Freedom, Democracy and Republicanism


For decades they sold the concept of ‘freedom’ and talked about a ‘socialist republic’ but now, with Martin McGuinness chuckling around the world with Ian Paisley, it’s clear that Sinn Fein’s concept of ‘freedom’ and their supposed vision of a ‘32-County Socialist Republic’ was at best an illusion.Thousands were killed and injured by those fighting for 'freedom'. But today true freedom remains as far away as ever. As they participate in government in the North and scramble for respectability south of the border, Sinn Fein’s claims to provide a radical alternative are shown to be just so much hot air.

The Shinners’ stampede to the centre-ground of Irish politics leaves behind a gap to be filled. Over coming years, an important political question for those who want to see a new Ireland built will be what ideas will fill that gap. One possibility will be that people who are attracted to radical politics will look to the so-called ‘dissident’ republican groupings - groups such as Republican Sinn Fein, the 32 County Sovereignty Movement or the Irish Republican Socialist Party.

But what do any of these groups offer in terms of a real vision for change or indeed in terms of democracy and freedom? The answer is very little. Republicanism, as an ideology, will always inevitably lead to the place where Adams and McGuinness find themselves today.

There’s nothing new about it – Fianna Fáil did it in the 1920s (they still describe themselves as ‘The Republican Party’), The Workers Party did it in the 1970s. It’s as inevitable as night following day – the limitations of republicanism as an ideology inevitably brings it to the point of compromise.

Any groups which remain wedded to the idea of ‘armed struggle’ and the right to have a secret army must operate in a rather murky world. It’s a world that leaves the majority of supporters reduced to the status of cheerleaders and minders.

Ask any of the many activists who have left Sinn Féin over the last decade or more and they’ll tell you that internal democracy was almost non-existent. To question the political direction of the leadership was seen as almost an act of treason. It’s inevitable both because of the need for military discipline and because of the authoritarian nature of the political thinking which drives the ideology.

Democracy, that much-abused term, is what sets anarchists apart from this type of politics. When anarchists refer to democracy we mean real democracy – or as it is sometimes called ‘direct democracy’ or ‘participative democracy’. It has little or nothing in common with parliamentary democracy.

Direct democracy is not about choosing who will rule over us. It is instead about discussing the issues that affect our daily lives, about debating the pros and cons of any proposed course of action and about everyone having an equal say in determining what course of action is to be taken. It is about coming up with new ideas, not just giving the nod to a set of proposals already worked out by some group of leaders.

Direct democracy is also about delegation. Popular local assemblies would elect delegates to carry out particular tasks or fulfil particular mandates, if they fail to do this they are immediately recalled and someone else is appointed in their place. Power remains in the hands of the assembly, not the delegate. This delegation would happen on a local, regional, national and even international level.

Anarchists also have a very different concept of what is meant by ‘freedom’. When we talk about freedom, we are not referring to the type of ‘national freedom’ pursued by republicans but individual freedom – the freedom of each individual to live his/her life to its fullest potential. Anarchists want to create a society in which people can realise their full potential as free individuals. This is ultimately one of the most basic premises of anarchist thought.

It is only in a truly socialist society, in which the artificial divisions between us, now based on religion, colour, nationality etc. no longer matter, that this freedom can be attained. It is only if we manage to build a non-hierarchical society without rulers or bosses that that concept of maximum personal freedom can possibly be attained. If we want to get to a free, open and democratic society then we need to put such concepts into practice in our day-to-day lives and political activity.

Reliance on the tactic of armed struggle ultimately leads to the vast majority being mere spectators, providing support – in what has to be an unquestioning way – for what has to be a secret army. Electioneering is a waste of time given that no parliament will ever be allowed to bring about any meaningful change.

But worse than being a waste of time, both electioneering and armed struggle actually damage the fight for socialism by creating a clientist mentality whereby people sit at home and wait for someone else to sort out their problems rather than taking action themselves. People will only learn to be free by exercising their freedom.

People learn about their own power to change society by participating directly in campaigns which effect their own lives. Direct action transforms those who use it, it is a means of self-liberation because it gives people a glimpse of what is possible, a glimpse of their potential power and when all that power is eventually harnessed we’ll be on the road to a truly free society.

From Workers Solidarity 102 the issue for March & April 2008



PDF of the Ulster edition of Workers Solidarity 102

PDF of the southern edition of Workers Solidarity 102