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The British Left and the Irish Struggle

Former Sinn Féin member, Philip Ferguson, has written an important article, Behind the betrayal, showing both the significance of the Irish national liberation struggle against the British state, and a critique of the politics of its leadership. However, he also points out the much greater failings of the British left, when it came to offering effective support. It is this section of Philip’s article that we have republished below.

The rise of the Provos was not an isolated event. It was part and parcel of the massive upsurge of workers and students in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was part of the process that produced the events of 1968 and the rebirth of the far left in Europe.

In Britain, it coincided with student occupations, anti-imperialist protests against the Vietnam war and huge industrial struggles against the Wilson government’s In Place of Strife legislation and the massive strike wave during the Heath government, culminating in the miners’ defeat of Heath in 1974. The British bourgeoisie faced a militant working class at home and a militant national liberation struggle just a few miles of sea away. If the two had come together, the result would have been at the very least a political and social crisis for the British ruling class - something that class was only too aware of.

There were some auspicious signs. In 1971, over 30,000 people took part in the Anti-Internment League’s march for the withdrawal of troops and an end to internment. In the early 1970s an Irish revolutionary like Bernadette Devlin could be given a rousing response by 4,000 Dagenham car workers during an industrial dispute. Bloody Sunday showed people on both sides of the Irish Sea what imperialist rule meant, if there was any doubt. The possibilities for the British left being able to make common cause with the struggle in Ireland and create a social and political crisis in Britain were real.

However, it was a challenge in which the British left totally failed.

Clamp down

This was especially true when the British state began to fully clamp down on the struggle in Ireland around the time of Bloody Sunday and, especially, after Sunningdale and then the collapse of the mid-70s ceasefire. The unedifying flight of the British left was also linked to the war being brought to Britain itself. Most of the British left preferred their revolutions in the pages of history books and in fiery speeches they made at Labour Party and trade union conferences. They could support revolutions if they were on the other side of the world and against some other imperialist power, like the US in Vietnam. But a national liberation struggle against the British state that actually thought that if there was going to be fighting and dying some of it should take place on British soil - whoa, that was not in the script for the revolutionary heroes of the Brit left.

They denounced bombings in Britain as if they seriously believed a national liberation struggle against an imperialist power a few miles away, which had incorporated part of the oppressed nation’s territory within its own state, could possibly be won without armed actions, including within the imperialist state (I am not making a blanket defence of IRA bombings in Britain - some of them were stupid: merely establishing the principle about what is entailed in a real flesh-and-blood national liberation struggle).

Abandoned

Essentially the Brit left, in terms of its major organisations (‘official’ Communist Party, SWP, Militant, International Marxist Group) abandoned the Irish national liberation struggle against the British state. As soon as the going got tough, the Brit left got going … as far as possible, away from the Irish struggle. None of those involved in this abandonment therefore have any right to criticise the subsequent abandonment of the same struggle by the republican leaders themselves.

The worst were the ‘official’ CP and Militant, who basically sided with the British state by obstructing any attempts to build a solidarity movement within the British working class and repeating imperialist propaganda about the republican movement. In fact the ‘official’ CP acted in no small part as the actual agent of the British state in terms of TUC policies it pursued within the six counties. The SWP and IMG did their bit more by just simply abandoning any serious prioritising of Irish solidarity work.

I recall living in London at the time of the 1981 hunger strikes. One weekend there would be 250,000 people in Hyde Park protesting about non-existent nuclear wars on the basis of middle class pacifist politics. The British far left would be there in their thousands, selling their papers and promoting their own special brand of militant pacifism. The next week there would be a national march in support of the hunger strikers with a few hundred people - a thousand at most - in attendance and the far left notable mainly for its absence.

Basically, the bulk of the Brit left let the British government kill the hunger strikers without doing a damn thing. Building the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was the soft option and never challenged anything about British people’s attachment to the British nation-state and capitalist ideology. Organising real solidarity around Ireland was hard and not likely to result in immediate large gains in recruitment and paper sales. And it meant challenging trade union politics as a form of bourgeois ideology.

Of course, Marx and Engels had championed Irish freedom and argued that, as long as British workers remained tied to the apron-strings of the British bourgeoisie in Ireland, they would never attain real class consciousness or achieve anything significant in Britain itself. Lenin was devastating about the record of the British left of his day in relation to Ireland. The Bolsheviks ensured that one of the conditions of membership of the Third International was that if a party was in an imperialist country and there was a national liberation struggle going on against your government you had to provide it with material support. Trotsky declared that any British socialist who refused to provide full support for the struggle in Ireland (and India and Egypt) deserved to be branded with infamy, if not with an actual bullet.

Sadly, the great Marxists had sown dragons’ teeth and, in Britain, harvested chickens.

Betrayal

At the end of the day, the republican movement and its struggle capitulated in the context of having been abandoned long beforehand by the bulk of the British left and in the context of the collapse of both the supposedly collectivist Soviet Union and most other national liberation struggles. What is remarkable is not the betrayal of the republican leadership - as pitiful and dishonest as that has been - but the duration of the struggle in Ireland, given the real, material difficulties it faced.

However, the betrayal within Ireland also points up the weakness of a national liberation struggle which does not transcend the political limitations of radical nationalism. It shows that the period in which national liberation struggles could be taken at least to the achievement of independence and some radical social changes by radical nationalist leaderships is over. Only a conscious, revolutionary socialist movement can develop and maintain the politics, strategy and tactics necessary to prosecute a struggle for national liberation with any serious hope of success.

In Ireland, that places a huge burden on the Irish Republican Socialist Party and on other revolutionary republicans and socialists, including former members of the republican movement who left over the Good Friday agreement and leadership betrayal generally.

It seems to me that what is urgently needed are ways to get the dispersed genuine revolutionary forces - not the gas-and-water socialists Connolly denounced - in Ireland talking together and trying to develop a partyist culture among them, based on a Connolly-type politics for the Ireland of the 21st century.

The full article was originally published in Weekly Worker, No. 575