January 2016        

Pivotal moments in recent Irish history

Nicola Lawlor

The left today seems to be missing some important lessons from pivotal moments in recent Irish history. This article is a brief, and simplified, overview of some of those moments. The lessons are worth keeping to the fore in considering any strategy for building socialism in Ireland, because without them such efforts will be wasted, misguided, and even damaging.
    Prof. Denis O’Hearn, in The Atlantic Economy: Britain, the US and Ireland (2001), divides Ireland’s twentieth century into three periods: (1) partial independence after 1922, (2) efforts to industrialise, 1932–1958, and (3) the failure of the industrialisation strategy and the turn to dependence on the EEC (EU) and on transnational corporations and foreign (particularly American) direct investment, which remains the ruling class’s interest today.
    This third period, which began developing earlier than 1958, deliberately fitted into the emerging US empire’s post-war anti-communist reconstruction of Europe and construction of a global economy structured to suit the needs of the US ruling class and American capital, in particular finance capital.
    Not all this was predetermined, or determined by external forces or by some hidden hand. As Marx explained, we make our own history but we do so in the context of a socio-economic system with significant class forces that create conflicts.
    Ireland was not predestined to be the way it is: it has developed this way out of class struggles, with some victories for workers but more losses, and this is what has placed it in the position of dependence and debt servitude that it is now in.
    As O’Hearn explains about the second period in the century,
The greatest pressure for protection, however, came from the popular classes . . . The Irish Labour movement was heavily nationalist and republican and was united in support of industrial development through protection and the creation of state industry.
      And Eoin Ó Murchú, writing in the 1970s, noted:
The years of the Cumann na nGaedheal government, however, have rightly been condemned as wasted years. Little effort was made to construct a state which would construct capitalism on a healthy basis. It was left to Fianna Fáil when they assumed power in 1932 to construct the bourgeois state. But Fianna Fáil inherited the administrative institutions of the Free State.
    The key question was that of finance. Irish capitalism lacked the ability to concentrate the funds necessary for modern capitalism. But Fianna Fáil, for all the vigour and importance of its programme of state industrial development, shied away from tackling the issue of foreign finance domination. In their practice they revealed the weakness of the bourgeoisie in confrontation with imperialism which Connolly had commented on.

The Irish Revolution and the counter-revolution

Despite the crucial involvement of workers and the trade union movement in the Irish Revolution, the movements of the day were a class alliance of workers, small farmers, small capitalists, and even some bigger capitalists whose interests conflicted with those of the British empire. At critical moments, workers failed to take the lead—as Mellows lamented in the Four Courts during its bombardment—and this shifted power within the alliance to capitalists, who ultimately led a counter-revolution. With the political, military and financial support of the British empire, a “free state” was established that partitioned Ireland, limited our independence, and left us economically and politically well within the empire’s rule.
    Crucially, it placed an alliance of big farmers and big capitalists, with its quasi-fascist police and military, as the ruling class in the form of the Irish Free State. This class, unable to govern alone, allied itself with the British Empire to maintain its rule in Ireland.
    The promises of 1916, of the election of 1918 and of the Democratic Programme of 1919 were firmly defeated—not betrayed, but defeated.
    The understanding that those years witnessed a revolution, and a victorious counter-revolution, is often lost on activists today. Some discount it as a nationalist struggle without class content—not unlike Trotsky’s woefully ignorant view of the 1916 Rising; others glorify the great Collins, totally ignoring the class that led his counter-revolutionary forces and his acceptance of a divided Ireland within the sphere of British imperialism, and what this meant to the future of Ireland.
    Class alliances in struggle are sometimes necessary, but the crucial question is what class leads the alliance, and at what point the working class is strong enough to break away and push the struggle on towards socialism. Clearly, during the Irish Revolution the working class wasn’t strong enough, and the pro-imperialist capitalist class in Ireland, and unionist capitalists in the North, established a compromise. The class shifted its allegiance in the South from liberation to subjugation through its alliance with British imperialism.
    Most of the British state structures and processes in Ireland were kept intact and were employed by the counter-revolutionary Free State, importantly in agriculture (particularly cattle) and, most crucially, in banking and finance.
    Thus was the class state born in Ireland, not through “betrayal” but through a victorious counter-revolution of classes who saw their rule best secured through an alliance with British imperialism. Far from being betrayal, this is naked class self-interest; and this understanding helps us to understand Ireland today. As Conor McCabe puts it,
history provides a canvas wide and deep enough to enable us to see the economic and political mechanisms, the machine itself, in motion . . . The logic behind it reveals itself. It is still deeply shocking [the 2008 bank guarantee], but it was not the result of a few bad apples.
    Up to the 1980s cattle were to Ireland what the car industry was to Detroit, and although the Irish Free State gained partial independence in 1922, its economy, via the cattle industry, remained intertwined with that of the UK.
    In 1927 the Irish Free State decided to hand over monetary policy to the banks, who decided, not surprisingly, that the future of Ireland lay with a strong, value-laden, currency. Yet, this strength would not be drawn from the economic dynamics of the state, but from the punt’s link with sterling at parity. The Government had the option to link the punt to sterling in a way that would have allowed the punt to rise or fall in value in accordance with the realities of the economy, but it did not take it.
    There was no central bank until 1943, and even then it declined to use the powers associated with such an institution—namely the management of national currency.

Attempted independence, 1932–1958

The division within Irish capitalism, largely between big and small capitalists, landowners, and farmers, was represented by the two main parties, Cumann na nGaedheal (which later became Fine Gael) and Fianna Fáil, the former representing the victorious ruling class of pro-imperialist big farmers, big capitalists, large-scale landowners, and the banks, the latter representing—though not exclusively—smaller capitalists and farmers as well as emerging industrialists in competition with Britain.
    The election of a Fianna Fáil government in 1932 represented disillusionment with the Free State and the global crisis of imperialism. It allowed for a more progressive attempt to turn towards developing native capitalism, strengthening its supporters, and an attempt to develop the economy and state more independently of the British empire.
    In doing this, Fianna Fáil supported some progressive national industrial programmes and state-led investment and production strategies. Critical in this stage too was the “economic war” with Britain between 1932 and 1938, which ultimately ended with the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1938, essentially recognising Ireland’s junior and subject status. The failure to win this “war,” or to develop deeper strategies of state-led production, employment, and capital formation—essentially to push on from native capitalism towards socialism—meant that this attempt at industrial development and independence would ultimately fail.
    Those who favoured foreign imperialist support for their class interests seized on inflationary aspects of the state’s policies and fought, successfully, for the change in policy in the mid-1950s, for an austerity regime of reduced government spending and reliance on foreign capital.
    Such is the contradiction within any ruling class in a neo-colony attempting to develop national capitalism while avoiding any moves towards socialism. The conflict this brings about with imperialist powers and structures usually ends with the weaker state being placed back in its box, something that the permanent civil service and big capitalists in Ireland gladly sized upon to once again return to power as the leading class within the country.
    The crisis of the 1950s also showed the limitations of Keynesian economics more generally. The state could either continue to take wealth into public ownership and bring production into a planned development to avoid stagnation, in contravention of the capital accumulation process, or release capital and provide further investment opportunities through what ultimately would be called neo-liberalism. The Irish state, governed as it was, and is, by capitalist class interests, chose the latter path, as did the system globally.

1958, the EEC, and the US empire

The new economic strategy did not spring one fine day full-blown in the minds of Whitaker and Lemass in the late 1950s. It was in development locally and earlier than that. For example, the Industrial Development Authority was created in 1948 and catered for both indigenous and foreign business but increasingly turned towards foreign capital. It celebrated the signing of the free trade agreement with Britain in 1965 and is now exclusively focused on foreign investment.
    American strength, influence and pressure within Europe after the Second World War helped to “resolve” the conflict within the ruling class and to direct the economy towards returning to a more submissive role within capitalism globally, one that accepts its place within imperialism as supporting the major powers, as opposed to challenging or upsetting them.
    The Irish capitalist class, not strong enough alone, once again allied itself with imperialism to maintain class rule rather than seeking compromise or alliance at home that might have threatened capitalist rule and their wealth and privilege. Such has been the ebb and flow of capitalism and the ruling class since the counter-revolution won out and established the Irish Free State.
    It was no coincidence that Ireland joined the EEC (EU) in the same year as Britain, and it is no coincidence either that the Irish ruling class is now campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU. But to understand the EU itself one must look at its origins.
    The European Coal and Steel Community, later the European Economic Community, now the European Union, has never been progressive or “social” or had anything to do with “equality.” Any misunderstanding on this question needs to be overcome once and for all.
    The Coal and Steel Community between Germany and France, and then the EEC, was first and foremost an anti-communist bloc, sponsored by the emerging US empire for rebuilding capitalism in Europe after the war. Some progressive aspects or legislation have been won by workers, conceded on the basis of weakening the struggle for socialism and the threat of socialism when it existed in the USSR and eastern Europe.
    In 1973 Ireland did not join a progressive union or community of equals: its ruling class and their state joined their fellow-capitalists in Europe, supported by the American ruling class, in a structural and institutional alliance of big business and monopoly capital throughout Europe, centred on a Franco-German alliance.
    Over the years the Irish ruling class ceded control of our seas and fishing industry, our currency and much of our fiscal control in return for grants to big farming and cheap credit for the financial elite. Ireland did not lose its sovereignty in the Troika deal of November 2010: much of it was already given away. The country became a conduit economy for both American and German capital, which ultimately left us exposed industrially to the whims of American big business and the global purchase of exports and inflated the property market through a flood of cheap foreign capital, much of it German.
    This strengthened and promoted a particular type of capitalist sector within the ruling class, which ultimately gained the upper hand within the elite and is now very much tied to imperialism globally and reinforces Ireland’s subject place within it. Again, as Conor McCabe puts it,
the expansion in financial investment, construction, and land sales gave rise to a particular type of Irish capitalist entrepreneur. There was money to be made in providing services to foreign investors. Construction, banking, insurance, property, road haulage and legal services—these were the areas of commercial activity that gained a commanding presence in the Irish economy. At the same time there was money to be made by speculation on the boom to the economy that foreign investment brought.
      Successive EU treaties, from the Treaty of Rome (1957) to the European Stability Mechanism (2012), have been for securing the interests of capital in Europe, accommodating the rise of the US empire, and maintaining the rule of local capitalist classes, which, acting together even if not quite as equal partners, are better able to secure their rule and oppose any progressive mobilisations or movements for socialism.

Lessons for the building of socialism

Comrades, activists and “leftists” could do a lot worse right now than read both the CPI’s “Democratic Programme for the 21st Century” and the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum’s collection of essays on “Republicanism in the 21st Century,” which deal with these issues in far more detail and far more expertly than this brief article, as well as the books by Conor McCabe and Denis O’Hearn referred to earlier. These documents offer a more complete and comprehensive analysis (the Peadar O’Donnell booklet) as well as a transformative programme (the CPI document) for building socialism in Ireland on the basis of this understanding of our history.
    So, what are the essential lessons to be learnt and taken into account?
    1. The years from 1916 to the mid-1920s were formative years. A revolution was started that presented huge opportunities for winning national liberation and building socialism. Tragically, a counter-revolution won out and laid the basis for the “independent” state through continuity, not change. Capitalism and imperialism were secured in Ireland in those fateful years.
    2. There was no “betrayal” of anyone or any set of ideals: there has just been class interest and class conflict, which has developed the Irish state and Irish capitalism within imperialism the way it has.
    3. This class conflict ebbs and flows and at times takes leaps forward, given the prevailing conditions and balance of forces. Nothing is predetermined or carved in stone but happens according to the outcome of class conflict within the prevailing conditions while also shaping those conditions for future struggles.
    4. There is a ruling class in Ireland, and by “ruling class” we mean (quoting Göran Therborn) that class through which “the state positively acts upon the reproduction of the mode of production, of which the class in question is the dominant bearer . . . Taking and holding state power is a process of interventions in a given society effected by a separate institution which concentrates the supreme rule-making, rule-applying, rule-adjudicating, rule-enforcing, and rule-defending functions of that society.”
    This class in Ireland is the big capitalist class, which is allied internationally with imperialism and the imperialist centres, the United States and the European Union, and still, but to a lesser extent, Britain.
    5. The state is not neutral: the ruling class is in control of it, and so it must be won if we are to successfully build socialism, as opposed to just softening the system through the ebb and flow of class conflict within capitalism.
    6. To build socialism the state must have power and sovereign control. The capitalist class won’t deliver this, and so the struggle for state power, for national freedom and for socialism, are all part of the same struggle.
    7. If inter-class alliances are necessary in particular campaigns or at particular moments, the organised working class must ensure that it leads the alliance at all times and must not give up its independence or accept a secondary role.
    8. Only the working class will deliver socialism and then only through the conscious self-development of a united working-class movement, industrially and politically.

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