And the skies are not cloudy, part 3

Today we return to our discussion of what a revolutionary programme for Ireland might entail, and we are going to deal with the place of economism in Irish Marxism. Don’t run off shrieking just yet – it isn’t as hard as it sounds, and I promise to keep the jargon down to a minimum.

The outstanding practitioners of economism today are the two major far-left groupings, the SWP and the Socialist Party. We’ll concentrate here on the SP, not to wind up my regular readers from that group – though that’s a bonus – but because the SWP’s politics constitute a moving target and so don’t lend themselves to this kind of discussion. The SP, on the other hand, are the dogmatists of economism and, to their credit, once they arrive at a position they tend to stick to it like glue. They have the merit of being consistent, even if they’re consistently wrong.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about the theoretical premises and historical development of the SP’s position on the national question. Marc Mulholland has done that quite ably, and, while I have my differences with Marc, his account will do to be going on with. Nor will I go into a big long ramble about what economism means outside Ireland.

What economism means, in the Irish context, is the studied refusal to consider the relevance of the “I” word; a writing out of Britain’s role; the proposition that the Banana Republic is a normal European country, comparable to say Norway or Holland; in the North, the denial of any material basis to sectarianism; the belief that spontaneous economic struggles will lead to the defeat of sectarianism; the advancement of “workers’ unity” as the all-purpose slogan for any situation; and the often unconscious tendency to privilege loyalist workers.

The best example of this approach is the SP’s last major publication on the North, Peter Hadden’s Towards Division Not Peace. Amongst other criticisms I could make, the pamphlet is characterised by magical thinking, which postulates that whatever we say is so becomes so. Therefore, since the British conceded the original NICRA demands, plus the Fair Employment Act and some other bells and whistles, it follows that discrimination no longer exists in any serious form. Many nationalist grievances are imaginary, and furthermore nationalists should keep quiet about them, because harping on these minor grievances only militates against the workers’ unity that is held to be constantly imminent – in fact, to even raise a grievance about sectarianism is, well, sectarian. This also explains, by a complicated logical process, the Millies’ enduring belief in the talismanic power of bread and butter.

Let me explain. If sectarianism doesn’t have a material basis, it can only then be described as a form of false consciousness. And this is in fact what the SP do – in their Weltanschauung, the workers are continually and spontaneously uniting around bread-and-butter demands, only for Machiavellian “sectarian politicians” to drive them apart again. So we move from the realm of materialism to psychological categories, in a way reminiscent of that old GLC anti-racist poster. (“Are you a racist? You’d be a nicer person if you weren’t.”) When workers unite in spontaneous economic struggles, so the theory goes, they see the potential power of a united class and the stupidity of sectarian divisions. This is what the SP call “the potential of class issues to transcend sectarianism”. The process is seen as virtually automatic – to the extent that it isn’t, all that is needed is the presence of the SP to point out to workers their objective interests.

There is a grain of truth in this, but only a grain. The reality of the North is that sectarianism finds it quite easy to intrude into the bread-and-butter sphere. I wouldn’t normally quote Gerry Adams as an authority, but he is fond of telling a story about his youthful activism in 1960s Ballymurphy, when local Catholics united with Protestants from New Barnsley to fight for a pedestrian crossing on a bit of road where a child had been killed. Eventually the crossing was won, but not before a Paisleyite rabble-rouser had broken up the united campaign. Gerry draws the obvious conclusion – if the working class found it so hard to unite for a pedestrian crossing, wouldn’t they find it much harder to unite for anything substantial?

Not to say that economic campaigns can’t possibly lead anywhere beyond their immediate demands, but one has to start out by recognising the difficulty of it and being prepared to confront the tough issues head-on. Allies who are easily swayed by taig-baiting will not be reliable allies. The SP, on the other hand, draw the opposite conclusion. Because economic struggle by itself undermines sectarianism, the need is for maximum class unity at all times, and one must at all costs avoid saying anything that might annoy the Prods. This explains why, any time loyalist bigotry rears its ugly head, the SP rush out statements condemning ALL sectarianism and none in particular.

What we end up with, therefore, and ironically from people who set out to avoid the Stalinist stages theory, is a stages theory turned on its head. Instead of uniting Ireland first and then fighting for socialism, the idea is that we achieve socialism – separately, North and South – then we talk about the national question. This is how the SP reconcile their formal position of a “united socialist Ireland” in the sweet by and by with their fervent unionism in the here and now. There’ll be pie in the sky when you die.

Or to put it another way, we have a reverse Leninism, where, instead of the advanced workers taking the lead, the most politically backward workers have a veto. Where Dev was supposed to have said “Labour Must Wait”, the SP say “Wait For Labour”. Anything that isn’t a simon-pure united workers’ movement is dismissed as reactionary, and we are condemned to sitting on our arse waiting for a radical movement that lives up to the SP’s impossible standards. Which is pretty much what Militant did throughout the Troubles, when they ignored very real struggles and instead exaggerated the political significance of every little sectional strike.

Next in this thread, we’ll look at the stages theory versus permanent revolution as a strategy for Marxists.

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