In November 2018, the longtime Irish-based Trotskyist Rayner Lysaght debated with Sean Matgamna, a founding member of Workers’ Liberty, on Marxist perspectives on Irish history and the Irish revolution.
Such debates, between divergent theoretical traditions, are rare. They are even more rare in Britain on the particular topic of the Irish Question, despite the prospect of a post-Brexit hard border in Ireland.
Much debate centred around the applicability of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution to Ireland. Lysaght argued that Ireland is still an “unfinished capitalist entity”, its bourgeois revolution “compromised” by the continuing existence of partition and the lack of secularism.
The answer, he argued, was “permanent revolution”, mobilising workers around democratic questions such as national unity and secularism, and for that mobilise to lead to the creation of an Irish workers’ republic.
Matgamna argued that permanent revolution was a hugely important theoretical breakthrough, but that it has limited applicability to the particular case of Ireland. Socially, bourgeois revolution was completed “from above” by successive British government Land Acts, leading to the creation of a capitalist farmer class in Ireland. Politically, the 26-counties became independent. Those processes have happened, in their own way, and cannot be re-run now in a way more favourable to us.
The removal of partition is a question for the workers’ movement to face, by providing a democratic programme which can reconcile the rights of the Northern Ireland Protestants as a minority within Ireland with the rights of the Irish majority.
Only ideological mystification and wishful thinking can see that as “completing” the Irish bourgeois revolution as part of a move towards “permanent revolution”.
Worse, argued Matgamna, the theory of permanent revolution, in the hands of post-Trotsky Trotskyists, has become emptied of its content as a programme for independent working-class action in a revolutionary situation.
With the rise of Stalinist states in eastern Europe, Mao’s movement in China and Tito’s Partisans, “permanent revolution” instead became a way of “explaining” how non-working-class forces could create “workers’ states”. From this it was only a leap towards Trotskyists developing illusions that the militarist campaign of the Provisional IRA could somehow spill over into a socialist revolution.
These issues and more are brought out in the debate. It is well worth watching to educate yourself on Irish history, permanent revolution and the relationship between national liberation movements and socialism.
This, and other Workers’ Liberty videos, can be seen here.