NOEL BROWNE AND REPUBLICANISM
Michael Farrell replies
DR. NOEL BROWNE'S recent attack on Republicanism was doubtless fuelled by his fierce indignation at social injustices in the South, but generous indignation is no substitute for clear thinking and this was a piece of very muddled thinking leading to a thoroughly reactionary conclusion.
Basically, Dr. Browne was blaming almost all the ills of Southern society on Irish Republicanism on the grounds that 'republicans' had been in power there for over 50 years. Such an argument smacks of cheap debating tricks. It depends on a definition of republicanism so broad as to include everyone from W. T. Cosgrave and Kevin O'Higgins to the Provisional IRA, presumably adding in the Blueshirts and Paddy Donegan on the way. That files in the face of both common parlance and common sense. It leads to such arrant nonsense as blaming 'republicanism' for the execution without trial of 77 republiicans during the Civil War or for De Valera's internment and execution of Republicans during the second world war. It becomes simply absurd when republicanism is blamed for the introduction of repressive laws against republicans by Patrick Cooney who would hardly, even in his cups, describe himself as a republican.
Dr. Browne wilfully ignores the wide political and organiisational differences which separate those whom he terms 'republicans' and the different class interests which they serve or served. To blame those who have been members of Sinn Fein or the IRA since 1926 for the policies of successive Dublin governments is about as convincing as to blame Trotsky for the crimes of Stalin or to blame Dr. Browne's own Socialist Labour Party for the policies of the current Cambodian regime on the grounds that they share a common belief in 'socialism'.
That is probably the most glaring flaw in Dr. Browne's arguument. Another fairly obvious weakness is that he accuses the republican tradition of having "created" a society with "the lowest and latest, the meanest and the highest and the most sadistic statistics and attitudes in social terms in Western Europe". This sounds well but ignores an important fact. The Dublin governments since 1922 didn't 'create' much; they innherited an economy and a society warped and unbalanced by imperialist exploitation and a partition which cut off its most industrially developed areas. The institutions of the Southern state were shaped within a framework dictated by imperialism (the Treaty) and under continuing imperialist economic presssure. To say this is not to exonerate in any way the rapacious gombeen-men who became the new Southern elite and lined their own pockets in the process, but Dr. Browne's formulaation leaves out perhaps the biggest villain of the piece, British imperialism. This complete ignoring of the role of imperialism in the shaping of Southern society is particularly important because the whole speech is characterised by a total lack of historical perspective and a failure to see the development of Irish politics against the ever present backdrop of imperialist control or influence.
So far the flaws in Dr. Browne's speech have been due to muddled thinking and wilfully ignoring essential factors, but there is one point where he descends to scurrilous abuse Ðwhen he repeats the cheap propoganda of Roy Mason and the British gutter press by comparing the IRA to the Mafia. Physiical force republicans, whether misguided or not, have a longgtradition of self-sacrificing devotion to their ideals which conntrasts sharply with the venal politicians who slander them. (Compare the career of Reginald Maudling with that of the 'hooded men' whom he denounced in 1971). Indeed Dr. Browne was contradicting himself when he repeated this rubbish. The Mafia jibe was introduced by Mason and his henchhmen as part of their attempt to deny the political nature and origins of violence in the North. A related part of their straategy was the denial of political status to republican prisoners in the North - a policy which Dr. Browne himself has protested against.
These are. fairly elementary errors in Dr. Browne's speech but more fundamental is a basic underlying attitude demonnstrated by his views on the 1916 Rising and the Civil War. He has some fun at the expense of Pearse and his 'blood-sacrifice' ideas and argues that James Connolly, as a marxist, was wrong to get involved in a Rising which, he claims, wasn't intended to lead to any social change. He says: "It was the intention of the bourgeois leadership that the Rising was to be a military putsch to replace the British leader class by themselves, a home-spun Gaelic variety."
A few sentences before this Dr. Browne had referred in passing to Lenin's views on the Rising. Lenin took the occaasion of the 1916 Rising to make one of the clearest statements of the marxist attitude to struggles for national selftion. Ironically he did so in angry reply to a European socialist who had used the same term as Dr. Browne to dismiss the Rising - a 'putsch'. Lenin commented: "Whoever calls such an uprising a 'putsch' is either a hardened reactionary or a doctriinaire hopelessly incapable of picturing a social revolution as a living thing.
"For to imagine that social revolution is conceivable (Lenin's emphasis) without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without the revolutionary outbursts of a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, withhout a movement of politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against landlord, church, monarchal, national and other oppression - to imagine that means reepudiating social revolution. Very likely one army will line up in one place and say 'we are for socialism' while another will do so in another place and say 'we are for imperialism' and that will be the social revolution! Whoever expects a 'pure' social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revoluution really is."
Lenin effectively answers a lot of Dr. Browne's points. Of course there is an element of truth in many of his criticism of republicanism. Pearse did romanticize Gaelic Ireland and iggnored the horrors of war. Physical force republicans often have an elitist and conspiratorial attitude to politics which may leave sincere republican activists open to manipulation by business interests and capitalists who manage to suborn their leaders. Republicanism is traditionally a petty-bourgeois national movement whose object is the establishment of an independent capitalist economy and since we live in an era when such economies are no longer viable, republicanism cannot finally defeat imperialism and will always tend to reach a compromise with it. It is this contradiction which has led to many republicans groping and feeling their war towards sociallism today.
But as Lenin said, social or socialist reovultions are not 'pure', especially in an imperialistic-dominated country such as Ireland was and to a substantial degree still is. Socialism can't be established under imperialist control and the struggle against imperialism is an essential part of the struggle for socialism. Accordingly socialists in such a country must ally with other anti-imperialist forces. There's nothing odd about that, after all the Bolsheviks allied themselves with the peasanntry in Russia. It is up to the socialists to fight for their ideas
within the overall anti-imperialist movement and if they don't succeed there's no point in blaming it all on the republicans. The socialists must try to find where they have failed, and in Ireland it certainly hasn't been through excessive zeal in the anti-imperialist struggle.
Dr. Browne's fastidious disdain for the 1916 Rising springs again from his failure or refusal to acknowledge the overriding importance of imperialism in recent Irish history. This leads to his offensive and utterly unhistorical comparison of the Civil War to mongrel dogs squabbling over a bone. He implies that the Civil War was a purely domestic Irish affair and that both sides were equally at fault. Once again he lets the main culprit off the hook - the British government. He ignores Churchill's constant pressure on the Provisional government to attack the anti-Treaty forces and the urgings of men like General Macready who told the British Cabinet that "until Collins was prepared to kill somebody things would not be put right." As a result he completely misses the significance of the Civil War which was not a domestic squabble but a remarkably successful example of a new type of imperialism. Unable to defeat the anti-imperialist forces in Ireland the British came to terms with one section of the insurgents and left them to crush their former comrades with a savagery which the British themmselves would not have got away with. The success of this policy had a significance far beyond our shores and established a new strategy for dealing with anti-imperialist revolts in other colonies.
This failure to understand the Civil War approaches the kernel of the question because Dr. Browne treats the national revolution as if it had been successfully completed in 1922 and the victorious revolutionaries had untrammeled power since then. In fact of course the republicans were heavily defeated over partition and in the Civil War and all subsequent governnments in the South have come to power within the framework of the compromise with imperialism enshrined in the Treaty. For that reason the national question has remained prominent in the consciousness of the people since 1922 and will conntinue to do so until it is resolved. For the Catholic minority in the North - and, in a negative sence, for the Protestant majorrity as well - it has been uppermost in their minds. For the working-class and small farmers in the South, it no longer takes first place, but it still plays an important role and helps to explain some of the coolness of Southern workers to the Irish Labour Party, the residual working-class support for
Fianna Fail and the very strong antipathy of both workers and small fanners towards Fine Gael. Fifty years of attempts by the Labour Party to ignore the national question haven't made it go away and Dr. Browne's distaste for republicanism won't exorcise it either.
This speech has to be seen against the background of a wider ideological conflict in which Dr. Browne has now beecome an unwitting (I hope) combattant. Ever since the conntradictions in the North exploded into a major crisis threatenning the cosy equilibrium of Anglo-Irish relations, a major
ideological offensive has been mounted in the South to jettiison whatever vestiges remain of the old anti-imperialist ideoology with its continuing subversive potential. The repression and collaboration with the RUC and British "rmy with which the Southern state responded to the Northerncrisis could only be justified by re-writing history and rehabilitating Unionism and Redmondism.
This ideological offensive has been particularly intense around the fringes of the socialist left. The republicans (mainly Provisional Sinn Fein and IRA), though they have mounted an impressive resistance to imperialism in the North, have proved incapable of mobilising the mass forces North and South which are required to resolve the national question. Among the reasons are their military elitism, their neglect of social and economic issues and their confused and ambiguous policies, e.g. Eire Nua. Only the socialist/marxist left have the potential to combine the national and class struggles and mobilise the Southern working-class as well in the struggle against imperiallism throughout Ireland. The new Socialist Labour Party has a unique potential and opportunity to do this and so the debate within it on the national question is particularly important. It is regrettable in these circumstances that Dr. Browne should have effectively aligned himself with Conor Cruise O'Brien and the proponents of the Two Nations theory on this crucial question.
A final point , The absurdity of Or. Browne's position should be evident when he lists the main obstacles to a united socialist Ireland as first, the Catholic church and second, republicanism. I wouldn't dispute that the Catholic church should come high on the list but what about British imperiialism, Ulster Unionism, the EEC, the multi-national companies etc? To class militant republicanism as a greater enemy than any of these instead of seeing it as a potential ally against them is to carry political sectarianism to ludicrous extremes.
Summary of Noel Browne's speech:
SPEAKING AT A MEETING of the Artane branch of the Socialist Labour Party on May 9th, Dr Noel Browne TD launched a strong attack on what he termed "the tawdry record of Irish-republicanism". The sparked off a month-long controversty in the columns of the Irish Times and is still provoking inrense debate in left-wing circles.
Dr Browne made a scathing critique of of contemporary Irish society and blammed "the Sinn Fein Irish' Republicanism tradition" for creating a society with the "lowest and the latest, the meanest and the highest and the most sadistic statistics and attitudes in social terms in Western Europe".
He wis extremely critical of Padraig Pearse and the 1916 Rising saying that:
"It was 'the-intention of the bourgeois" leadership that the Rising was to be a military putsch to replace the British leader class by themselves, a homeespun, native Gaelic variety". He claimmed that 'the objectives of the 1916 Rising were not intended to lead to any radical change whatever, never mind a socialist revolution in Irish society".
The speech described the Civil War as a cynical power struggle between Collins and De Valera and compared it to two mongrel dogs squabbling over a bone. It also outlined What is termed the "bloody and anti-democratic record of republicanism ranving from the 77 executions of unied republican prisoners during the Civil War, through De Valera's war-time internment and exeoution of republicans, up to the recent emergency laws introduced by the last Coalition government.
Speaking 'of modern day republicannism, Dr . Browne claimed thaat its leaders exploited their young followers to win power and wealth for themselves and described it as "akin to the Italian secret society, the Mafia, and the men who govern it, the Mafioso leaders of the of the corrupt and evil organisation". Finaily he concluded. that, after the Catholic church, "Sinn Fein's Irish republicanism has been the most powerful single immpediment to the creation of Connolly's Socialist Peoples Republic in a united Ireland".