March 2016        

Commemorating the 1916 Rising: Taking stock

Finbar Cullen

Writing in the Workers’ Republic in early 1916, James Connolly set out the task facing Irish socialism: “The Labour Movement of Ireland must set itself the Re-Conquest of Ireland as its final aim . . . The re-conquest involves taking possession of the entire country, all its powers of wealth-production and all its natural resources, and organising these on a co-operative basis for the good of all.”
     At much the same time Patrick Pearse published his pamphlet The Sovereign People, in which he argued that “the nation’s sovereignty extends not only to all the material possessions of the nation, the nation’s soil and all its resources, all wealth and all wealth-producing processes within the nation. In other words, no private right to property is good as against the public right of the nation.”

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which Pearse read outside the GPO in Dublin on 24 April 1916, was based on these principles. “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.”
     At the beginning of March 2016, four weeks before the centenary commemorations at Easter and a further month before the centenary year’s Republic Day, it is a good moment to take stock of the preparations for the commemorations. The core principles of the Rising—democracy, sovereignty, and independence—are the yardstick against which the condition of Ireland today and the political content of the various commemorative programmes and events should be measured.
     Marxism understands that political ideas and ideology are carried and propagated by all the social processes in society, not just through the formal political processes. Cultural forms and expressions, the law, the media, the education system, sports, fashion and everything else in capitalist societies are imbued with ideological messages about how we should understand society and how that society should be organised. While many of these messages seem and become the “common-sense” view of the world that most people share, they are in fact one of the most important means by which the dominant class in society exercises control.
     Those of us who enjoy Hollywood films are well aware of the baggage of contentious political messages that these films carry, from the equation of freedom with bourgeois democracy and capitalism, and of tyranny with socialism and communism, to the relentless promotion of the lone saviour-hero above any idea of collective action and resistance, to the endless hammering home of gender stereotypes. Anyone who has ever been involved in left-wing politics or a social or community campaign knows how difficult it is to get any kind of hearing in the mainstream media, and how strongly those media promote a narrow consensus that favours the establishment adherence to free-market capitalism and bourgeois democracy.
     Elsewhere, the law normalises the expropriation of socially produced wealth that is embedded in private property; the education system turns fields of study and exploration into “disciplines” that regulate which ideas and interpretations are “correct” and can reasonably be held and which are to be rejected; and the fashion industry vigorously polices ideas of gender and sexuality.

Commemorations are not neutral

Commemoration is not a neutral or politics-free action. When considering any commemoration (like any other cultural or social practice) we must ask what is being commemorated, and by whom; what the political content is, and what the political purposes involved are; and what is being omitted, and who is omitting it. Commemoration happens in our “now,” not in the past, so it will always be related to contemporary political conflicts. In examining a commemoration we should look at how it is mobilised to support and legitimise different positions and groups in conflicts over sovereignty, for example, or identity, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or religion.
     In class society there will always be a struggle over social and cultural actions and expressions. For Marxists, the ideas of the ruling class (the capitalists) will inevitably be the dominant ideas in society: while these ideas may be contested and vigorously opposed (this is part of the class struggle), the dominant ideas generally achieve a level of hegemony in society and shape the “common-sense” world views that most members of society hold. It is no different with commemoration: a political and class struggle is waged over what is commemorated and how.
     In a class society, such as capitalism, there is an unavoidable and unsolvable clash of interests between classes. The state arises from this irreconcilability of class antagonisms: that is, the interests of the capitalists and the working class cannot be met at the same time. While the state is put forward as a neutral set of institutions to arbitrate between interests, it is in fact a means of implementing the rule and interests of the dominant class in society. When we discuss state commemorations we should bear this in mind: the state is prosecuting the class struggle and advancing the interests of the ruling class in society.
     All around the world, we are familiar with states’ commemorations of their founding events and important moments in their histories. Independence Day in the United States, Bastille Day in France and Remembrance Sunday in Britain are well recognised far beyond the borders of their own countries. Disappointingly, there is a tendency among Irish republicans and nationalists to look at these commemorations uncritically and to point to the absence of similarly unapologetic commemorations of Ireland’s seminal historical events, particularly the 1916 Rising. What such states are doing is drawing legitimacy from crucial historical events, consolidating their hegemony by demanding national unity around their interpretations and commemorations of the events, and creating an ideological underpinning for their positions. Because class society is unavoidably subject to continuous class struggle, it is necessary for the state to continuously shore up the position of the ruling class.
     For the state, it is not important whether the interpretation of a historical event is historically or politically accurate: all that is important is that its version (real or invented) can be used to further its own present needs and objectives—of course the closer the state’s version is to the historical evidence the stronger it will be as a carrier of ideology. The state may promote different and even contradictory versions of the same event: the Rising itself has been both promoted and undermined by the state at different times according to political need, and both at the same time on occasions.
     In its commemorations the state also advances the unity of an undifferentiated nation: nationality becomes the only legitimate identity at the point of commemoration, and class, gender, ethnic and other categories are suppressed and subsumed into the monolithic nation. The pursuit of class interests, the challenging of gendered roles for the sexes and the demand for ethnic rights are delegitimised and subordinated to the interests of the nation. While the nation is a real thing, based on a set of social relations created by the actions of men and women in society, socialists must exercise great care that co-operation with nationalists and republicans does not subordinate the class struggle to the national struggle.
     The idea of base and superstructure is an important one, but because of the ways in which it has been misused and misrepresented, caution is essential when discussing it. It has become difficult to use this terminology because the idea has been employed in untenable and un-Marxist ways by those who have adhered to a reductionist and undialectical determinism, in which all the other features of society are merely the reflections of the economic base and the organisation of production. This is not what Marx argued, and it flies in the face of our experience of the world we live in.

Marxism is a theory of human action

Marxism is a theory of human action: men and women make the world through acting together to produce the means of existence and reproduction. In so doing they create both themselves and society; men and women, through their actions in society, make history and social change. Marxism without the bedrock of human action is meaningless and impossible.
     But it also stands on a structural understanding of the world. Human action takes place within the structures of society that human action has created: we are free to act in the world as we find it, but we are also constrained by the material realities of that world. Freedom and determination are both features of human existence in society, but they are in a continuous dialectical relationship, and neither one can ever completely govern the other.
     There is a similarly dialectical relationship between the base and the superstructure. How human beings organise the production of the means of existence and reproduction is the base out of which all society grows. In the superstructure, all the other features of society appear: politics, the state, the law, family, gender, sexuality, nations and nationality, education, culture—everything that is part of society. Marxism says that, in this sense, the economic base (the mode of production) is primary in a real way in the creation of society, and that the other features of society are in a real way derived from that organisation of production.
     But the relationship is not one-directional or rigidly deterministic: instead there is a never-ceasing dialectical relationship between the base and the superstructure. Everything that human beings do in the superstructure—in politics, culture, the legal system, the education system, the family, gender relations, everything—reflects back and acts on the base as well, shaping the organisation of production at the same time as being shaped by it. Indeed it is difficult to see how there could ever be social change or meaningful human action if it were otherwise.

Ireland in 2016: a struggle for control of public memory

These ideas about class struggle and the relationship between base and superstructure are important when we try to understand commemoration as a feature of the society in which it occurs. Commemoration cannot escape any of the social relations we have discussed: like all the other features of the superstructure, commemoration is an arena of struggle and of class struggle, whether this is consciously acknowledged or not.
     In Ireland in 2016 there is a “struggle for control of public memory,” and it is particularly evident in the contest over ownership of the 1916 Rising and its legacy. As has always been the case in class societies, this struggle does not take the form of an ideologically clear contest between the capitalists and the working class (the producers in society), between the ruling class and the people: instead it is waged by nationalists, republicans, socialists, workers, feminists, women, capitalists, academics, intellectuals, artists, writers, and others, and often not in ideologically clear ways.
     Many socialists, for example, have sided with the bourgeois commentators, finding common ground in their disdain for nationalism; and many in the capitalist class have supported the national part of the struggle so long as the social content is suppressed. It is a confused and confusing struggle, and it requires political and ideological clarity to tease it out and understand it.
     Before we can discuss the commemorations of the 1916 Rising in a meaningful way we must put forward our understanding and interpretation of its political content. To do this we must first locate the Rising in its own time and material context, and try to understand the social conditions and circumstances in which it occurred. In different language, we must look at the Rising in terms of developments in the economic base and the relationship between it and the social formations and relationships in the superstructure that characterised society and animated social change at that moment.
     The Rising occurred at a time when capitalism was in the process of taking on the form of imperialism. Imperialism meant, in the first place, the concentration of both productive and finance capital into monopolies and cartels. Finance capital then became dominant over industrial capital, and the export of finance capital (investment across borders) surpassed the export of goods. These developments led to a new economic division of the world and a new division of labour. A corresponding political division of the world by the big powers accompanied this.
     This was a significant change from the older practices of colonial exploitation. Instead of direct colonial rule, the extraction of raw materials and the creation of new markets for produced goods, now countries and regions were incorporated in the system of a globalised capitalism. Direct rule became anti-systemic in many ways, and although dismantling the older forms was often brutal and bloody, native governments that were committed (sometimes under duress) to keeping their countries within the imperialist system emerged throughout the twentieth century.
     At the same time the direct incorporation of the local economies in the imperialist economic system, albeit usually very much as junior partners, created new obstacles for those seeking real freedom for their countries and peoples. Replacing colonial political institutions with local rule no longer guaranteed much in the way of substantial freedom for the people or the working class: it would also be necessary to challenge and defeat capitalism and imperialism.
     While Ireland in 1916 still exhibited many of the characteristics of the older colonial model of economic exploitation—a weak native capitalism, less-developed industry, and a role as provider of raw materials (food) for the coloniser—it was also tightly bound into the emerging imperialist system in which British capital was a central force.

Nationalism, republicanism, and separatism

If this was the economic underpinning of society and social change in Ireland in 1916 at the level of the superstructure, everything was in movement and flux. New thinking, organisation and activism flourished as established structures and practices were challenged within the political, economic, social and cultural spheres. Nationalism, republicanism and separatism played a central role in this upheaval, and it was and remains largely through their perspectives that struggle and change in this period is understood.
     But many other actors contributed significantly to events and movement in the revolutionary years. The labour movement, trade unions, and socialism; the women’s movement and feminism; pacifism and the anti-war movement; the language movement; the literary revival; the co-operative movement and the self-help movement; the GAA and continuing land agitation were all factors in the making of the Irish Revolution.
     James Connolly claimed a place for labour at the heart of the national struggle in 1916, where its interests and programme could be best advanced and ensured. The subsequent retreat of the labour leadership after the Rising was a historic mistake, and it is essential that we continue to analyse this if we want to understand the dynamics of the Revolution and learn the lessons for our struggles today.
     Alongside this radical activism, the Irish Parliamentary Party continued to dominate Irish nationalism into 1916, as it campaigned first for Home Rule legislation in the British Parliament and then for it to be implemented by the British government. Unionism in Ireland organised against Home Rule and established the Ulster Volunteer Force to resist it, supported by important elements of the British Conservative Party and military.
     Britain itself was striving to maintain its empire and fight off growing challenges to its economic and political power, not least from a rapidly rising Germany. The First World War began in August 1914 as the Great Powers fought for dominance and leadership in a world increasingly subject to imperialism. Relinquishing Ireland in these circumstances was not an attractive option for Britain.
     These forces and developments at the levels of both the base and the superstructure, and the complex dialectical relationships between them, are the material circumstances in which the 1916 Rising occurred, organised by determined activists and revolutionaries. At the core of the Revolution was the demand for democracy, sovereignty, and independence. Because of the immediacy and obviousness of the superstructural relationships and the comparatively opaque role of the economic base, it should not surprise us that many failed to grasp the fundamental connection between economic freedom and political freedom and understood their oppression in terms of national oppression alone. An understanding of complex social relations does not arise spontaneously and has been achieved only through decades of thought, analysis, theory, debate and struggle conducted by many thinkers and activists.

Economic as well as political freedom

But the chief architects of the Rising had a clear grasp of the complexity of these social relations, the forces ranged against the Revolution, and the need to pursue economic as well as political freedom. The writings of Connolly and Pearse and the lines from the 1916 Proclamation quoted at the beginning of this article show an understanding that a real democracy in which the people had control over all aspects of their lives, in which political and cultural independence could be achieved and in which social structures would allow fully human lives and relationships to flourish could be achieved only by the people taking full control over the economy and all the wealth of the country.
     It should also be recognised that the Proclamation of the Irish Republic drawn up by the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1867 repeatedly connected the social struggle to the political struggle, and so this was not a new idea for the IRB leaders who planned the 1916 Rising.
     Democracy means that the people have real decision-making power over their own lives and all aspects of their society. This includes the economy as well as the political, social and cultural spheres. Sovereignty is the ability of a people or state to govern and make the laws within its territory; without this, no democratic decision-making is possible. Independence is the exercise of democracy and sovereignty free from outside constraint or interference—not in isolation from the wider world but acting freely within in it and interacting with others on our own terms.
     This was the programme of the 1916 Rising, and it is in the light of how the commemorations deal with the principles of this programme that we should understand and assess them. So far, none of the commemorative events or programmes has shown much concern with these principles. What we have instead is a struggle for ownership of the Rising and its legacy: this is primarily about legitimising institutions, organisations and political positions today and also about vindicating the past on the basis of various political, personal, family and emotional connections and affiliations.
     There is an assumption among many republicans and socialist republicans that the state and the government parties (past and present) have no interest in commemorating the Rising and that they will only do so grudgingly and under severe pressure. However, this ignores a number of historical facts and political realities. The Irish state clearly locates its foundation moment in the 1916 Rising; and, like all states, it claims legitimacy from it and wants to control public understanding of its political meaning. The precursors of the three mainstream establishment parties were all present in the GPO during the Rising, and most of them are proud of this fact. (John Bruton is a maverick on this and not representative of the majority.)
     The long war in the North, the modern Troubles, is of course the elephant in the room here. The concern of the Irish state and its establishment after 1970 was how to contain and defeat the republican movement, in practice the Provisional movement. The problem, as they saw it, was that hitherto accepted nationalist understandings of the Rising and the Revolution might well be taken as an endorsement of the Provisionals, their goals, and their methods. The answer was to both undermine and suppress that nationalist understanding of Irish history; and, as the long war dragged on, this ideological struggle became increasingly bitter and disconnected from either historical perspective or political realities. As 26-county politics shows, this bitterness continues to poison Irish politics twenty years after the second ceasefire.
     As the peace was established in the North, the Southern establishment was freed of this dilemma. Garret Fitzgerald (whose parents participated in the Irish Revolution and were both in the GPO in 1916) was one of the first to reassert the validity and idealism of the Rising and reclaim the legitimacy that it bestowed.
     In 2016 the dilemma for the Southern state and establishment has been how to contain the disruptive potential of the principles of the Rising for their political projects while continuing to assert ownership over it. The 1916 Rising was about taking Ireland out of the sphere of imperialist control and building an independent sovereign democracy, an Irish Republic; the project of the Irish establishment today is to claim a place in the imperialist order of the twenty-first century as (very) junior partners and to share in the spoils of its exploitation of the peoples of the world, including the Irish people. This involves membership of the EU and the euro zone; facilitating capital and the markets in overriding the democratic will of the people; support for the political and economic policies and interference of imperialism throughout the world; full acceptance and implementation of the practices and ideology of free-market capitalism; and the abandonment of even lip service to the idea of an independent, sovereign Irish democracy.

What special relationship?

In recent years we have witnessed efforts to rehabilitate Irish involvement in the imperialist slaughter that was the First World War; to reconcile Irish nationalism and unionism without addressing the material circumstances and the political and ideological differences that have brought them into conflict; to develop a new alliance and friendship with the British monarchy and the British state while suppressing any interrogation of past and present British interference in Irish democracy; and to assert a fawning deference to the United States through a claimed “special” relationship with that country. This is the ruling class waging class struggle, and the core ideological message is intended to undermine the idea of an independent, sovereign Irish democracy and to normalise the idea of Ireland resting comfortably within the sphere of imperialism.
     The first strategy of the establishment in trying to reconcile the irreconcilable—commemorating the Rising and the struggle against imperialism while supporting an Ireland subordinated to imperialism—was a Decade of Centenaries, in which the commemoration of anti-imperialist events would be “balanced” with commemoration of pro-imperialist events. It proved impossible to make this strategy work, and nobody was satisfied, neither those who favoured anti-imperialism and the Rising nor those who preferred imperialism and the First World War. The debacle culminated in the awful “Ireland Inspires” promotional video for the official commemorations of the Rising released in November 2014.
     Putting pragmatism and self-preservation above principle, the government put its preparations on hold and went into listening mode while it consulted widely about the plans of other groups and interested parties. It came back later in 2015 with a new programme, which treated the Rising in a largely positive manner and decoupled its commemoration of the Rising from the commemorations of the Battle of the Somme and other events in the imperialist war.
     This pragmatic change in the state’s approach to its Decade of Centenaries is not accompanied by a change in its ideological message—on the contrary, it has made it easier for the state to claim the principal ownership of the Rising while continuing its normalisation of imperialism and support for Ireland’s place within it. And herein lies the challenge for everyone else commemorating the Rising: what are we commemorating, and for what purpose, today? Do we share the state’s support for imperialism and its abandonment of the principle of sovereignty? Or do we stand with the Proclamation of the Republic and the vision of the Rising?

The principles underpinning 1916 Rising

The core principles of the 1916 Rising were sovereignty, democracy, and independence, and a commemoration that is true to the goals of 1916 cannot but be anti-imperialist in nature. The various commemorative programmes are reaching their high point now as we enter March of the centenary year, with Easter just a few weeks away and Republic Day, 24 April, a month later on. We should assess what takes place primarily according to where these events and programmes stand on these principles.
     There is a huge amount of pride among the citizens about the Rising: in large numbers, they regard it as their Rising and a pivotal moment in the struggle for national independence. To the extent that all the commemorations mobilise that popular sentiment among the people, this is a good thing. However, there is also a great danger that some of the programmes will point the people towards acceptance of imperialism and abandonment of the idea of sovereignty, while others will focus on the paragraph in the Proclamation guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens while ignoring the central declaration of an independent, sovereign Irish democracy.
     The political and ideological thrust of the Proclamation is clear and unequivocal. Without sovereignty and independence the people cannot govern themselves and determine their own lives and the society they live in. Without sovereignty, independence and real democratic control the citizens and their Republic cannot resolve the social problems that beset them and create a good life for all. It is clear from the Proclamation and the writings of Pearse and Connolly that for them democracy meant the people having control over all aspects of society, the economy as well as politics: “all the material possessions of the nation, the nation’s soil and all its resources, all wealth and all wealth-producing processes within the nation.” If we are to be true to this vision of a radical Irish democracy, sovereign and independent, we must address these issues.

Understanding and applying those principles today

What would a truly democratic, independent, sovereign Irish Republic look like today? • Is membership of the EU and the euro zone compatible with sovereignty? The EU makes most of our laws, while the euro zone dictates the boundaries of economic policy. • Do the institutions of government allow the citizens any real control over decision-making in society? Voting every few years to choose which party will govern us does not provide citizens with much democratic control. • Is any democratic control exercised over the economy and over capital? The surrender to free markets and unimpeded capital suggests not, while the burdening of the people with the private banking and speculative debt is further evidence of the absence of any control.
     During the recent election campaign and the current manoeuvring to form a government, the abandonment by the Irish state of the principles of the Rising is obvious. The political and legal commitment of the EU to free-market capitalism, the control over interest and exchange rates exercised by the European Central Bank and the euro-zone rules on budget deficits and state debt circumscribe all policy aimed at meeting the vital needs of the people in health, housing, education, and social welfare. European Commission directives dictate policy on many fronts, notably now on water charges. Irish democracy is subordinated to rule from Brussels.
     The 1916 Rising aimed to establish an independent, sovereign Irish democracy as the practical means of meeting the needs of the people and creating a decent society for all. In the centenary year of the Rising we should hold true to this vision and put these principles into our commemorative programmes and back onto the agenda of the people’s movements and the people’s struggles. Anything short of this is a step backwards from 1916 and a move away from the vision of Pearse, Connolly, and the other revolutionaries.

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