Thoughts on Anarchism & the Irish 'National Question'


Anyone who has been active on the left and broader labour movement will have faced the 'million dollar question from republicans on the 'national question'. The question of opposition or indifference to the partition of the island is often thrown by republicans like a dagger in the direction of the existing left. In responnse many become either wedded to the romantic idea of the flag removing all our sins or face the jibe of being a ‘gas and water socialist’ or at worst a sop to unionism. It’s the type of choice you get at Stormont every four years where you get to choose between Coca Cola and Pepsi. Equally it’s the type of approach of the PSNI press statement that presents every ’dissenter’ from the status-quo as being wedded to physical force republicanism. But of course its much more complicated than this….

To any of our readers who are unaware of the term ‘gas and water socialism’ it was first coined by James Connolly during his heated feud with his arch rival and labourite William Walker in the early 20th century.  Connolly used it in reference to those on the left who simply focused on economic issues at the expense of the national question. In not wanting to simplify that debate which took place over many years I'll just say that it took into account the realm of strategy. The outcome is still fiercely contested and continues to haunt the left to this day.

This was evident during opposition to the Royal Irish Regiment military parade in Belfast city centre in 2009. Opposition to it was left to republicans while the wider left with the exception of the WSM (which mounted a small token protest) opposed any protest as sectarian, in fear perhaps of alienating significant levels of the protestant working class which supported ‘their troops’. The WSM felt it was important to oppose the parade on the basis of our opposition to militarism and sectarianism.

Gas and water socialists became a trademark description later developed by Seamus Costello, one of the co-founders of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, during their divorce from the Official IRA. The ’stickies’ emphasised a classic reformist staged approach emphasising the need to unite catholic, protestant and dissenter along bread and butter issues before the national question could be solved. Whatever about their reformism and Stalinist politics, their analysis that the armed struggle would entrench sectarianism and drive protestants further away from the republican project was correct. But  the term Gas and water socialists has become a badge of dishonour for those republicans who want to close down debate and trade insults at anyone who does not believe in the holy scriptures laid down by Connolly and Pearse all those years ago.

There is a small left republican tradition which basically argues that the struggle for national liberation and social liberation are two sides of the same coin. But whatever about that theorietical position in terms of sectarian dynamic and composition how this type of politics manifests on the streets of the Northis quite different than it appears on paper. With the possible exception of the Spanish Civil and war of Independence from 1918-21 where class conflict and the wider labour movement played an instrumental role, labour has played second fiddle to capitalism and references to socialism has often merely been lip service to a populist social radicalism. The transition of the Provisional republican movement to an electoral machine of constitutional nationalism and eventually a pillar of the establishment, plus its support for range of anti-working class measures such as water charges and privatisation is the logical outcome in the problematic nature of ‘everything for everybody’ Irish republicanism. It is within these historical limitations that anarchism grew from.

Irish anarchism is a relatively new movement, internationalist in scope and therefore not wedded to the religious dogmas that underpin the land of ‘saints and scholars’ but this does not mean we have nothing to say. Refusing to dance to the national question is quite different to ignoring state repression and imperialism.

There are currently two anarchist organisations in Ireland, Organise! And the Workers Solidarity Movement.  Anarchists believe that nationalism is no answer to capitalism and imperialism as it ignores class divisions and seeks to unite workers and bosses which have no common interests. However, the WSM recognises the relationship of the British state with Ireland is imperialist because the decisions it has imposed have always been autonomous of the wishes of the people of the island and any section of the people. That is British state policy follows the perceived needs of the British state and not the wishes of the 'Irish people', those who are 'loyal to the crown' or even the local ruling class.’(Position paper on the Partition of Ireland)

The last 30 years of conflict in the North points to the fact that nationalism of a unionist and green flavour offers nothing to the working class except more of the same, sectarian division and conflict in the interests of self-serving politicians and paramilitary godfathers. As anarchist syndicalist Rudolf Rocker summed up when discussing nationalism: "we must not forget that we are always dealing with the organised selfishness of privileged minorities which hide behind the skirts of the nation, hide behind the credulity of the masses. We speak of national interests, national capital, national spheres of interest, national honour, and national spirit; but we forget that behind all this there are hidden merely the selfish interests of power-loving politicians and money-loving business men for whom the nation is a convenient cover to hide their personal greed and their schemes for political power from the eyes of the world." [Rocker, pp. 252-3]

While anarchists are internationalists opposed to all forms of exploitation and oppression, we have also been consistent in our opposition to imperialism and colonialism from Cuba, to Algeria and Ireland. Our response to national liberation struggles (NLS) has been mixed from complete opposition to participating in such movements as ’class collaboration and reformist’ to the majorative approach that NLS depending on the context and the dynamics of the struggle offer a useful vehicle to radicalise resistance into a social revolution against all bosses, native or foreign.

The WSM argues in their position paper on ’Capitalist Globalisation and Imperialism’ that ‘In relation to each situation we will seek to discover and promote the anti-authoritarian strands within that struggle, particularly those that seek to organise on a class rather then national, religious or ethnic basis and win these to anarchism. We will argue that the interests of the ordinary workers of the imperialist countries lies with the promotion of such strands and not with their own rulers. We will argue for and where possible build working class resistance to the imperialist strategies of their own ruling class and direct links with those in struggle.’

With the exception of the early civil rights movement and the mass mobilisation on the streets during the hunger-strikes this is a concept that has been unable to manifest itself in the North.  This is due to the sectarian climate and militarisation of the struggle by the vanguard dictates of the IRA which minimised popular involvement and mass mobilisation. Nevertheless, despite there limited size and influence anarchists were involved from the early struggles against discrimination and state repression, to presently supporting the Maghaberry republican prisoners on a humanitarian basis.

Anarchists cannot speak for the rest of the left which mostly belong to the version of ‘state socialism’ that are still intent on imposing a repackaged version of the same failed politics of the past- Leninism and its cousin Stalinism. However for the most part we have never shied away from addressing the the national question despite the fact that we see little change under the Tricolour or the Union Jack. For us, our politics of class struggle and workers emancipation is not about changing the colour of the flag but about building a new type of society. One where the wealth produced by our labour is expropriated from the small minority to provide for the many, where each of us can develop our full potential and interests in a free and equal classless ans stateless society.

This is not a wish list but is something anarchists fight for everyday, from community struggles around housing and prisoner rights to workplace activity, to spreading anarchist ideas and methods of struggle. While political parties involve themselves in campaigns to build their profile for elections, we have no interest in opportunism or offering a blank cheque in the parliamentary circus. Our job is to radicalise working class struggles, ensure they are run from below upwards to win reforms rather than reformism by fostering a culture of direct action and solidarity. As Organise note in their pamphlet What is Direct Action?:

‘Direct action teaches us to control our own struggles while building a culture of resistance that links with other workers in struggles. Solidarity and mutual aid find real expression and as our confidence grows so too does our ability to change the world. It is needed now more than ever, and we also need a campaign which opposes all cuts and fees, which is controlled by its members & participants, which is ready & willing to promote direct action and is willing to fight.’

The question should not be about putting a new ruling class in power with all trappings of privilege and injustice, but about building a conscious mass movement that will wipe away wage slavery and capitalism. As the depression continues to unravel unleashing a vicious class war against the working class locally and globally, the national question becomes increasingly abstract from our everyday lives while the need to fight back on bread and butter issues and build a new world within the shell of the old becomes a necessity.

WORDS: Sean Matthews