1922 must not be about revolution and anti-colonialism, it must be about state formation. In other words the Easter Rising of 1916 must be viewed as a foundational event for the 26 Counties state (and by extension the Six County statelet).
To put it slightly differently the ‘decade of centenaries’ is about legitimising the partition of Ireland. The corollary of that is the delegitimising of revolutionary struggle. However these top down, state sponsored events also serve another, more deep-rooted, purpose which is to call on us to remember in order to forget. To draw a line in the sand. In other words it is the latest variant of that favourite of British patronising calls for the Irish to stop being obsessed with the past and to move on. It seems some have internalised the colonial mindset.
For republicans our motivation for commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising is the direct opposite of this. We must reject the passivity of remembrance. As republicans we embrace the unfulfilled potentiality of the Rising. We celebrate the political principles, determination, vision and sacrifice of the revolution. It is that potentiality, of an Ireland (and world) that could be other than it is, that we celebrate when we commemorate our revolutionary dead.
The passivity of remembrance is wholly inappropriate when commemorating anti-colonial struggle. Instead we must embrace the restlessness of our anger. Anger that the Republic of equals envisaged by the men and women of 1916 remains an unfulfilled potential. Anger at the counter revolutionaries who squandered that potential. Anger at the continuing partition of the nation and all that flows from that. We must turn our righteous indignation into a call to political action.
The state discourse of remembrance and public commemoration are in some ways even more insidious than I have suggested. Not only do they represent an accommodation with colonialism and partition while marginalising the revolutionary nature of the Rising but they are packaged as a way of healing present divisions. In other words we are being asked to remember the 1916 Easter Rising not as a revolutionary act of opposition to British colonialism but as a way of feeling better about the present. As a way of healing (or more accurately setting aside) the very divisions British colonialism so ‘carefully fostered’ and continues to foster.
Internalising this colonial mindset leads to constitutional nationalists commemorating the forces of British colonialism or toasting British monarchy (or as Connolly put it ‘bowing the knee to Baal’). These are not acts of reconciliation but of self-flagellation. It is, of course, a small step from these gestures, which underpin state ideology, to embracing state apparatus, which underpin state repression. Reminding us again that there is a huge difference between a state salary and state power.
‘He (Wolfe Tone) was crucified in life, now he is idolised in death, and the men who push forward most arrogantly to burn incense at the altar of his fame are drawn from the very class who were he alive today would hasten to repudiate him as a dangerous malcontent. False as they are to every one of the great principles to which our hero consecrated his life, they cannot hope to deceive the popular instinct, and their presence at the ’98 commemorations will only bring into greater relief the depth to which they have sunk.’- James Connolly
For the avoidance of doubt the state is seeking to do what the state always seeks to do and that is destroy the radical republican tradition in Ireland. They see the centenary of 1916 as an opportunity to place what was a revolutionary republican uprising at the heart of a nationalist narrative about the formation of the 26 County state. Using republican events, stripped of their republican (revolutionary) politics, to bolster a bourgeois nationalist account of the foundation of the Free State. Any attempt to use the 1916 Rising in this way only serves to legitimise the 26 County state and by extension partition and the British occupation of the six counties.
British colonialism subverted the development of the Irish nation. The formation of the Free State was not the result of the revolution, it was the result of the counter revolution. A counter revolution which eradicated a whole generation of left republicans and set about establishing a Free State in the image of their colonial masters. Liam Mellows noted ‘It is a fallacy to believe that a Republic of any kind can be won through the shackled Free State. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The Free State is British created and serves British Imperialist interests. It is the buffer erected between British Capitalism and the Irish Republic.’ Of course the Free State executed Mellows and if the British hadn’t executed Connolly there is every chance the Free State would have.
This same state is now ploughing plenty of time and money into creating state run 1916 Committees in Scotland and England. As always these committees are made up of self-serving and self-appointed community leaders. People only too happy to accommodate an analysis of the 1916 Rising that occludes its political meaning. Connolly had their measure. Writing in Labour in Irish History he says ‘Every recurring Emmet anniversary continues to bring us its crop of orators who know all about Emmet’s martyrdom, and nothing about his principles.’ Replace Emmet with Connolly and meet the state sponsored 1916 Committee in your area.
‘Our Home Rule leaders will find that the glory of Wolfe Tone’s memory will serve, not to cover, but to accentuate the darkness of their shame. It will be thus seen that Tone built up his hopes upon a successful prosecution of a class war, although those who pretend to imitate him today raise up their hands in holy horror at the mere mention of the phrase.’- James Connolly
The recent O’Donovan Rossa commemoration gave us a glimpse of what the state and constitutional nationalists have planned for 2016. They reduced the life of one of the most fearless and principled revolutionary republicans to a bit of nationalist mythmaking, to a piece of theatre. When we say theatre we are not exactly talking about the best of Eugene O’Neill or Samuel Beckett here, rather they reduced the life of an inspirational revolutionary to pantomime. They talk of O’Donovan Rossa and 1916 but it is clear the radical republican tradition plays no part in their politics. This is evidence of what Connolly described as ‘slave birth marks’ and republicans need to resist this ideological attack on our revolutionary history.
The history of the last 100 years is a history of republicans contesting the legitimacy of those very constitutional arrangements these state sponsored events seek to legitimise. The 1916 Easter Rising must be viewed in the context of British colonialism and capitalism and radical republicanisms resistance to British colonialism and capitalism. Through partition, neo-colonialism in the South and occupation in the North, the British state continues to subvert the Irish nation’s development just as Connolly predicted.
Ireland has not yet become a post-colonial nation. Irish sovereignty is subverted by two failed states. While the UK state are quick to describe other states as failed such as Iraq, Afghanistan etc (normally after they’ve bombed them) by any objective analysis the UK and 26 County states have failed to deliver for their citizens. At the behest of their corporate interests the states have rolled back even the modest gains of the welfare state. Privatisation and neo-liberal dogma now dominate in areas of health, education and social security. In the 26 Counties the narcissism of the Celtic Tiger has been replaced with a subservience to the Eurozone. With the Dublin Government, having replaced one colonial master with another, recently turning the screw on Greece.
In 1916 Irish men and women fought and died for independence, for Ireland and for the working class. The 26 County state and partition would be an anathema to them. These revolutionaries understood the connection between the two aspects of freedom, the national and the social, and explicitly rejected the piecemeal approach to political change. They recognised (and the intervening 100 years has confirmed) that to be free nations must reject colonialism and capitalism completely. The societal problems we face today are of the economic system and they must be resisted as a system.
‘In this, as in the political and social world generally, the thing that matters most is not the EXTENT of our march, but rather the DIRECTION in which we are marching’- James Connolly
The centenary events of 2016 are a site of struggle for republicans. They will be another battle ground in the ideological war being waged against the revolutionary republican tradition. Republicans need to stop fighting the last war and engage in the ideological war surrounding us. Our task in 2016 is to get the revolutionary republican message into the heads of as many people as possible. From campaigners against austerity or water privatisation to those struggling for equality and equal rights to prison protests and the One Ireland One Vote campaign we need to make republicanism relevant to people’s daily lives.
We are righty critical of the status quo but our anger at injustice must be combined with strategic clarity. We must reject the two pillars of oppression in Ireland: colonialism and capitalism. If we are to effectively contest British hegemony we must develop a counter-hegemony. In other words we must develop an alternative narrative. Central to any political alternative republicans advance must be an analysis of the state which recognises the changing nature of the nation state and how state power works in the 21st century.
100 years have passed but the revolutionary leaders of Easter Week would certainly have recognised the balance of forces confronting republicans today. They would also recognise some of the tactics of the ‘governing class’ as Connolly described them. This is not 1916 and we do not have to occupy the GPO but what we do have to do is bear witness. We have to defend the radical republican tradition like never before if republicanism is to emerge from 2016 as a credible force for political change and finish the business of the re-conquest of Ireland.
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Jim Slaven tweets @JimSlaven