What’s left of republicanism?

This review by Maeve Connaughton appeared in Issue 38 in December 2008.

Eoin Ó Broin, Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism (Pluto)

In many ways this is the most remarkable book to emerge from republicanism for a long while. Generations have fought for radical change in Irish society through the left wing of the repub­lican move­ment, and extensive work has been done here to docu­ment and analyse that tradition. Unlike much of the genre, how­ever, the author is more than willing to question and discard some of the basic tenets of that tradition, in the hope of renewing it for the present. Socialists would do well to engage with him in a similar spirit.

What exactly is left republic­anism? Ó Broin defines it as the attempt “to integrate a left-wing politics in the most plural sense of the term with traditional republican demands”. To him, “the more strident term ‘socialist republicanism’ is too restrictive” because he wants to include everyone from James Connolly to Seán MacBride, who “while certainly not socialist, did articulate a more left-leaning radical republicanism” (p 2-3). Casting the net so far can rob the term of real meaning, however. If Clann na Poblachta’s mixture of weak reformism and rhetorical anti-partitionism qualifies, then so does half of Irish politics. Talk of left-leaning radical republicanism isn’t too useful, because explicitly right-leaning conservative repub­licans have never been that common. But, whether it is Peadar O’Donnell in the 1930s or Gerry Adams in the 1980s, there clearly is a discernible strand of left republicanism.

Rather than celebrate the heroes and heroines of this tradition, Ó Broin has the courage to focus on what they didn’t achieve. “Why is the history of left republicanism characterised by failure?” he asks (p 161). He rejects the myths of noble greats betrayed by lesser men, and addresses “the left’s own strategic miscalculations” that allowed them to be outmanoeuvred (p 122). Like over-eager grandmothers who interpret a newborn baby’s every gurgle as an articulate sentence, republicans have a habit of discovering socialism in every republican from Wolfe Tone on, but attempts to “retrospectively read a socialist intent” into republicanism (p 31) are not entertained here.

This book’s historical mistakes are more factual than interpret­ational, but no less irritating. Sinn Féin leaders Mary McSwiney, Tony Magan and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh have their names misspelt throughout. A list of the H-Block prisoners’ five demands leaves out one of them (p 237). The Northern Bank robbery and Robert McCartney’s killing are recent enough, but their dates are mixed up (p 273). On page 175 we read: “Conradh na Gaeilge was founded in 1893 to promote Irish language, culture and industry. The Gaelic League, founded in 1898, also sought to revive Irish language and culture”—but someone should really tell the author that Conradh na Gaeilge and the Gaelic League are one and the same organisation.

Connolly features heavily for obvious reasons. Ó Broin’s reading of his involvement in 1916 is intelligent, comprehending it in its own terms and rejecting historians who either exalt or condemn it in line with their own political strategies (p 93-4):

his participation in the Rising was not the result of either a ‘maturing’ of his politics, as argued by Greaves and Metscher, or an ‘abandoning’ of socialism in favour of nationalism, as argued by Morgan. Rather, caught in the specific political moment, with the available options limited to participating in an alliance with advanced nationalists and republicans or remaining on the margins of what was becoming one of the central dynamics of Irish politics, Connolly’s political instincts drove him to rebellion.… Nor was his participation in the IRB-dominated insurrection without its own limitations and contradictions, the consequences of which would only become clear in the post-Rising period.

But he portrays Connolly’s political career as ultimately a flop, “advocating a marginal ideological position, connected primarily with arguments that had little popular support or meaningful political impact” from start to finish (p 105).

Part of the problem here lies in a plain misreading of the historical evidence. We are told that “Connolly himself could only muster a paltry 431 votes in 1902 and 243 votes in 1903” followed by “A failed electoral contest in the 1913 municipal elections in Belfast” (p 87, 90). But far from being paltry failures, those figures represent votes of 21 per cent, 19 per cent and 37 per cent respectively, support any socialist would be proud of. Few of the Sinn Féin results triumphantly listed in Appendix 1 here reach that kind of percent­age, and 37 per cent is still beyond them. It is hard to escape the conclusion that his perspective is entirely electoralist: rather than taking election results as an indication of popular support for a political platform, his criterion for success is whether a party gets bums on the seats of power.

And anyway, when could the value of political ideas or activities —whatever about their popularity—ever be measured by election results? Many’s the time that the good guys have lost elections and the bad guys have won them. Eoin Ó Broin offered himself to the electors of Dún Laoghaire in the last election, and only 2 per cent of them liked the look of him—but does that in any way invalidate the arguments of his book? Not at all, no more than the 6 per cent of first preferences that got him on to Belfast City Council in 2001 prove them right. Connolly never became a councillor, true, but his active articulation of socialist politics outweighs that and puts him head and shoulders above most people who have graced city halls.

But this book argues that Connolly was on a hiding to nothing anyway, because he was trying to impose a Marxism imported from Europe on a rural society under colonial rule. Ó Broin agrees with Joseph Lee “that Connolly’s ‘fatal tactical error was his reluctance to acknowledge the existence of rural Ireland’” (p 100). This claim is just empirically wrong: not only did Connolly personally agitate against famine in Kerry, but his writings return again and again to agrarian issues. It could be just old-fashioned ignorance of Connolly’s writings, as the author claims that the 1987/8 Collected Works—partial in every sense of the word—is “the best place to start (and end)” in studying Connolly (p 331). The land war of 1879-82 was both a recurring reference point for Connolly and a highpoint
in the conjunction of social and national struggles, but Ó Broin manages to overlook it completely while rattling through Irish history. Italy, Russia, Spain and elsewhere provide examples of socialists in the early twentieth century articulating the interests of the rural poor and winning their support, and Connolly’s attempts to do something similar were never doomed from the outset.

The author is right to deprecate the myriad attempts to claim Connolly’s mantle, but his own situating of him at the fountainhead of left republicanism is no less suspect. Apart from the specific conjuncture of his final years, Connolly never located his political project within the republican movement, even while looking for allies there. Many other strands of movements for radical change in Ireland have drawn legitimate inspiration from Connolly, and even occasionally won significant support: Communists, Trotskyists, even Labour the odd time. It would have been useful to ask how far their strategies related to and differed from republicanism and its left wing, if only to situate the latter on a political spectrum.

But strangest of all is the short shrift given to some explicitly left republican formations. The Republican Congress, for instance: “it is doubtful that Congress would ever have advanced much beyond a loose collection of the most marginal sections of the Irish republican and socialist left” (p 139). The fact is that, in its short life, the Congress did actually move a good way beyond that sphere. The fatalistic dismissal of its prospects prevents a proper examination of where it did fail, above all its hasty abandonment of the workers’ republic ideal for the well-charted waters of conventional repub­licanism. The Irish Republican Socialist Party, whose unequivocal advocacy of republican socialism began to win some meaningful backing in the 1970s, seems an excellent candidate for inclusion in the book, but gets no more than a passing mention. Clann na Poblachta, on the other hand, gets eight pages all to itself, supple­mented by numerous other references.

The fact that left republicans have tended to be “deeply suspicious of parliamentary politics” and have “privileged grassroots campaigns, popular mobilisations, and trade union engage­ment” is surely one of its most positive qualities, but Ó Broin criticises this because it has “left the field uncontested” to Labour and Fianna Fáil (p 168). This bias towards electoral and parliament­ary politics explains many of the book’s curious emphases: Clann na Poblachta are accentuated because they got into government, while Connolly is downplayed because he didn’t. The author’s way forward is based on “The combined electoral strength of Sinn Féin, Labour and the Greens” (p 307). The overarching belief that politics has to win seats to be meaningful can lead in strange directions: those same Greens are part and parcel of the most anti-working class government for decades, but Ó Broin needs them to make up the numbers in a putative Leinster House coalition. He even advocated transfers to them in this year’s local elections, advice which was widely and wisely ignored.

The book succeeds in putting its finger on left republicanism’s big historical weakness: the fight for social liberation has always taken a back seat to the fight for national liberation. In the war of independence the tacit agreement to put class issues on the long finger “inherently privileged the centre and right of the indepen­dence movement, effectively removing rather than delaying any process for the resolution of the social and economic contradictions which existed” (p 121). Even at the height of republicanism’s left turn of the 1980s (p 296-7),

The national struggle was defined as Sinn Féin’s ‘primary objective’, with democratic socialism relegated to the status of an ‘ultimate objective’. …the priority of the national over the social was always embedded in the party’s ideology and strategy. …Sinn Féin’s socialism, relegated to a future point in the struggle, would always be underdeveloped, as the more immediate needs of the national struggle took precedence.

Even after the war in the north came to an end, “the party’s radical social and economic agenda would increasingly recede, as the requirements of the peace process would take precedence” (p 268).

This is brutally and admirably honest. But what the author has discovered here is not a mistaken policy left republicanism has a habit of falling into, but an inherent flaw in the very nature of left republicanism. Irish republicanism is a broad philosophy aiming at the achievement of an Irish republic, and necessarily includes people indifferent to socialism and even hostile to it. Its left flank has repeat­edly tried, with varying success, to nurture and strengthen a socialist element within that. But the winning of national independence has always been the pre-eminent over-riding bottom line of the move­ment, and socialists positioning themselves within it have had to recognise that. In this relationship, socialism will always be the bridesmaid, never the bride.

This much is all but admitted when Ó Broin asks whether the social should continue to be subordinate to the national, “or do we for the first time in left-republican history depart from our ideo­logical and strategic roots, and articulate a left republicanism that integrates as equals the two aspects” (p 302)? If you depart from the roots of a political tradition for the first time, you are not re­positioning it but breaking with it. Whatever his subjective intentions, the author’s project logically leads, not to charting a new course for left republicanism, but charting a course away from it.

All that finally remains of left republicanism, it seems, is the idea that Sinn Féin is the place to articulate it. But the main argument in favour of Sinn Féin being a likely vehicle for left-wing advance—its size and popularity—has been badly punctured. While history has a nasty habit of refuting claims like “left republicanism is growing in political power and impact in Ireland, primarily in the party political form of Sinn Féin” (p 4), it usually takes it a bit longer than the couple of months between this book’s appearance and June’s illustration that Sinn Féin’s electoral decline is a durable trend rather than a 2007 blip. But if belief in Sinn Féin becoming a mass force has only been knocked back recently, it has long been clear that its vote owed precious little to its left-wing policy documents. Central to its support on both sides of the border was support for a fair settlement in the north, and that support ebbed when such a settlement was believed to be safely in place.

In an awkward but accurate phrase, the author acknowledges that “the balance of influence is still weighed overwhelmingly in the north” (p 288). And Sinn Féin in the north is now a party of govern­ment rather than a party of protest. “How can we deliver real and meaningful social and economic change”, asks Ó Broin (p 305), “while working in coalition with the DUP, whose policy agenda is significantly to the right of ours?” Answer: you can’t. This is not a glib or pat dismissal, but a cold statement of the fact that Sinn Féin has locked itself into a deal that gives the DUP a veto over anything substantial that they don’t like. Sinn Féin having a similar veto is cold comfort, as it only allows them to maintain the status quo. As a result, the naked snobbery of the northern education system is still intact, Irish speakers are still denied legal equality, nationalists in Coleraine and places like it still live under the threat of loyalist assault. A united Ireland is quite literally off the agenda, with Sinn Féiners desperately trying to convince themselves that cross-border co-operation between two states undermines partition rather than strengthening it. Far from social and economic issues “now seriously entering mainstream political and public discourse, on their own terms, rather than as secondary contestations of the primary political issues of the war and conflict resolution” (p 300), the mechanisms of the Good Friday Agreement do everything to force them into the old mould of two communities skirmishing for scarce resources. Sinn Féin’s governmental role in policing those skirmishes can only push it rightwards, a phenomenon which will be clearly visible in the 26 counties too.

Times are getting less auspicious for the left in Sinn Féin. “The harsh reality of Sinn Féin’s socialism is that it has never been much more than the rhetorical expression of a demand for a more equal society… ambiguous, underdeveloped and at times contradictory” (p 308)—but that only looks like getting worse, not better. The post-election call of Toiréasa Ferris to drop left-wing talk about rights and get on with the pragmatic business of getting councillors elected strikes a chord with many Sinn Féiners, new as well as old, who never really felt at home with all the socialist rhetoric and will certainly balk at such a serious reappraisal of the republican tradition as this book proposes. The party’s northern bias precluded it from feeling recent popular radicalisation in the south. After Adams told a left-wing councillor to stop waving the red flag, the party’s TDs waved a white one in supporting the bank guarantee last year. In June discontented voters bypassed Sinn Féin in favour of Labour and others to their left. The party is oscillating, sometimes wildly, between adopting radical gestures and trying to appear respectable. A few prominent and some not-so-prominent members have concluded, after years of service, that Sinn Féin is not the place from which the socialist republic can be won. Trying to pour new socialist wine into the old bottles of republicanism is even more fruitless when those bottles are developing serious cracks.

It isn’t the case that the struggle for socialism cannot be combined with the struggle for a united independent Ireland. It can and must be combined. On the one hand socialist change in Ireland would get nowhere without confronting the sectarian divisions which partition reinforces, and on the other any political change within the capitalist scheme of things seems incapable of over­coming those divisions. But how can the struggles be combined? As this book illustrates, trying to combine them within the framework of republicanism is a task that has failed generations of better men and women than ourselves. Despite itself, Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism provides the arguments against going at it for another round.

The alternative is to openly come out fighting for socialism—a genuine socialism that recognises the absolute duty to fight oppress­ion in the north as an intrinsic aspect of its work, just as it fights sexual or racial oppression. It is not an alternative that enjoys much support or influence at present, and it requires a daunting amount of building up from scratch. But rather than being a precarious pillion passenger on someone else’s bike, it has at least the potential to cut its own way through the injustices that plaque our world. Of course, it involves a self-interrogation every bit as merciless as republican­ism is subjected to here. Socialism will have to develop the confid­ence to transform itself rigorously so as to fit itself for the immense tasks ahead of it. And in that, the contribution of activists who have come through and beyond left republicanism will surely count for much.