“What should I do?” The anguish reached out to me; I felt it empathically. The cry of a person who is prepared to act and wants to change things for the better, to resist what is wrong around us on so many fronts – and that’s the problem.
There so many issues: the Water Tax, the persecution of Republican activists including framing and jailing them, the harassment and torture of Republican prisoners, the threat of fracking, privatisation of resources and services, cuts in services, cuts in salaries, high cost of private accommodation and low social housing provision causing homelessness, the decline of the Irish language and of the Gaeltacht …. and others. And that’s without mentioning international solidarity – and not because I don’t consider that essential, either.
Of course, we can put all these problems down to capitalism and, in the case of repression of Republicans (and with regard to international solidarity), to imperialism …. so let’s just overthrow those systems and then we can sort out those problems! But that leads to the question of “How” which in turn brings one back again to that anguished question, or to its variant “Which problem should I prioritise?”
Indeed, it is a question that cuts to the heart of the matter. For the issues call to us to act and since we can’t be everywhere at once we have to make choices. It is a question as old as class society and speeches are always being made recommending this choice or that while books have been written attempting to answer it. Lenin wrote a series of articles in the revolutionary newspaper Iskra (“Spark”) and published later as a booklet under a title that echoes that very cry above: What Is to Be Done? It had a subtitle too: “Burning questions of our movement” (by which he meant the socialist movement in Russia at the time).
Whether we choose to believe that work was absolutely correct, partly correct or completely wrong is in some ways irrelevant, for it was written for the movement in Russia in 1902 and published in 1905. I happen to think that it contains many useful ideas, although I am aware that there is a view that it has been mistranslated but, even so, in many ways, all that is beside the point. The fact is that today we have no blueprint and nothing more than perhaps the equivalent of a trouble-shooting manual: “for this problem, try this; if that doesn’t work, try that; while doing so beware of that other.” And that manual is cobbled together from older and more recent history of struggles, of analyses of the capitalist system and of how it behaves.
Scary, surely, to go up against a system that has ruled for around four centuries, that has spread across the world, that controls education, mass media, the State with its police, judges, prison and armed forces – and all without us having a blueprint. Well, if it’s any consolation, the capitalists don’t have a blueprint either … or if they do, they keep having to ignore it and react to events which they have not been able to predict, as well as to the extent of resistance for which they were unprepared. And they clearly make mistakes. Still, 400 years is a long time … a long time for them to learn tactics and strategy and to get comfortable in control and a long time to make us think that we can’t defeat them.
We can defeat them, of course and the indications from history and the internal workings of capitalism — and of its offshoot imperialism — are that we will. But what to do to make that happen? Yes, back to that question. And to the one that logically follows it: which issue to prioritise? For none of us is capable of being everywhere at once and even stretching over a few issues at a time begins to tear at our fabric.
The Marxist-Leninist approach argues for the creation of a revolutionary party that will make decisions on prioritisation and allocate resources to those struggles it chooses as it does so. Of course, the party will make mistakes from time to time and it will learn from those, getting better as it goes along. That’s the theory anyway. In application, or in alleged application, the results have not vindicated the theory – not in the long run, or even in the medium-term. Sure, we have been at it for less than 200 years: the first time workers captured a city was in 1871 and the first successful overthrow of the State was in Russia in 1917, very nearly a century ago. Much less time to learn, to make mistakes and to correct them but still ….
Of course, the alternative method of organising has even less to recommend it on results: amorphous, disparate collectives have not ever successfully overthrown a State and even their success in capturing a city (Barcelona, 1936) is debatable.
So, what is to be done? How to decide which struggle to prioritise? This is not a question I think can be answered by pointing and saying “That one and no other” or even, except at rare junctures, “That one and no other for the moment”. Individuals, collectives and parties will need to choose from the selection as a painter chooses from a palette: “this colour now, then that, no, scrub that one, now mix this with that, no, a bit more light …” and so on, always working towards the desired result which, although in the head, is also taking place on the canvas and making its own demands as it does so.
The truth is that all of those issues I mentioned in passing at the start of this piece, all of those, need addressing. All of them need people to fight in them. That is because they are all part of the same problem and also because we can’t just allow a cancer to grow unchecked in one part of the body while we address the tumours in another. Some individuals and perhaps even collectives are better suited to fight on some issues than on others: for example, a factory shop committee is probably not best placed to lead the struggle against fracking in a rural area, while a rural environmental collective is probably not in the best position to lead the struggle against the Water Tax. Individuals will need to pick and choose according to their own situation, their locality, their own knowledge.
And that would be fine, if the resistance movement as a whole were integrated enough to make creative use of that disparity – for particular struggles to be able to call for temporary additional resources and to be heard by the whole resistance movement, so that it could try to allocate those resources to one or other sector as seemed appropriate. But the resistance movement is far from integrated – it is fragmented and, even worse, it suffers from something akin to schizophrenia.
There a number of ways to imagine schizophrenia and the most popular is to see it as the development of two or more personalities in the one individual. But another is to see it as a disintegration of the personality – where the various aspects in our minds break free and appear as distinct personalities in themselves. The voices that speak in our heads to say things like “You shouldn’t have done that” or “Please make that happen” break free and seem to become different personalities. At times they conflict with one another while the central core personality tries to make sense of what is going on. Something like that, anyway. It is in that sense that I think the resistance movement in Ireland suffers from schizophrenia.
The splitting off of aspects of the revolutionary movement in Ireland has been towards two major poles of attraction: the Socialist one and the Republican. Of course there are some elements who incorporate both to one degree or another but I think examining them as distant poles of attraction is useful and much closer to their concrete manifestation within the revolutionary movement. In order to examine them as opposite poles I think it is also useful to imagine a stereotype individual inhabiting each pole. Let us then imagine a stereotypical Irish Republican and a stereotypical Irish Socialist.
The Irish Republican is probably working class or maybe lower middle class; he may or may not have done well at secondary education but in any case he is unlikely to have gone to university. He sees himself in a tradition of resistance to British Colonialism and Imperialism stretching back at least to the United Irishmen and perhaps even back to the Norman conquest which began in 1169. His priority is the removal of the British from Ireland. He experiences “political policing” (of which some socialists are now complaining) practically from the moment he becomes publicly active – he has had his name and address taken by Special Branch and/or RUC/PSNI and they have opened a file on him. The Republican’s recent predecessors have been jailed (as are some of his contemporaries now), beaten or even shot dead; they were engaged in armed struggle against the colonial and imperial armed forces in the Six Counties for 30 years and perhaps he looks forward to take the gun up again some day, to strike back at the colonial overlord. He will turn out on demonstrations and pickets against repression of Republican activists, in support of Republican prisoners, including framed ones. He will almost certainly attend mass demonstrations against the Water Tax and may participate in local direct action against it. The Republican’s idealogues are Wolf Tone, Patrick Pearse and Bobby Sands.
The Irish socialist is probably medium or lower middle class and has finished secondary education; she has almost certainly gone on to university. She sees herself as belonging to a tradition of only a couple of centuries, with an Irish tradition going back to the early part of the 20th Century, in particular to the 1913 Lockout and the Limerick Soviet of 1919. She may or may not give a high place in her history to the Irish Citizen Army in the 1916 Rising. Her priority is the defeat of the capitalist class, probably in Ireland first but will turn out in demonstrations against racism, gender discrimination and homophobia in Ireland. The Irish Socialist aspires to a general strike giving rise to a revolutionary take over of the State; in the interim she may or may not think electing left-wing TDs or trade union officials an important activity. She probably can’t conceive of taking up a gun. The Irish Socialist has never had her name taken by the Special Branch or been framed by the RUC/PSNI and may never even have been detained by the police, though she has probably been pushed around by them. She will almost certainly attend mass demonstrations against the Water Tax and may participate in local direct action against this Tax. Her idealogues are Karl Marx, Lenin, possibly Trotsky and James Connolly.
Granted these are stereotypes but they are not so far from reality as to be unhelpful in describing in turn many and perhaps most Irish Republicans and Socialists and therefore in identifying one of the principal fracture lines in the Irish movement of resistance.
If the Republican and the Socialist parts of the Irish resistance movement were to be combined, or at the very least to work on a more collaborative basis, the “What should I do?” question would be easier to answer. It would be simpler to be on a picket for prisoners one week and resisting water meters the next, even if one’s main sphere of activity were among Republicans. The socialist could attend a picket against cuts one week and one for the human rights of Republican prisoners on another, even if her main sphere of activity was among Socialists. But that is not the situation that exists at the moment and, though a number of attempts have been made to combine the two trends in one organisation, they have not met with any great success to date.
So, I have not yet answered the question, have I? Am I saying that what we should be doing is creating some kind of synthesis or at least a collaborative alliance between the the socialist and republican parts of the resistance movement? Well, yes, certainly. But also, and as a contribution to that, as individuals we should try and spread our activity between the areas of greatest concern of each of those sections of the resistance movement. We should, I think, take some time to support resistance to the water tax, demonstrations against cuts etc. in their own right but also find some time to support resistance to British colonialism and its repression of Republican political activists. “If we are not part of the solution, then we are part of the problem” may be a glib truism but it is particularly applicable in this case.
So, how will we find the time to spread ourselves around? How do we ever? We balance and juggle priorities between our politically active and our social lives, with employment thrown in when we have a job. Or upskilling or studying. And possibly cultural or sporting or other activities. But how to choose, how to prioritise? Each of us has to make those decisions herself and himself. Not a very helpful answer? Well, I did state earlier on that there wasn’t a blueprint, so I couldn’t have one myself, could I? This however I feel fairly confident in predicting: if we don’t find a way to support both those parts of the resistance movement to some degree, it will always be fractured. And while it is so, it cannot be successful in either ridding Ireland of our capitalist classes or in finally throwing off the colonial yoke.