Recently someone objected to my use of the word “militant” to describe a movement with which I am in solidarity, saying that the word implied “violent”. My initial reaction was that I disagreed.
I understand “militant” to mean “determined, assertive, courageous, not awed by confrontation” and that one could even be a “militant pacifist”.
But I decided to look up some dictionary definitions online. The first two or three did indeed include violence as a possibility but not necessarily integral. Another two came closer to my way of thinking:
“aggressively active (as in a cause) : COMBATIVE “(Miriam-Webster).
“You use militant to describe people who believe in something very strongly and are active in trying to bring about political or social change, often in extreme ways that other people find unacceptable.
Militant mineworkers in the Ukraine have voted for a one-day stoppage next month.
…one of the most active militant groups.“
The meaning of words shifts from language to language, culture to culture and across time. One of the most obvious and startling examples of this is the word “gay”, up to the 1970s probably understood in English by most people as meaning “happy, light-hearted” etc but now, the first interpretation in the English-speaking world would be “homosexual” (in a non-pejorative way).
“Tramp” was a verb in the 19th Century to the extent that a famous marching song of the Union Army in the American Civil War was known as “Tramp, tramp, tramp”1. By the 20th Century its use as a verb was in decline but it was becoming better known as a noun, the meaning of which was understood variously as “vagrant” or even “beggar”.
And one could fill volumes with similar examples, I am sure.
But returning to “militant”, was I the only one who understood its meaning in the way that I had? Well, apparently not, as Wikipedia showed, for example in descriptions of “militant trade unionists” and even a political organisation within the British Labour Party before its expulsion, calling its group “Militant Labour” and its newspaper “Militant”, probably drawing a parallel with those very same trade unionists2.
It would not take much pondering to guess that “militant” had some relation to “military” and apparently the word does indeed have such an origin, from Latin “miles”, ‘a soldier‘.3 But over the years, as with many other words, its meaning has changed.
But apparently, violence is again becoming associated with the word, more so than in the second half of the 20th Century. How did this happen? I am not sure but it appears to have been a spin-off from the more recent imperialist wars of, in particular, the United States. It seems that organisations resisting USA control or dominance in the Middle East, most of which were Muslim in religion, began to be termed “militant” in US and western reporting. Why this became so seems hard to fathom – it was not a word that these organisations applied to themselves — but it has had that spinoff effect on the word “militant”, so that “militant trade unionists” and “militant feminists”, for example, are now likely to be associated with violence, i.e the use of physical force.
How loaded and partisan usage of the word can become is well illustrated in the definition supplied by the Oxford living Dictionary: Favouring confrontational or violent methods in support of a political or social cause.
‘the army are in conflict with militant groups’.
The example given is very interesting. Conflict requires, one supposes, at least two parties and both sides are listed in that quoted phrase. But the impression given is one where “the army” is an authoritative, legitimate force which is being opposed by groups that are none of those things. One almost feels that the source of “the conflict” is the “militant groups” (especially with the current loading of ‘violence’ into definition of the word “militant”).
The ‘army’ is an armed organisation at the very least latently violent (training with deadly weapons) and in this context, almost certainly practicing violence by invasion. Yet it is portrayed as somehow neutral and the opposition as violent. This is further accentuated when the army and armed police are termed “security forces”. How could one be against security? Don’t we all want to be secure? Obviously quite a lot of people don’t want whatever ‘security‘ is being offered by these military and militarised forces and the question of “security for whom?” is hardly ever explored in such discourse, leaving us with the impression that the good guys are the army and police, deserving of our support, while whoever opposes them must be bad and we should line up against them.
As the meaning of words shifts, we have to decide whether to stick with the meaning we had and insist on its primacy, or to adapt and move with it. Up until the 1960s it was generally considered ill-mannered among white and black people to refer to people of noticeable African descent as “black” or as “negro” and Martin Luther King’s campaigning organisation was called the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Back earlier, in the 18th and early 20th centuries, “negro” would have been acceptable to most. Nowadays, “coloured” or “negro” would generally be considered either offensive or ignorant and “black” is the word, unless one is to use the Africa-derived word, e.g Afro-American, Afro-Caribbean, etc.
And in a strange reversal, whether in self-mockery or appropriation, many Afro-Americans began in the 1970s and 80s describing themselves with the word “nigger”, a word long associated with racism4.
Leaving those examples and dealing with Ireland, a number of organisations advocating Irish independence and unity and denying the legitimacy of the administrations of either side of the partition Border, would happily term themselves and one another “Irish Republicans”. That term came first to exclude the supporters of the Irish Free State, who waged a Civil War against those who would not accept the British terms, including Partition, of the 1921 Treaty. Not much over a decade later, it excluded also the Fianna Fáil party, which had split from Sinn Féin, got elected into government and at different times interned Republicans without trial, executed some and passed emergency-type legislation against them.
Subsequent splits in later years were still all described, along with various versions of the Sinn Féin party, as “Irish Republicans”. After the Good Friday Agreement was endorsed by what had been Provisional Sinn Féin and they subsequently became part of the administration of the British colony of the Six Counties, all those Irish Republicans who did not agree with them on that came to be called “dissidents” in the media and in much political discourse.
Those who are called “dissidents” however did not, for the most part, agree with the term. As far as they are concerned, they are sticking to the “official line” or at least the original one and it is the Provisional Sinn Féin (which now terms itself just ‘Sinn Féin‘) which has diverged from the line and furthermore, departed from the ranks of Irish Republicans.
Let’s do a trawl for definitions similar to what I did with “militant” but this time for “dissident”.
Wiktionary: “A person who formally opposes the current political structure, the political group in power, the policies of the political group in power, or current laws.
“(Christianity) One who disagrees or dissents; one who separates from the established religion.”
Mirriam-Webster: “disagreeing especially with an established religious or political system, organization, or belief
“dissident elements in the armed forces”.
Collins: “people who disagree with and criticize their government, especially because it is undemocratic.
“Dissident people disagree with or criticize their government or a powerful organization they belong to”
Oxford: “A person who opposes official policy, especially that of an authoritarian state.
“‘a dissident who had been jailed by a military regime’”.
And one I hadn’t used before, but which caught my eye, Vocabulary.com: “If you are a dissident, you are a person who is rebelling against a government. Dissidents can do their work peacefully or with violence.
“Dissident is closely related to the word, dissent, which means objecting. People who are dissidents show their dissent5. Catholic priests who advocate allowing women into the priesthood could be called dissidents, as could the Puritans who left England to live in colonial America. As an adjective, a dissident member of a group is one who disagrees with the majority of members.”
Since it is not a religious movement, “one who separates from the established religion” would seem non-applicable (though when one sees how many Republicans cling to certain practices like non-recognition of the court trying them, or refusal to stand in elections, it is tempting to think of those prohibitions as religious dogma rather than tactics for particular times and place).
Most Irish Republicans would consider themselves as in opposition to the “established (political) order” of the country, i.e Ireland partitioned, with one part run by an anti-Republican Irish ruling class and the other by a colonial ruling class. They would consider the relevant governments as “authoritarian” and “undemocratic”, certainly in their treatment of Irish Republicans by harassment, intimidation, detention, subjecting them to special emergency-type legislation, non-jury courts and prison.
In that sense of “dissident”6, the Sinn Party in its various encarnations has until recently always been a party of dissidents, first against a foreign monarchy subjecting Ireland without an Irish king (the party founded by Arthur Griffiths), then to a Republican party campaigning against British rule (the coalition that was the reformed post-Rising party 1918-1921), after that a party against the Irish Free State Government and the colonial administration of the Six Counties, subsequently a Republican socialist party opposing the same forces, then after a split, a Republican party with similar objectives but supporting an armed resistance to the the British occupation. To that can be added the existence of the Republican Sinn Féin party from a split and at least one other group of similar construction for a time but with more socialist emphasis.
Clearly (formerly Provisional) Sinn Féin can no longer legitimately describe itself as dissident, should it want to, as it is now party to that repressive colonial government to which it was previously vehemently opposed and also now straining to become part of a coalition in government of the Irish state.
Many people who left the SF party did so precisely because they opposed those policies and actions7 and on most terms could legitimately claim to be “dissidents” – if they wished to. Not just dissidents recently within the party but dissidents against the State and British colonialism.
Clearly then descriptions such as “rebelling against a government” and “disagree with and criticize their government, especially because it is undemocratic” are not going to be the problem and “formally opposes the current political structure, the political group in power, the policies of the political group in power, or current laws” seems just tailor-made for Irish Republicans.
The objection to the appellation of “dissident” then must surely be based on either a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word or a concept of some kind of historical Irish Republican authority. If the latter, then the SF party can been seen as having gone against that authority and those Irish Republicans not following the SF path as being the true and loyal followers, faithful to that historical authority. This would be an entirely understandable attitude – but is it helpful? Aren’t the most important things the aims that Irish Republicans have and how they conduct themselves in working towards them, rather than whether they are called “dissidents” or not? After all, there is nothing fundamentally pejorative in the term.
There is no doubt that “dissidents” is a handy catch-all term to describe Republicans who belong to a number of political groups or who are independent activists (the latter of which Ireland and especially Dublin has a great many) but is it conferring some kind of implicit legitimacy on the collaborationist and now constitutionalist Sinn Féin party? And if so, legitimacy in the eyes of whom? Remember how one time there was an “Official Sinn Féin” (and IRA) and the “Provisional Sinn Féin (and IRA) who split from them? It was the latter that went on to gain dominance in the Republican movement while the “Official” organisation split again and shrank to a tiny remnant.
If I were to count myself among the ranks of Irish Republicans8, would I object to the term of “dissident”? I don’t think so.
SOURCES AND REFERENCES
Meaning of “militant”:
Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tramp!_Tramp!_Tramp!
Meaning of “dissident”:
1Coincidentally, the word “gay” is employed in its older sense in the lyrics of the song. A lot of interesting information is contained in the Wikipedia page on this song (see link in Sources and References).
3Through Latin into French and from there into English. However, the word may have been of an older root, possibly Celtic: “ ‘Míle’, word in Irish, meaning ‘a warrior, a champion, a hero’” given p.23 in How the Irish Invented Slang, Daniel Cassidy (2007).
4The term is not accepted equally among black people: I recall a black workmate of mine telling me that he had punched another black man who had referred to him as “nigger”.
5Actually, as Wiktionary tells us, it means more correctly “not in agreement” and comes from the Latin word for “to sit apart”
6Lest it be thought that I dissent from this opinion, let me put on record that this is one of the things about which I entirely agree with Irish Republicans. I suspect however that this definition is generally only used by media and mainstream commentators to describe regimes other than the ‘western democracies’.
7Some people had left that party already by that time, some because they perceived its direction and some because they objected to procedures within the party, especially those they considered undemocratic. Others left over time due to decisions to contest elections in the Irish state or to take their seats in the parliaments if elected, or because of rapprochement with the colonial police, over alleged harassment, party promotions or personal reasons.
8“Irish Republican” is a specific political designation and does not describe me, although I am Irish and I do aspire to a Republic of social equality. I am a revolutionary and a socialist as well as being anti-imperialism; I am many other things as well but that will do as a basic platform on which to seek others of like mind. In the course of struggles I do of course join in a front of one or the other of those tendencies but always with an eye to the full objective. Or so I try, at least.