During the 1960s and 1970s, the Irish Republican Movement evolved from a conventional nationalist project with a strategic emphasis – if not obsession – with militarism to an explicitly socialist project which placed a premium on mass politics.
That evolution was not uncontested and, under the pressure of state reaction to a militant civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland in 1969, the move to abandon abstentionism, and an adroit intervention by the Southern government to bolster the old school nationalists within the movement, the IRA and Sinn Féin split into two camps: Officials and Provisionals.
Seán Garland’s article from the May 1971 edition of Official Sinn Féin’s newspaper, The United Irishman, is part of the working out of a theoretical perspective of what ultimately would become The Workers’ Party. Written in the context of a serious ratcheting up of the violence in Northern Ireland, which would have had a massive emotional pull on the movement’s activists, the article is part of the process of providing an alternative conception of the way forward, one towards mass, socialist politics.
Although the national question retains a position of importance, the conception of revolution as working class power is notable, as it the distinction between “insurrection” and “revolution”, the necessity for revolutionary organisations, and the need to engage in mass politics and to connect it with the ultimate aim. [J. O’B]
The objective of any movement dictates or determines its activity, its work, its demands. It follows, therefore, that for a movement to be a revolutionary one, or aspire to be one, it must have a revolutionary objective.
For us of the Irish Republican Movement we have declared our revolutionary objective to be the establishment in Ireland of a Democratic Socialist Republic. In simple terms this means that without a revolutionary objective there cannot be a revolutionary movement and without a revolutionary movement there cannot be a revolution.
A revolution cannot take place as the result of the desires, dreams or ideals of revolutionary minded people. A revolution requires a level of social/economic contradictions which makes it possible to overthrow the ruling class. A revolution needs the presence of another social class, which because of its place in society, its place in the process of production and its political potential, is able to successfully achieve this revolution.
The most important instrument in the struggle for National Freedom and Socialism is, as we have said, a revolutionary movement and the most important task a revolutionary movement has is to organise the working class and their allies in order to win the Revolution. Capitalism is a system that can and has absorbed and integrated many reforms and it automatically rejects all reforms that run counter to the logic of the system (such as completely free public services which cover social needs). The structure can only be abolished by overthrowing it, not by reforming it. Here it is that all who belong to the revolutionary movement should fully understand what this revolution is going to mean, in short to know precisely what a revolution is — the change of state power from one class to another class.
The central point of any revolution and particularly in a Socialist revolution is that the key positions in the State, in Government, Army, Police, Civil Service, Judiciary, Unions, many National Organisations, T.V., Radio and Press should pass out of the hands of those who are loyal to the Establishment and into the hands of those who represent the vast majority of the people who will use this power to build socialism where the means of poroduction, distribution and exchange are socially owned.
At this point of time in our history as a Revolutionary Movement it must be accepted and understood that our Movement must have a national liberation and socialist character. In the past the Republican Movement through concentrating all its energies and resources on the question of national liberation alone, neglected the task of organising the people in their every day struggles. We left this most important task to those politicians who time after time sold the people out. We, for our part, confused popular sympathy for our cause, the freedom of Ireland, with popular support.
Active and Passive Support
It was only when we were beaten to the wall and almost annihilated as a political force that the true meaning of revolutionary began to dawn on us. We know now, and have begun to organise ourselves on the correct lines, that in order to succeed we need and must have the active and mass support of the people. This support has to be won by helping the people to fight their immediate struggles for jobs, houses, lands and civil liberties and by explaining to people how all of these issues affecting their lives are connected with the nature of capitalism, the need for socialism and above all, gives them leadership in the fight for a revolutionary change.
It is perhaps, easy to see that many errors were committed over the years from the twenties and that little or nothing was done to correct these errors until the sixties.
In the thirties, In Ireland as in other parts of the world, there was a rise in working class consciousness. More than at any other period in recent Irish history and especially since the end of the civil war was there an opportunity to create out of the Republican Movement a revolutionary organisation with the backing and support of the working people of all Ireland than at this time. The history of the Republican Congress proves this. This struggle to create a revolutionary movement of all Ireland was lost for two reasons:
1. The recognised leadership of whatever revolutionary groups or potential that was there was not good enough and they were unable to take advantage of the crises in capitalist imperialism and the rise of the workers’ consciousness.
2. The grave error that was committed by this leadership and others in separating the National question from the social questions of the people.
From the period from the end of the Civil War until our day Republicans virtually neglected to organise the people who are ultimately going to make the revolution in this country — the workers. We must be conscious and careful that we do not go to the other extreme and forsake or neglect the national question, as happened in the ‘30s. There is a danger that in our fight to establish ourselves among the people, and in the fight to establish the rights of the people in the everyday issues, we would tend to ignore or not continue to place enough stress or emphasis on the question of National independence.
The centuries old struggle of the Irish people to establish an independent nation is still, today, one of the most potent weapons in the revolutionary arsenal, is in fact the one single issue one which all Irishmen can come together. We must continue to insist on linking the question of national freedom with the question of social justice and socialism.
For those Irish people who, because of their religious or particular environment with its background of support for the British influence and control in Ireland, we must show and prove to them by our words and, more important, our actions in all the other issues that affect them, as well as all other working class people in Ireland, that it is the Republican Movement they have most in common with and least to fear from. We must continue to demonstrate to this large number of people that we stand for the emancipation of all men and women and that our aim is to end forever the exploitation of man by a small exclusive class.
It is regrettable that we still have people in Ireland today, who have not learned from former experiences, who still insist that it is possible to achieve freedom with the weapons and instruments of former times. We have several distinct elements made up of some very sincere and dedicated people who follow this trend. Some on one hand are attempting to re-create the historical period of the twenties, attempting to translate the type of movement and the form of struggle that was partly successful in the twenties. This attempt to have the same in the seventies is doomed to failure.
Those other people who wish to impose ‘freedom’ on people, who form themselves into an elite, without any contact or support from the mass of the people, those elements who make the question of shooting the central point of the struggle are going to find themselves isolated from the people and will surely fail, as other efforts of a similar nature failed in the past. Unfortunately, because of our history as a movement committed to force, we are liable to be brought down along with these elements as the establishment will have little difficulty in dealing with any movement unless the Irish people are made aware that there is a deep and fundamental difference between the Republican movement and these elements.
Physical force tactic
As with the failures of the past the enemies of freedom will be delighted at this failure and we can hear their voices now telling the people that force as a solution to the problems of the Irish people was a failure and that it is now finally discredited and rejected by the Irish people. Here it is important the true voice of the Irish Revolution be heard to point out to the people, to state to the establishment and most important to keep insisting to the revolutionaries, as we have done in the past, that the tactic of physical force fails for certain specific reasons.
We must first recognise that physical force is a tactic and that despite all the errors, all the shortcomings over the years, the history of all successful revolutions prove that the road of armed struggle was and is the only correct one. What we learned and some didn’t was that armed struggle on its own is doomed to failure, just as political action or demonstrations on their own are doomed to failure. Force must be linked with, must be integrated with, all the other forms of struggle, legal and illegal that are available to the movement.
We must understand that in all areas of revolutionary work it is often no less imperative to know what not to do as what to do and how to do it. Such knowledge is acquired as the result of earlier trials and experiences and errors.
If our history and experience have already exposed what ways and means are inadequate to complete our task then it is obvious that correct measures should be applied as soon as these errors become known. It is in this light that we should see the past few years. What had failed in the fifties and sixties was a tactic, not a strategy. What we had to do, and must continue doing, was to correct the tactic in the course of the struggle itself. Over the past few years we have begun to take this tactical turn, to correct our methods of struggle, to deepen and expand our political organisation among the people. To begin to organise the people not for revolt, not for rebellion, not for insurrection but for revolution. A revolution that will change the entire political and social system in the country.
A point I would like to make here is that any revolutionary movement must base itself and their programme on its own people and their needs, the conditions in their own country. We have a lot to learn from many other countries in the world who have made a successful revolution or in some cases are like ourselves, trying to make a revolution. But as I said, if we cannot translate conditions and movements from our own past it should be just as obvious that cannot borrow or get a carbon copy of revolution from other countries. We must deal with the situation as it is today in Ireland, and build our movement accordingly.
The only hope the ruling class has is if it can isolate the revolutionary completely from the rest of the people. That is why the number one task today for those revolutionaries who really want to change the system is to know how to reach people. We must build a movement of people who are aware and conscious of all the many avenues that are open to the movement; a movement with the realisation that we need to get involved in and build on these issues to that final confrontation with the forces of the establishment. This will be a long road but if we build our foundations on a conscious people we cannot but succeed.
We do not know what will be the spark for the Irish revolution but it is certain as I said before, that unless there is a revolutionary movement there to lead the people and direct them towards that central goal — ‘Political power’ for the working class — it will fail as it failed before. This is a fundamental, the key role played by the building of a revolutionary movement. There is another key and this is that there must be a certain level of class consciousness and revolutionary self activity. Without this a revolutionary movement cannot transform a struggle for immediate demands into a struggle challenging the very existence of the system.
No sideline sitting
One of the basic problems of revolutionary strategy today is this lack of class consciousness among the people of Ireland and elsewhere. We, as revolutionary socialist republicans do not believe that capitalist imperialism will suddenly collapse as a result of some miracle or inner contradictions. We do not believe that the task of revolutionaries is to sit on the sidelines and interpret current events hoping for some happening. We believe in the conscious intervention, in the key teaching role that struggle has, and of the experience born from such struggles. We believe that it is only by trying to expand actual living working class struggles towards an incipient challenge against the auhority of the employers and of the capitalist system, can a rise be achieved in working class consciousness. Only through such struggles can the workers build the actual organs through which they can tomorrow take over the administration of the economy and the State, freely elected workers committees at factory or street level which will federate themselves afterwards locally, regionally, and then nationally. That is that the conquest of political power by the working class really means.
You cannot build a revolutionary movement without a revolutionary programme for, in fact, in time the programme will create the movement, but it is here that the role of conscious leadership enters into it, to save time.
The present generation of Irish revolutionaries has the supreme duty now to examine the past and take note of the many tragic mistakes committed, in order to avoid them in the future and to replace haphazard methods by a conscious theory and a deliberate design.
To conclude, over the past five years many changes have taken place in the Republican Movement. During that time we have clarified our objective, we know where we want to go, we know what we must do, what action we must take in order to achieve this objective. We must continue to learn from the past and our experiences, but not allow ourselves to be bound or tied to the past. Above all, it must be borne in mind that whatever actions we engage in, housing agitations, land and fishery agitations, civil rights or cultural agitations, all are bound up with and must be linked with the fight for freedom and socialism, and that in all of these fights to establish the rights of the ordinary people there is a class fight. We must demonstrate to all the Irish people that our movement expresses the interests of that most exploited class, the working class, and that we have the programme and the policy the aim to make that class victorious at last, in the long struggle for Freedom and Socialism.