By Alex Homits.
It strikes me that Ireland has many movements which commemorate, glorify and fetishise armed struggle without truly grasping the conditions or consequences that accompany it. It is significant to note that there exists in the western world a large amount of leftists who parade their interest for armed struggle virulently and openly. They talk of violence, protracted people’s war, insurrection and violence.
Ireland is no exception; those who build their political activism on commemorating fallen soldiers of the various strands of republicanism and continue to glorify armed struggle. The paradox is that most of those who actively engage in commemorating, glorifying and creating a fetish around armed struggle are either too young to have partaken in it or have never themselves experienced the devastating consequences armed struggle demands of the people and our class.
All revolutionary leaders who sought the overthrow of capitalism and the redefinition of societal structures argued for the use of armed struggle and defined it extensively, drawing on the historical examples of their time such as the Paris Commune or the Moscow uprising in 1905. They evaluated the conditions that led to the struggle, how it proceeded on a technical level, how the struggles ended and what consequences these uprisings and struggles had.
A tactic, not a fetish
There are efforts to dissuade comrades from being overly keen on the glorification of armed struggle or overly involved in commemoration. Initiatives such as the Peader O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum have been criticised by various republican elements for refusing to acknowledge armed struggle as a legitimate vehicle, and similar criticisms have been made of the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI).
There is an important point of reference here: the open letter that the Communist Party of Ireland wrote to the Provisional IRA in 1988 made several of the points I will make, but you can find the full text of the arguments the CPI makes on the archive website Cedar Lounge Revolution. The context in which the CPI wrote that argument was different to today, and my assessment reflects the material conditions of today.
Militants who have taken up arms, either under the guidance of a Marxist-Leninist party or under the auspices of national liberation struggles have encountered similar issues, utilised similar tactics and faced similar consequences as a result of their political workings. That is the first lesson that must be drawn when evaluating armed struggle: the material conditions, the development of imperialism and by extension colonialism, as well as the national question all play significantly different roles on the psyche of the working class and the makeup of society itself.
In Nazi-occupied territories, guerrilla warfare was almost a given response from significant portions of the population. Not only was the struggle against Nazi forces one of liberation and love for the mother nation, but it was also a necessity given that Nazi rule made life significantly more difficult. The material needs of working people were denied, and their living conditions destroyed.
In Eastern Europe the Nazi occupation was also colonial in nature, with the ultimate intention being mass displacement and the extermination of Slavic people. A dialectical relationship between armed struggle and the oppression of the Nazi regime therefore emerged and armed struggle for survival began.
There was a similar dynamic in Vietnam, where the country was a colony of France, then a colony of Japan throughout the Second World War period, and then, once more, a colony of France. The struggle for national liberation became paramount and the Communist Party correctly assessed and struggled for the fusion of the national question and the social question as the synthesis for revolutionary change in Vietnam.
National liberation and armed struggle in Ireland
Ireland has been through several hundreds of years of revolutionary upheaval. National liberation and the struggle for the independence, nay, for the soul of the nation manifested itself in different shapes and sizes – but all yearned for liberty. From time to time and particularly in the late 18th century, liberation began to take on a social facet: the men of no property, stripped, dispossessed and thrown into the ditches of the country had no longer anything to lose and the nation to gain.
The revolutionary character of the rural community continued to be a dominant feature all the way until the War of Independence, yet we saw another development occur in the urban centres, notably Dublin. When we speak of ‘armed struggle’ in the Irish context, we immediately think of the Provisional IRA, Official IRA or the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), which operated predominantly in the North, yet we do not always give consideration to the forces which led for instance, to the 1916 Rising. This is in part a result of the anti-republican history curriculum in Irish schools but also a result of the absence of a Marxist evaluation of armed struggle within the discussions that are taking place.
Certain political forces simply refuse to discuss it, yet Lenin, Engels, Marx and many other great leaders of the socialist movement pored over it endlessly, assessing, scrutinising and analysing it. It has become clear to me that armed struggle for a Communist is merely another mechanism to advance the class struggle, instigated in the conditions that most demand it.
Again, we need only look to the historical revolutionary movements for guidance and inspiration to concoct a concrete argument. Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Ireland, Russia, China, Yugoslavia, Greece, Cuba Eastern Europe, France, Algeria and on the streets of Oakland, California. What we see is one very clear and definitive piece of evidence in our broad assessment – when the contradictions within capitalism or imperialism heighten, the Party, in any given set of circumstances, must make a decision on the material conditions before them.
Specific conditions required
The Party asks itself and its members, is there a popular will or potential desire for mass struggle? Are there the resources for mass struggle and how can they be attained? No Marxist argues that an armed struggle can be won without setting upon itself the objective of winning the support of the masses.
Armed struggle plays the exact same role in attacking capital as any aspect of Party work, with one important distinction: armed struggle is initiated to conclude the political struggle a Party has been waging as a decisive blow against capitalism, colonialism, imperialism or all three. What does this mean and how should we understand this? It means that the material conditions within any state or society can objectively be used to assess whether armed struggle will yield success or failure.
In the Ireland of 2019 there is no appetite for armed struggle, and groups purporting to be socialist, republican or both must yield this point. Armed struggle as it manifests itself and did manifest itself in Ireland in the past comes under very well-defined objective circumstances and conditions. In fact, the relationship of oppression and resistance is dialectical – the greater the oppressor, the greater the resistance.
Today, oppression of the working class is obfuscated and much of our class holds reactionary or underdeveloped political views. To attempt to lead or manufacture armed struggle at this juncture is to commit to the destruction of your movement and set back the cause of the revolution a decade.
There is also no appetite to accept that armed struggle will not look like it did during the northern struggles or even the War of Independence. Agrarian, non-industrialised Ireland run by small farmers and the Catholic Church parish community is a relic of the past. The majority of the working class live in the major urban centres, or to be precise Dublin. The majority of the working class are born and raised, and live and die, in the streets of large cities and in the workhouses of today. A strategy reflecting no-go territories in the sparsely populated countryside would be crushed by the conventional development of rapid response units that all Western states now possess.
William J. Pomeroy’s anthology Guerrilla Warfare and Marxism made me consider something I had not considered before. We had a brief insight in the shape of the Paris Commune, or the 1905 Moscow Uprising in Russia of what armed struggle would look like in highly urbanised and densely populated Western states. Then, something else sprung to mind for me, the operational and structural nature of the Black Panther Party and groups similar to it. They had organised on the basis of their material conditions, which were urban ghetto communities facing a white supremacist system geared towards exploiting, murdering or imprisoning black people.
We live in a highly exploitative and unjust world; in some parts of it, political struggles utilise armed struggle to achieve political ends. Communists in various countries have determined that the material conditions in their countries have been ripe for armed struggle and engaged in it, though some of them have assessed the conditions and therefore their strategy incorrectly. Their parties have been destroyed, their members imprisoned and their movements discredited. So what was the purpose of their armed struggle? In hindsight it was an error of assessing the material conditions, which means that we must be extremely careful in how we make statements or claims today.
Confronting capital in Ireland today
What does this mean in concrete terms? It means that first and foremost, no real Communist disregards armed struggle as a means to challenge the capitalist system, but more importantly, a Communist or Party possesses the capacity to gauge and judge correctly when the correct or most opportune time for armed struggle presents itself.
Secondly, the option for armed struggle, as we have witnessed historically, has been utilised when deemed correct, rather than as a method of making conditions correct. If we briefly examine Cuba and the oft-misplaced quote uttered by Che, conditions were ripe and any historical materialist analysis would be able to determine that, independently of the contribution Che made. Cuba was in significant turmoil with huge revolutionary urban movements and a peasantry that was more than willing to collaborate with a guerrilla force. History vindicated the course of action taken by the 26 July Movement.
Thirdly, the republican movement(s) that glorifies and upholds a fetish of armed struggle as the only solution to socio-economic issues in Ireland has to be challenged, critiqued and ultimately, corrected.
Fourthly, the revolutionary movement must be patient in its leadership of the working class. Instead of attaching ourselves as if we are sick or destitute of ideas to the back of spontaneous movements, we need to begin to show leadership in class struggle and give direction to movements so that they confront capital and make tangible gains for our class.
That is the primary objective right now in the existing material conditions we are in: the rebuilding of a militant trade union movement that can shut cities down; the raising of consciousness of young people who are apathetic towards their class interest; and the continued politicisation of the working masses.
Finally, armed struggle as a political tool to the development of socialism succeeds in very certain conditions and it takes a very wise and highly disciplined political movement to carry it out. Ireland has neither the conditions nor the party to carry it out today.
“But whosoever carries the outworks of the citadel of oppression, the working class alone can raze it to the ground.” – James Connolly