The Irish National Liberation Army, INLA, the group which sparked the current new wave of communal bloodshed in Northern Ireland by killing Loyalist Volunteer Force leader Billy Wright, considers itself more left-wing than the Provisional Sinn Fein/IRA. Most of its members and sympathisers consider themselves Marxists, some Trotskyists.
The INLA and the LVF, and the other “ultras” on both sides who advocate continued shooting and bombing, are small groups. Yet Bosnia, from 1992, showed how such small groups, once they have achieved a certain level of weight and impact, can trigger mass communal bloodshed. People at risk from such “ultras” are naturally driven to support the militant communalists on their own “side”, and that in turn brings bloodier retaliation from the other “side”.
We shed no tears for the sectarian assassin Wright. But what can INLA bullets win? The maximum possible result is a collapse of the slow and feeble process of peace talks, and a return to one degree or another of open communal civil war in Northern Ireland. The Catholic minority cannot win that civil war; and even if they could, their victory would mean only that Northern Ireland’s Protestants would be a trapped minority under a Dublin regime they saw as alien instead of its Catholics being trapped under a Belfast regime they see as alien. In practice all INLA’s efforts can bring to the people they claim to fight for, the Northern Ireland Catholics, is more death and repression.
INLA’s rationale is that revolutionaries should not do deals with imperialism. They should instead mobilise the greatest possible militancy and intransigence. But socialism is not nihilism. The shout of defiance and protest is the beginning of wisdom; but socialist progress is not made by raw rage, still less raw sectarian rage. INLA has in its time been responsible for sectarian killings no different from those done by Billy Wright and his associates. On 20 November 1983, for example, they machine-gunned the crowd at a Pentecostal gospel hall in South Armagh, killing three. Between INLA and working-class socialism there is much more than a theoretical dispute.
Struggle educates and organises, but not any struggle: struggle in line with the logic of working-class needs. Sectarian-communalist struggle, even if it is based on an oppressed community, disrupts organisation and befouls political awareness.
Before the rise of Stalinism, it was taken for granted in all Marxist debates on the question of national rights that Marxists could not outbid narrow nationalists on their own terrain. The Polish-Jewish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg wrote: “Social Democracy [meaning, in the terms of the time, the Marxist movement] does not distinguish itself through the magnanimity of its programmes and is in this respect constantly outstripped by Socialist Parties which are not tied by any scientific doctrine. These always have their pockets full of attractive gifts for everyone”. No other Marxist would have questioned this truth; nor did those, like Lenin, who dissented from Luxemburg’s opposition to “self-determination” for Poland dispute her criticism of the Polish “Socialist Parties which are not tied by any scientific doctrine” and which identified socialism with the most militant Polish nationalism.
The version of Marxism which feeds into INLA was first developed in the mid-1920s. The leadership of the USSR and the Communist International — not yet a counter-revolutionary ruling class, but already bureaucratically distanced from the working class — sustained falsely hyped-up and administratively-decreed “revolutionary” perspectives by “seeing red” wherever there was agitation or tumult. It was in this period, for example, that the young Communist Party of Yugoslavia was swung round to call for the immediate and militant independence of all Yugoslavia’s constituent nations as a supposedly revolutionary-socialist cause — a programme whose disruptive logic for the working class would be catastrophically confirmed after 1991. In some of their later phases, the Stalinists hardened this approach into a corrupt dogma, as in 1929 when Moscow instructed the Communist Party of Palestine to reinterpret anti-Jewish pogroms as anti-imperialist revolution.
If Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and the other Sinn Fein leaders want a “historic compromise” with British imperialism, they should be opposed in the name of consistently-democratic working-class politics, not of nationalistic ultra-militancy. Adams and McGuinness are right in so far as they want to call off the war. Those who can see “revolutionary” and “anti-imperialist” scenarios in a renewal of communal war in Northern Ireland serve neither the working class nor the oppressed.
The parties linked to paramilitary groups that have called ceasefires — Sinn Fein, the PUP, and the UDP — remain communalist. When they concern themselves with workers’ interests, it is the interests of the workers of their “own” community. If they look to workers’ unity, it is a unity to be achieved by them first winning hegemony in their “own” community, and then doing deals with partners in the “other” community. But communalism that talks about compromises is better than communalism that shoots and bombs to try to break down the steel wall of the other community’s resistance — and better, especially, for the chances of retrieving socialist working-class politics, for workers’ unity based on consistent democracy, from its current extinction in Northern Ireland.