Most people here in Ireland and probably in large parts of the world, don’t believe in revolution, i.e in the act of overthrowing the social class in control. It’s not so much that they are against it, although a minority might fear the consequences or others might think that whatever gains they’d make would be transitory; it’s that they don’t believe it’s possible. Or they think it might be but in some distant future.
This is not surprising because if they did, if the mass of ‘ordinary’ people believed that a revolution was not only necessary but possible, it would already be occurring or at least well on the way.
What is surprising is that so many revolutionaries, or individuals, parties and organisations who think of themselves as revolutionary, or who would, if pressed, claim that they were – they don’t believe in it either!
By that I mean that they don’t see revolution as somewhere down the road, within sight if not necessarily close now, something to be moving towards that could well be reachable within their lifetimes. They might argue that it is not so, that they study revolutionary theory, try to conduct themselves according to revolutionary principles, study revolutionary struggles in history, organise, propagate revolutionary ideas ….. In general, I would not refute those claims but I would still say: They don’t believe in revolution.
And what’s more, that applies equally but in different ways to Irish socialists and to Irish Republicans.
I remember attending a small discussion group once organised by one of the small Irish socialist parties (small are the only kind we have in Ireland) at which the topic being discussed was the H-Blocks campaign. At one point, a prominent member of the organisation declared that the Republicans believe in armed struggle and that their party did not believe in that. Of course I pointed out Lenin’s position on this and the person backtracked but still …..
That was but a small indication of the general malaise but significant all the same. Both socialists and Republicans declare that they are not merely for reform but for the overthrow of the Irish native and colonial ruling classes. Objectively they would acknowledge that this endeavour would require an enormous effort and sacrifice. They would also concede that the ruling classes would not go quietly and, if pressed, would admit (some more readily than others), that the ruling class would resort to imprisonment, repressive legislation and, ultimately, armed power in order to prevent their overthrow.
If they believed the above and also believed a revolution was not only necessary but possible, they’d be preparing for that – but they are not.
Clearly an understanding of the theory of class, history, economics, culture etc. are all necessary. Principles of personal conduct and of organisation are very important too. But the application of principles of revolutionary organisation, the organisational preparedness for conflict and repression, the bringing of the objective into view as attainable – where is that? In the socialist camp, it is generally nowhere to be seen. In the Republican camp, it is visible only in very limited and restricted forms.
Socialists accept on a theoretical level that the revolutionary organisation of at least a large section of the working class is necessary in order to achieve a socialist revolution. Many Republicans would probably agree. But the overall practice of both camps is in clear contradiction to that principle.
We can see that clearly if we investigate a little how the working class needs to be organised as a fighting movement in which a large section can become revolutionised, conscious of itself as the leading class of the revolution and not only preparing for but engaging in struggle to that end.
Clearly, an actual mass workers’ organisation is required, a mass organisation based on workplaces, industries, communities where workers live. For the moment, I don’t wish to discuss whether that mass organisation be a party, a movement, a trade union, or a federation of collectives — nor do I think it necessary to specify type in order to develop the point I am making.
OK, so what are the Republicans or socialists doing to achieve that mass organisation of the working class?
In Ireland the most readily-understood and ready-to-hand mass organisations for workers are the trade unions. They are led for the most part by bureaucrats from the top down to shop steward and often even there, the dominant societal ideology is some level of reformist social democracy, the higher leadership is dominated by careerists and opportunists, often linked to a political party of the capitalist system and, as if that weren’t enough, all those tendencies brought them into two decades of formal social partnership (sic) with State and Employers which totally atrophied whatever fighting muscle they may once have had.
Yes, all that. And even so, it is the place to begin.
On the whole, except for some exceptional individuals and perhaps some very short historical periods, Irish Republicans have not bothered with trade unions. Certainly, the Republican movement as a whole has not considered it an important area of struggle for the movement.
Socialists, on the other hand, have generally rated the importance of struggle in the trade union movement very highly. They have participated in elections to become shop stewards, organised industrial resistance action, at times combined to try to elect more militant higher officials, produced leaflets for and about workers’ struggles, sold papers on picket lines and brought speakers from strikes to speak at public meetings. But all those efforts have not produced a revolutionary or even a militant workers’ movement.
A shop steward represents the members who elected her and, her personality apart, they will have a range of views about her political ideology. A more militant trade union higher official may push for more militant action with more or less success – or may increasingly become part of the problem. Some workers may find an interest in some of the ideas expressed in newspapers of the Left and may or may not join this or that party. None of that is organising a worker’s mass movement.
How about then, organising a broad worker’s movement, across many different workplaces?
Now, that has actually been done. Such organisations have been given titles like “Broad Left” or “Grassroots”. And in terms of building a workers’ organisation, they were a colossal failure, the experience of them probably enough to put most workers off socialist politics for a long time, if not forever. The main reason for their failure is that various socialist organisations or parties used them as forums to fight for the dominance within the broader organisation of their party, their organisation, over others.
In one kind of work or large organisation, one of those parties became dominant while another party claimed dominance in another. Sometimes control of one “grassroots” union organisation shifted backwards and forwards, year after year, between different political Left parties as the latter’s fortunes waxed and waned, as they suffered splits, as they formed different alliances.
Still, it does seem to me, as one who has been a worker in both the manual and what might be called the clerical types of work, as a revolutionary and active trade unionist, that the grassroots model is the one to follow, in order to create the nucleus for the mass workers’ movement. It needs to be based not in one union, not organised around electing different officials (though it may do that from time), certainly not around parliamentary electoral politics in general and not to be the fief or plaything of any political party or parties of the Left. It needs to be based in general on active resistance, on struggle, on solidarity across unions, across workplaces and across industries. It can develop participative democratic forms of membership and representation, its own mass media and in time, cultural and education groups, mutual aid etc, extending into the whole life of the working class.
But who is undertaking that work? Nobody.
REPRESSION & UPRISING
Moving on to another area of preparation for revolution, if we accept that the revolutionary path necessarily incurs repression from the class (or classes) that we seek to overthrow, then we’d need to know something about street fighting, about being interrogated in detention, and prison life, right? At least here we find quite a few Republicans nodding in agreement. But the socialists? Blank looks from them.
However, not all is well here among the Republicans, either. Not all will be having any kind of training in resisting interrogation and hardly any at all in discussion of theory and practice in street fighting. Due to traditions in particular from the 1970s onwards, prison for Republicans in Ireland usually means segregation from people convicted of social crimes and segregation from other Republicans too, according to organisational membership or alliance. Still, a lot of experience has been accumulated in that kind of environment and extensively written and talked about in the Republican movement. But next to nothing about street fighting, unless we include in that the use of firearms or at least the construction of a Molotov cocktail. The engagements envisaged in that respect are of a hit-and-run nature, skirmishes and small battles ….. and not at all a popular uprising in which extended conflicts will become the rule, at least until revolution occurs or the ruling class, at least temporarily, gains the upper hand.
If the areas I have pointed out are crucial areas of revolutionary preparation, we can perhaps agree on some principles:
A revolution in a developed capitalist society is not possible without a mass, militant and socially-politicised workers’ movement.
A revolutionary struggle entails physical confrontation, including large-scale street fighting and must expect repression; therefore revolutionary preparation must include training revolutionaries in conducting the first and resisting the second.
Those who are not undertaking work around those principles above, or at least considering how to do so, no matter how energetic or militant they may be, cannot be said to really believe in revolution; at most they can only see it as some distant thing, which perhaps another generation will undertake, some kind of life after their death.
And if they don’t believe in it, how can they expect others to believe?