Northern Ireland, the IRA and Class War

A debate between Subversion and a member of Class War over support for the Irish Republican Army (IRA), in issues 21 and 22 of Subversion in 1997.

Open Letter to Subversion
Subversion: you can’t tell the difference between tactical interventions in the working class i.e. the Class War paper, our political beliefs. You also try to grossly simplify a really complicated situation, & never attempt to see any positive actions (in e.g. the IRA) because this upsets your ideological purity. You also never comment on loyalism its loyalty to the British capitalist state.

For example during the recent wave of riots loyalist mobs were attacking working class catholic areas with UVF gunmen for safety. The word got back to the boys (IRA) & out came the rifles & the loyalist mob was taken out of the area. The IRA recently historically armed because of this very reason in the late 1960s.

So, we see that the working class are at least part of the IRA & also call on it for support in certain situations. What would Subversion suggest doing in the situation above on the streets of Belfast? Call the IRA 'murdering scum' like you have before? Excuse me while I laugh.

Not being personally clued up on the nature of the entire republican movement I dare say there may be some 'bourgeois nationalists' in it, but the ruling classes will split in any revolutionary situation. The IRA is a broad church (a bit like Class War) & it is unrealistic to condemn it or write off the militants within it as you do.

At its core Class War supports 'independent action by the working class for its own, independent class interests' but also realises that social life is complicated & that interventions must be made on a realistic basis. We do not support counter revolutionaries ever.

What we do support is working class people defending themselves & their communities by whatever means they see fit & realisable, & offer conditional support to working class people in struggle everywhere. 'Cool' is a euphemism for 'conditional support', & we don't print stuff like you write because it has no relevance to people's daily lives in war torn Belfast.

In an individual capacity, D.C. ( a member of London Class War)

Subversion Reply:

1) If you say something for "tactical" reasons that is not what you actually believe, then this is lying to the working class, the sort of thing we expect from Trots and Stalinists and is absolutely unacceptable for revolutionaries.

2) It doesn't add anything to the debate to accuse us of "ideological purity" simply because we disagree about something, or because we think an issue is more crucial than you do. For instance, if there was a radical organisation around that believed in supporting the British Army ( or maybe had some people who supported it and some who didn't) you would condemn such a view without hesitation, as we would. You would not be impressed by the argument that this was a tactical question, and that you should abandon your "ideological purity".

In Subversion, we firmly believe that the IRA is every bit as reactionary as the British State and its army. We see no difference in supporting either of them. It's just that one of them has the support of the Left for its anti-working class programme. This is no different from supporting the Bolsheviks against Kerensky, or Labour against the Tories.

This is the crucial question that we disagree on, and if we are right, then this is clearly a major issue dividing a revolutionary position from a counter-revolutionary one - not a question of "obscure pedantry" or "ideological purity", so you can't logically accuse us of that as part of your argument, only as part of your conclusion, which you have to establish beforehand by concrete argument.

3) We don't write about the Loyalists for the same reason we don't write about the Tories - our readership is highly unlikely to include closet Tories or Loyalists, and we don't want to waste time preaching to the converted. Our readership does, however, include some people who are at least partially sympathetic to Labour, and to Irish Republicanism, so these are important issues to tackle.

4) In a situation of wholesale sectarian division like Northern Ireland, working-class people will often in desperation find themselves forced to turn to the paramilitary power of "their" community for self-defence - this is just as true of Protestant workers relying on Loyalist paramilitaries as it is of Catholics relying on Republican ones, so in itself this is not an argument that the IRA is different from the UVF etc. Similarly, most working class people in Britain, when faced with anti-social attacks by e.g. burglars, muggers or rapists, would turn to the Police for (the vain hope of) protection. In all of these cases it is the apparent absence of an alternative that makes people seek help from those quarters - but none of this means that those bodies are not anti-working class.

5) The working class is most certainly not "part of the IRA". It is a wholly bourgeois organisation. It is NOT a "broad church". The fact that members may come from a working class background does not change this, otherwise we would have to say that at least some fascist organisations, not to mention the Armed Forces of many countries, were working class organisations!

What determines the class nature of any organisation is its political nature, i.e. what its programme is, what it is striving for. The IRA, like all other national liberation movements in the world, aims at a capitalist society, differing from their enemies only in where the borders are going to be, or which faction of capitalism is going to be calling the shots in "their" territory.

6) The ruling classes will NOT split in a revolutionary situation. Far from it - it is in periods of class peace that factional differences within the ruling class have greater expression; when the capitalists feel their very existence is under threat, they will forget their internal quarrels and unite against the working class.

7) You say that although you support class action for class interests, life is "complicated" and we must be "realistic". Such talk is the age-old language of opportunism, behind which countless former revolutionaries have betrayed their class and ended up supporting the vilest, bloodiest reaction. You are on a slippery slope.

8) You say you don't ever support counter-revolutionaries and in the very next paragraph admit that you give "conditional support" to those vile capitalist scum, the "cool" FLN of Algeria.

You need to think about what it means to give "conditional support" to the kind of political movement which has oppressed and slaughtered members of our class in country after country around the world.

To conclude:

People like Mandela, Arafat, Ho Chi Minh, Gerry Adams, you name it, have been prevented by the particular circumstances in those countries from using electoral means to achieve their aims. So they have had to use military means - to achieve REFORMIST objectives.

You can see clearly enough that the opposition of parties such as Labour is merely Tweedledum aiming to replace Tweedledee. But you are easily suckered by parties and organisations whose ONLY difference is that they use guns and bombs to achieve similar ends.

Stop looking at their guns and take a look at their politics. Then you might wise up to the fact that these bastards are our class enemy.

Reply to Subversion

Hello again, thanks for the reply but you did not answer my other questions about prisons, crime & football hooliganism (not an abstract question of support for all hooligans, but a look at the good things some hooligans do).

To get to your points on Ireland, I used "IDEOLOGICAL PURITY" to summarise many points. I will develop these here below. When I said "tactical reasons" this meant that we do not believe in writing people off before finding out what the real conditions are like. You do not get into people's real worlds by being an outsider & that is what Subversion are doing. For you to say that we should only be "pure revolutionaries" puts you into a fantasy realm of separation from concrete struggles, & also means that we would have to question things like signing on because it implies support for the capitalist state!

You mentioned that the IRA have an "anti working class programme". Where is it & what does it consist of , or are you implying it (making it up)? If all members of the IRA would agree on one, I would be surprised. Also, do you really believe the IRA has a chance of establishing itself to become a government in a united Ireland (because this appears to be the logic of your position). Given the huge dominance of the British state this appears unlikely unless in a period of a highly intensified class struggle in England, Scotland & Wales we can force the ruling class with its imperialist mind set to get out of Ireland. If so, I would imagine that revolutionary fervour would have gripped the Irish population so it would not tolerate authoritarian government (or any government).

A revolutionary position recognises the legacy of 300 years of British imperialism & the necessity of entering into debate with the oppressed. Our intervention is designed to find our what are the possibilities given the historical reality of imperialist oppression.

You still refuse to talk about loyalism & its scabby loyalty to the British capitalist state. What a perverse logic you have. You assume your readers like the IRA (god knows why given your record), & you refuse to talk about the transplanted loyalists & their political beliefs & allegiances. So we have it complete. You've no strategy & no full political discussion (& possibly indirectly a hatred of working class Catholics).

By not looking at the British capitalist state's imperialist history YOU CAN SAFELY ignore loyalism's allegiance to the anti working class (Catholic) ideology of the British state. You do not distinguish between what sort of actions are the ones we would support in response to the violence by the British state.

I find your emotive language to be amusing because you are obviously would be intellectuals with elitist views who have found themselves a niche. From your safe little homes you deny 300 years of Imperialist history, intervention or research into the resistance in the North of Ireland. What's more, YOU are not interested. If Germany had won World War 2 & we were subject to imperialist occupation, & we had managed to get a huge bomb to go off in the financial heart of Berlin. Would you be happy? I know I would. I know it is not working class self activity on a mass scale, but imperialist occupations do create exceptional situations.

WHAT ARE the actions you would support against the next example of British Imperialist aggressions that always lead to working class catholic deaths or injury? OR DO YOU DENY THE OPPRESSED THE RIGHT TO RESIST?

It is not that we are gun worshippers, but it is the concrete actions of the working class to Imperialist aggression on a mass level from which we draw our respect for these people e.g. Free Derry, & the widespread rioting this year. Now you have no respect & do not want to consider the concrete reality of life in the North of Ireland. What you present is a picture of "IRA Scum" in an abstract, ahistorical (without history) manner. Quite like that presented by the British media, & this is not a Marxist or Anarchist position (so who are you?)

. In answering your point 5 you say that "the class nature of any organisation is its political nature". However, you have only to look at a a lot of "revolutionary groups" to see that this is not true. Middle class people who are in a "revolutionary working class organisation" have been one of the greatest barriers to revolution because REAL working class people can see them to be the fraud they are. Therefore it is the class composition of the organisation, plus its political programme which determines the class nature of any organisation.

I happen to recognise that working class people make a lot of ideological choices. Unfortunately, a lot join the police, or are born into loyalism, or form many armies around the world. But this does not alter the fact that continued allegiance to the British capitalist state (or any state) makes them the enemy of the revolutionary working class in whichever country. It is time that a lot of people realised that working class people carry with them a lot of ideological beliefs which inform the decisions they make. Often you have only got to look at your own family to see that this is true. The loyalist working class have chosen to ensure their relative economic dominance by continued allegiance to the British state, a bit like scabbing.

Our "conditional support" does not mean we support the slaughtering of our class & it's crass ignorance & stupidity to assert that it does. Generally, "cool" as a word meaning "conditional support" means we respect the initiatives taken towards self management & violent resistance e.g. to the Imperialist capitalist British state (or any other state). Mainly by the people, & not their political leadership. This is not "opportunistic", but is designed to discover what is the real meaning in real conditions for the people concerned & what is the potential for revolution. This is the real strategy of liberation.

What you are advocating is a type of ultra left imperialism whereby you indirectly end up supporting the British state, it is Subversion who are on the slippery slope.

D.C. (London Class War)

Subversion Reply

1) The phrase 'pure revolutionaries' is yours, not ours. We DO NOT believe in separating ourselves from concrete struggles, but we support ONLY the concrete struggles of the working class, fighting for working class interests. The IRA is a capitalist force fighting to maintain the slavery of our class under new bosses.

What you are doing is supporting an anti-working class proto-state in the name of being 'tactical' - this just underlines the points we made about opportunism in the first reply.

2) Sinn Fein published their programme (Eire Nua) long ago. Besides, even if you haven't read it, you can't seriously doubt that the Republican Movement is nationalist. It hardly matters if they disagree about this or that detail. So do Labour, or the Tories, about their own programmes. Your problem is that you don't think nationalism per se is counter-revolutionary.

3) As to whether the IRA has a chance of coming to power, this is indeed extremely unlikely, but so what? After all, we agree that Fascism should be opposed even though Fascist groups in Britain have even less chance of ever coming to power.

The point about revolutionary fervour preventing an authoritarian government coming to power is clearly not true, because there have been many 'revolutions' of the sort dominated by nationalist ideas such as the IRA's and authoritarian 'revolutionary' governments are the norm as a result.

Even more radical upsurges, involving a major element of independent class struggle, such as the Russian Revolution, give little grounds for complacency. The Bolshevik party was far more plausible in its radicalness than the Republican Movement (which is why even many Anarchists joined it during the revolution) and yet we all know that Lenin's government created a brutal state-capitalist regime almost unrivalled in its savagery.

4)There's little to add about Loyalism except that you yourself are an example of one of our readers who is soft on Republicanism - we have yet to see any evidence of Loyalist sympathisers among our readership. As to the point about us hating working class Catholics (a contemptible remark) it is perhaps worth pointing out that I myself, the author of these two responses plus our original Open Letter, am a working-class, part-Irish, Catholic (by upbringing).

5) The points about Germany are a dead giveaway. The logic of one form of nationalism does indeed lead onto other forms! You admit that if Germany had won the war you would support Britain!

For the record, no we most certainly WOULD NOT support British bombing of Germany, regardless of whether the German ruling class dominated Britain. We repeat: we ONLY support struggles of the working class (regardless of country) against the ruling class (regardless of country).

6) When you 'define' the Marxist and Anarchist positions and say 'who are you?' you give a good illustration of why we disdain labels. They encourage people to put everyone in neat categories or boxes that can be dismissed without actually listening to what they are really saying. We have never claimed to be Marxist or Anarchist, and if that means people find it harder to put a neat label on us, tough.

(For a good summary of what in Subversion's view distinguishes revolutionaries from the Left (in all its varieties), see the article 'The Revolutionary Alternative to Left-Wing Politics' in Subversion 16).

7) You are right that the class composition of an organisation as well as its political programme determine its class nature, but we might disagree about who is middle-class and who is working class (see correspondance on this issue in previous issues of Subversion).

But who are these middle class people in revolutionary organisations who you say have been such a barrier to revolution? If you're referring to Trot groups, they are in our view capitalist organisations (with a state-capitalist programme).

8) You then repeat the same points about 'conditional support', contradicting yourself by saying a) you don't support the slaughtering of our class, and b) "...'cool' as a word meaning 'conditional support' means we respect the initiatives taken towards self management & violent resistance to [capitalist states]. Mainly [!] by the people, & not their political leadership.'

This correspondance was started by Class War's use of the word 'cool' to describe the FLN of Algeria. Their 'initiative towards self-management' etc. was to crush the working class and create a new capitalist regime (which, to my knowledge, even the most gullible of Trots have never called a 'workers' state'!).

It is this casual blurring of the line between struggles of the working class and the actions of bourgeois states or proto-states (such as all national liberation movements) that cause us to describe Class War as opportunist.

9) Your final point about ultra left imperialism is not totally clear, but if you mean that to fail to support one side in a war necessarily means to support the other side, then this surely applies in all wars.

Is this not tantamount to saying that the only choices that exist are between this group of capitalists and that group, with us workers as nothing more than cannon-fodder on one side or another?

Is this not an utter denial of the existence of a class, the working class, with its own independent interests separate from those of the capitalist class?

For all that they may sometimes make war on each other with the utmost savagery, our rulers' interests are fundamentally and diametrically opposed to ours. We should never abandon our class interest by siding with any of our enemies.

And for all that they make war on each other, the capitalists are in every country united in support of their class interest, which they pursue when necessary with single-minded fervour. We should be as single-minded in support of ours!

Reply to Subversion

You are still not trying to understand what I'm saying, which is amusing when you say "we have never claimed to be Marxist or Anarchist, and if that means people find it harder to put a neat label on us, tough". Your efforts to avoid a label is strange considering the absolutely dogmatic line you have got. My point is that dogmatic lines are NEVER revolutionary ones because no matter how hard you try you have to bend the 'real world, real people and real events' to fit your definitions.

I asked for evidence of the IRA's anti-working class programme, and instead you gave Sinn Fein's. Sinn Fein is not the IRA. Although there are overlaps. You are treating very diverse groups of peoples as if they as a whole form a united Republican movement. This is not the case. There are people on the ground in Northern Ireland who believe very different things, a bit like the British anarchist movement.

By the way, I do think Nationalism per se is wrong, as is money and religion. Thanks for telling me that "your problem is that you don't think nationalism per se is counter revolutionary". It's something I'd obviously never considered...(did you get the sarcasm?).

I never admitted that "if Germany had won the war you would support Britain". You are not listening to what I'm saying and you do not understand what I'm trying to say either.

What I actually said was "if Germany had won World War 2 and we were subject to an imperialist occupation, and we had managed to get a huge bomb to go off in the finacial heart of Berlin. Would you be happy? I know I would."

The "we" in this case is not a cross class category and was certainly never intended to imply that I support Britain, but is rather a category which includes the working class as a whole, 'our people'. Because it is always the working class who suffers most in Imperialist occupations.

So, I regard imperialism as occupying working class turf, and if a bomb in the financial centre of Berlin would lessen the suffering of our people then so much the better.

You have not directly answered a lot of my other points either. The crucial point is where I began "WHAT ARE the actions you would support against the next example of British Imperialist aggressions that always lead to working class catholic deaths or injury..." In a local position where calling on people with guns to get maurauding loyalists or British army out of the area or at least scare them away would help. YOU WOULD JUST SIT THERE AND SAY "THE IRA ARE MURDERING SCUM". And condemn a local working class comunity not to defend itself.

Because you have a need to impose a dogmatic line on people whose conditions of struggle are exceptional. It is not me who has blurred the lines, it is you who are creating ones which do not relate to concrete problems facing the catholic working class community.

I'll try to say this as plainly as I can, you do not have the right nor the credibility to dismiss extraordinary conditions that there are in Northern Ireland. You are refusing to say what you would do in conditions of intense class struggle, and are instead opting for the typical position of the sad British left. Of merely trying to 'explain' to all us dumb fucks who cannot see what's going on. You do this in order to define what is the only "concrete struggle of the working class fighting for working class interests". I know there are revolutionaries in Northern Ireland who fight for working class interests, occasionally the threat of guns has to be there otherwise their people would get walked over. REAL revolutionaries do not allow that to happen, or at least they try to stop it. You see, real revolutionaries try to intervene.

This obsesion with explaining the world and not setting the agenda has held the anarchist communist movement back for at least 100 years. You see you can never hope to be of revolutionary importance if you sit on the sidelines explaining how the world is to all us dumb fucks who actually do something. You have to be there with the class in concrete struggles or else you are at best academic posers with inflated vision of your own worth.

Which gets me back to the bottom line, revolutionaries respect/give conditional support to initiatives taken towards self management and violent resistance to capitalist states. Predominantly by the people, and not their 'political' leadership. THIS NEVER implies support for nationalism, or capitalism and it IS STUPIDITY to assert that it does. In fact, it is ignorance of concrete conditions that leads to those ideas. To resist the aggressors is one of the fundamental principles of revolutionary politics. I am not denying that what started out as'liberation movements' ended up by being capitalists, but perhaps this is because of the likes of you who want no role in these movements. Because you are too pure to 'involve yourselves'. People in struggle have ideological choices to make and it is up to revolutionaries to help in this process. IF YOU CHOOSE TO OPT OUT, like other groups do, you cannot claim to be revolutionary.

Picture the scene, there's a world wide revolution in progress, in Northern Ireland the boys with guns are riding around shooting the capitalists, the IRA are on top of the barricade about to launch the final attack on British military HQ in Belfast. The bloke from Subversion turns up and says the "IRA are murdering scum". You've lost the plot comrades...

By the way, just to disappoint you even more I'm not one of your regular readers because I avoid magazines that only explain the world. I read books and magazines which try to change the world and which will help take the working class to political power. As Marx said, the point has always been to change the world...

Subversion Reply:

You begin your letter by accusing Subversion of dogma. Our response to this is to suggest you look at your political beliefs and discover what you would hold on to in moments of extremis and what you would shed? Subversion has a set of PRINCIPLES that we all adhere to. These are based on many years of political activity and discussion and our observations of the real world. They are not plucked out of thin air. It is what we share and consider to be the basis of any political agreement. We see them as essential as a basis for our revolutionary ideas. Actions not based on principles soon easily become entangled with pro state activities....So we suggest you get real and get thinking.

Your level of naiveté is stunning! Sinn Fein is not the IRA!! Of course it is. What on earth is it if it's not that? Any group aspiring to take over a state such as the IRA does must have recourse to a political process just as the Governments of the world all have their own armies...or perhaps it should be the other way around since armies need governments. Sinn Fein aspires to the same ultimate end as the IRA, that is control over the working class of Ireland for the production of profit. One tackles this control through the ballot box the other through the gun.

I think you should seriously think about the consequences of letting off bombs in any city centre. You obviously have no experience of this, since, if you did, your attitude would be a little more thought out. You are as guilty as the state's producers of Jingoistic shit as they encourage the use of the bomb, rocket and mortar to kill the enemy who they see as less than human. The consequences of bombing a city centre are that working class people get it worst of all. In Belfast, the IRA bombed the bus station. Working class people were going to school, work and home. It was working class people's bodies that were shovelled into black plastic bags. Does that really make you happy?

You ask us what actions we would support? Those of us who were active at the time supported Free Derry as this was a clear situation of working class people defending themselves against attack by the 'B' Specials and unionist hate mobs. At the time IRA stood not for the Irish Republican Army but for the "I Ran Aways". We do support the protection of people from assaults, burnings, kneecappings, punishment beatings, extortion and so on. We say these activities go on on all sides in N. Ireland. The British army use violence to intimidate a section of the population in rebellion. The paramilitaries see themselves as the local state in the areas they control. They can't lock convicts up because they don't have prisons so they break people's knees or expel them to the mainland. Don't tell us these organisations are based on equality as we aim revolutionary groups to be. Bombing city centres doesn't stop these assaults going on.

Your reference to what we would do in a position of intense class struggle seems out of place. There is very little positive, collective, class struggle going on in N.Ireland. The struggle has been subsumed beneath a classic situation of divide and rule. This situation suits the governments of both countries very well. A class divided against itself does not have the physical or mental energies to fight the real enemies. Why do you think Major kept the 'peace process' so strung out? When groups of people are in struggle we don't ask which organisation they are from provided we agree with the basic tenets of the struggle. We are not supporting the organisation but rather the furthering of the struggle against our common capitalist enemy.

I ask you to picture THIS scene. The working class is fighting against the capitalists as part of the international communist revolution. And where is the IRA? Not on the side of the workers. If the IRA still exists it will be on the same side as all existing states and would-be states.

The IRA doesn't want the same as we do. They want to take control and just as Subversion never says support the Labour Party because they say they'll defend our rights, in the same way we say don't support the IRA. Both are part of the state and are therefore anti-working class.

We feel that this correspondence has gone on for some time and that neither we nor our correspondent has any more new ideas to add. Therefore this is the last we wish to say for the time being.