The Frog at the Bottom of the Well: Marxists and the National Question in Ireland

By Ciaran Mulholland, published in

In the old Chinese fable the “frog in the bottom of a well” a frog that has lived its entire life in a small well assumes that its tiny world is all there is, and it has no idea of the true size of the world. It is only when a passing turtle tells the frog of the great ocean to the east that the frog realizes there is much more to the world than it had known. 

The Moment of Reckoning

One hundred years ago Ireland was partitioned. A century later it appears that the moment of reckoning has arrived. There is fevered speculation around the possibility of a border poll, and one is expected by most within the next 5 to 10 years. The momentum towards the end of partition appears unstoppable, and for its proponents the result is not in doubt. 

There is a deliberate, concerted drive to create a pressure cooker effect. Sinn Fein directly, and indirectly through various organisations which claim to represent “civic society”, are hyping the question at every turn. Every issue imaginable is to be connected to the existence of the border. The previously anti-EU position of Sinn Fein has been stood on its head and now a border poll is the answer to Brexit. The Covid pandemic and the related health crisis have been utilised at every opportunity, with Sinn Fein performing shameless manoeuvres when it deems it to be necessary to do so. 

It is the way of nationalism and nationalists to claim that that the resolution of the national question is the panacea for all ills, including the potential negative impact of Brexit and the ravages of a viral pandemic which respects no borders. Socialists should have no business in parroting this nonsense. Unfortunately, many on the left, are blinking in the headlights of the nationalist juggernaut and appear to be determined to be the loudest voices for a border poll. They are not just boarding the nationalist train but volunteering to fire up the locomotive. This strident advocacy in favour of a border poll is irresponsible and provides left cover for the worst excesses of nationalism.

In truth a border poll is not quite as imminent as we are told. Nor is there an imperative for socialists to “take a position” now on what we will advocate when a poll is called. If a poll is ten years away-which is entirely possible-there is time to pause and think. RISE have decided to advocate for a yes vote in a border poll, taking this decision in the context of the world in 2021. What if a poll is preceded by years of instability and growing violence? What if a mass right-wing movement comparable to Vanguard in the early 1970s has seized the leadership of unionism? What if Protestants signal that they will boycott a border poll as Catholics did in 1973? Will the call for a yes vote still stand? Presumably the answer is that it will, as for RISE this is a red line of sorts, a question of democracy. Will RISE then accept the logic of its position and prepare for conflict?  

It is possible that the workers movement will be in a much stronger position by the end of this decade, and in a position to influence or even dominate events. If RISE stands over its current position it will isolate itself from this positive scenario. This is an entirely negative development for a political group which set out with high hopes of breaking the mould of the revolutionary left. 

The left needs to sit back, take a breath, and think-as James Cannon stated more than once thinking is a form of action. In this article I ask RISE to re-think its recent decisions, to reflect, and to engage in a thorough examination of both the theoretical basis of the Marxist position on the national question, and the concrete situation before us. It is not possible to go into all of the detail required here, but it is possible to propose some concrete areas for discussion, not just for RISE but for all those on the left who seek to develop an independent class programme on the national question for the 2020s. 

Time is short, but there is still time for Marxists to engage in genuine imaginative and far-reaching discussion and debate and to coalesce around an independent class programme and to play a role in the re-development of the workers movement.

Nationalism and “Vulgar Marxism”

The great strength of Marxism is as a tool to understanding and a guide to action. At its best Marxism provides for a flexible and creative approach to the problems facing humankind, always based on the principle that the interest of the working class come first. 

Trotsky was a fierce critic of the crude application of Marxist theory, in particular the economic determinism which characterised the Second International and which he described as “vulgar Marxism”. The theoretical underpinnings of decisions on programme relating to the national question are not fully explained by some on the left-People Before Profit are a prime example. It appears to me to be based on a combination of the application of Marxist theory without nuanced refection (“vulgar Marxism”) and default nationalist thinking and nationalist political theory (if nationalist political theory can be said to exist).

In large part this is a legacy of the famous Bolshevik pamphlet on the national question, written by Stalin and published in 1913. In Marxism and the National Question Stalin outlined fixed and formulaic criteria by which a nation is defined: “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” 

The pamphlet was a counterblast to the ideas of the Austro-Marxists who proposed cultural autonomy within a larger state as a solution to the problems they faced in the large and oppressive Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Bolsheviks in contrast supported the right of nations to self-determination. The pamphlet was undoubtedly important but was supplemented within months by Lenin who wrote a series of more developed articles on the national question. Importantly he corrected the key error of Stalin, when he failed to differentiate between the nationalism of the oppressed and the oppressor.

After the October Revolution the Bolsheviks had the opportunity to implement their programme in the prison house of nationalities which was the Russian Empire. What unfolded was not the application of the formulaic one-size-fits-all approach contained in the Stalin-authored pamphlet, but a nuanced, flexible and practical approach which always give primacy to the interests of the working class as a whole. There was more than a hint of the creative thinking of the Austro-Marxists in this. 

That this is so seems to have been lost to history. Instead, the inflexible approach proposed by Stalin has been widely accepted by the revolutionary left, with the addition of a rigid application of the oppressor/oppressive dichotomy.  

Debates on the left in Ireland have been further particularly dichotomized around the question of how many nations there are in Ireland. The vast majority of the left recoil from the idea that there are two nations. In this, I think they are right. But does that mean that there is one nation only, an Irish nation? And if is the case, who are the Protestants? 

To state that one nation sums it up is crude and non-dialectical. It has nothing in common with the Bolsheviks in practice. Its logical conclusion is that if Protestants are not a nation then their rights are limited. If the Protestants are not an oppressed nation, then it seems that their only right is the right to come along quietly. The right to determine one’s own future will not be allowed to the Protestant community. 

Those who demand a border poll also must accept the consequences, including the possible coercion of Protestants if the result of a border poll is resisted. This is a traditional nationalist position and has nothing in common with the theory or practice of Bolshevism. Communities or peoples have rights not just nations, both to determine their own destiny, not be coerced, and to have their political identity recognised. 

Northern Ireland: A failed “solution”

The counter argument to all of the above is the indisputable fact that the very existence of Northern Ireland involves the coercion of Catholics. They were forced into the new arrangement in 1921 and to not argue for a yes vote in a border poll is to endorse this ongoing coercion. This is a solid argument in itself. Replacing the coercion of one community with the coercion of the other is not a solution to this problem however, but simply reinforces the fact that only under socialism will national antagonisms be finally overcome. 

The reality is that the majority of Catholics have never reconciled to partition, and in the case of working-class Catholics this is an overwhelmingly majority. The new Northern Ireland state was born in blood. The two years before and after partition from mid-1920 to mid-1922 were a nightmare of violence and death for working class people in Belfast. Over 500 died in this period, the vast majority civilians, and 2000 were wounded. Catholics suffered disproportionally with two deaths for every Protestant who died. 

The experience of the last half century of political violence has left an indelible mark. There is a tendency to downplay the intensity and ferocity of the “Troubles” (indeed the very term, the “Troubles” is an understatement in itself). The population of Northern Ireland was 1.5 million in 1971 census. It is estimated that nearly 2% of the population were killed or injured over the course of the Troubles, 20,000 were imprisoned for politically motivated offences, 100,000 joined paramilitary groups and 250,000 joined the RUC, UDR, the regular army, or the prison service. Two in five of the population were directly affected by the violence, losing a close friend or relative. If the figure of 3800 dead is translated into UK terms 150,000 would have died. The equivalent US figure is 750,000. Officially a civil war was avoided, but if this is so, it was a close-run thing. 

Given the treatment meted out by the newly emerging Unionist government and its official and unofficial armed bodies it is inconceivable that Catholics working class would have quickly and easily acquiesced to the existence of the border. In the following decades Catholics could not be assimilated into a state where they were disadvantaged and discriminated against. But importantly, if the fist of repression had not been wielded, and Catholic living standards had been improved this would not have easily bought allegiance to the new arrangement. This is so because the political identity of most Catholics is as nationalists.    

The existence of Northern Ireland as a component part of the UK, but with local self-government, was an expedient deemed necessary by the ruling class in 1921. In part it was also an attempt to arrive at a “solution” to the national question. The experiment can be said to have failed. The majority of Catholics have never accepted their lot and as demography tips in their direction the very existence of the border is now in question. Protestants are not however open to the sweeping change that a vote for a united Ireland would suggest. They have not changed their minds either.

 What role for Marxism and Marxists?

Under capitalism the concrete situation Marxists face is this: the working class in the North is divided on the question of national or political identity. Each community has rights, and the full realisation of the rights of one community breaches the rights of the other. Simultaneously, working class people from both a Catholic and a Protestant background share a working-class identity. They are aware of being a class in itself, but not yet as a class for itself.

When national or political identity divides the working-class into two communities, the answer must be to both recognise the identities of both communities, and to struggle to overcome that division by forging a new shared identity. This is not possible under capitalism, but rather will come through the struggle for and realisation of socialism. This does not mean that new temporary “solutions”, what might be considered holding arrangements or interim constitutional structures, are not possible in the period ahead. What seems impossible at one point in history can become a practical solution in time. For example, power-sharing was brought down by a combination of a Loyalist stoppage and an ongoing IRA campaign in 1974 only to be agreed by many of the same players in 1998.  Under capitalism however, any arrangement will not be a permanent solution, in the sense of moving beyond division and the inherent possibility of renewed conflict. And it should not be forgotten that between the failed deal of 1974 and the Good Friday Agreement lay 2000 tombstones. 

For now, we do not live in a socialist society, but live and breathe under capitalism, a system which by its very nature creates and nurtures division. We need to simultaneously deal with today’s living reality and point the way to the socialist future.

Unfortunately, some Marxists are akin to the frog at the bottom of the well. To climb out it is necessary to utilise Marxism as a science and a tool to understanding.  We need to consider a concrete question: how do go from the point where a majority of the working class give primary allegiance to nationalism or unionism to the point where the majority give primary allegiance to their class. 

The tragedy of the Irish working class is that at this moment the workers movement is at a low ebb. Marxists have an historic role to play in a series of necessary debates in the workers movement. A left programme worthy of the name must take up the difficult issues which are thrown up the national question every day.    

We all begin at the bottom of the well. We learn about the wider world through our lived experience, and by the application of knowledge and theory to concrete political questions. 

I intend to the themes outlined here, and more, in further articles in the months ahead.  Marxism and Marxists have an immense task, an historic responsibility, which if shirked risks calamitous results. RISE should be part of the necessary debate and discussion as the workers movement seeks a way forward in the dangerous waters ahead. Do not shirk this task.

Ciaran Mulholland has been an active socialist since January 1980. For most of that time he was a member of the Socialist Party and its predecessors. Today he still adheres to the ideas he was won to 41 years ago. 

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