Republicanism in Crisis &endash; Is There An anarchist alternative?

Since the beginning of December and the collapse of the latest attempt at the creation of a power-sharing devolved government in the North, and more particularly since the Northern Bank robbery, the political establishment - from Enda Kenny to Michael McDowell through Bertie Ahern to Pat Rabbitte - has been striving to outdo each other in the stridency of their condemnation of the Republican Movement. Over the last week to ten days, that stridency has turned in some circles to a barely concealed glee as sections of the media and some politicians have joined in the political equivalent of jumping up and down and shouting "Ha! Ha! Caught you out!!"

Republicanism in crisis

Text of talk given to Cork WSM public meeting, Thursday 24th February by Gregor Kerr. Other talks are here

I think it was in the 1920s or the early 1930s that Sean Lemass described Fianna Fail as a 'slightly constitutional' party. To listen to what has passed for political discourse over the past couple of months, everyone seems to be pretending to be surprised that Sinn Fein has inherited that 'slightly constitutional' mantle. As an anarchist, I have no interest in joining in the frenzy of condemnation. It is not whether or not Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness or Martin Ferris are or aren't members of the IRA army council that is important. Nor does it matter whether or not &endash; in the words of Bertie Ahern &endash; Sinn Fein and the IRA are two sides of the same coin. I certainly amn't too concerned about anyone relieving any bank of a few pound. Northern Bank is owned by National Australia Bank whose overall profits for last year were US$2.68billion. Towards the end of last year National Australia Bank agreed the sale of both Northern Bank and National Irish Bank in the South for stg.£967million. These sorts of figures put the money taken in the pre-Christmas robbery into context. Banks are the bedrock of the capitalist system, and they're hardly likely to receive any sympathy from anarchists.

Michael McDowell and I have very different views of what constitutes a crime. When the government takes money that they're not entitled to take from the pensions of residents of nursing homes &endash; one of the most vulnerable groups in society, I call that a crime. When the same government rushes legislation through the Dail to attempt to retrospectively make it legal to do what they've been caught out doing, that to my mind compounds the crime. When a mushroom factory in Mayo pays migrant workers a mere ¤2.20 - ¤2.50 per hour, that to me is a crime. When McDowell's Department of Justice proceeds to deport an asylum seeker despite the fact that the appeal supposedly prepared for him by the Refugee Legal Service has been proven by independent expertise to have been wholly inadequate, that's a crime in my book. These are just 3 instances taken from Tuesday's newspaper, I could go on and on.

So I'm not interested in all the hypocritical crap about 'criminality', although I think there is a debate to be had about crime, especially anti-social crime, and punishment &endash; and I think republicans have questions to answer about the authoritarian methods by which they deal with anti-social crime but that's not something I want to get into now. If anyone wants to come back to it later, I'll gladly do so.

What concerns me, what should concern all progressive forces and all people who describe themselves as either socialist or republican is that apparently Adams, McGuinness etc. see as progressive, or at least a move in the right direction, the establishment of a so-called 'power-sharing' government in the North which would see Ian Paisley as First Minister. And &endash; until the recent anti-Sinn Fein frenzy took hold &endash; there was serious talk of Sinn Fein entering coalition government with Fianna Fail in the South, talk encouraged by the Sinn Fein leadership. Surely this is the real crisis facing the republican movement. How have things come to such a pass that republicans came within a photograph of voting the likes of the two Ian Paisleys, Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster into ministerial positions???

As an anarchist, as someone who wants to see a new society being built, who wants to see the current corrupt establishment swept away and replaced by a truly free and democratic society this is the nub of my criticism of Sinn Fein and the Republican project. Despite the stated aim of a Socialist republic, the realpolitick of where they are headed will not bring about anything remotely approaching socialism. How can the prospect of putting the DUP into power be justified in the context of a declared aim of a socialist Ireland?

How indeed can anything done by the republican movement for the past decades &endash; indeed throughout its existence &endash; be said to have advanced the cause of socialism? Mind you, the Sinn Fein leadership no longer even bothers to spout the socialist rhetoric. All of their energies throughout the past decade and more of the 'peace process' have been aimed at consolidating a 'Pan &endash; Nationalist Alliance' with the SDLP, the Dublin government and 'Irish America'. The ditching of all sorts of policies, and supping with any type of devil has been justified in the name of 'furthering the peace process'. Thus when the warmonger George Bush came to Ireland in April 2003, just a couple of weeks after the bloody invasion of Iraq, Gerry Adams had no problems with meeting him while at the same time the streets of Dublin (and probably Cork and other places as well) were postered by Ogra Sinn Fein with posters which called on Bertie Ahern to tell Bush of the Irish people's opposition to the war.

Not alone was Adams unwilling to take a principled stand of refusing to meet him (in the cause of 'furthering the peace process' of course) but apparently at the meetinghe was unable to bring himself to raise the invasion of Iraq with Bush. Maybe it would have been considered impolite.

Some might claim that Adams and McGuinness have sold out on the original republican project, that their acceptance of the Good Friday agreement, agreement to changing Articles 2 & 3 of the south's constitution, their taking of their seats in the Dail and their acceptance of partition and the 'British presence' by virtue of participating in the 'Northern assembly' and in 'devolved government' combine to prove that the current SF leadership have swapped revolutionary ideals for respectability &endash; the armalite for the Armani.

But the truth is that where the republican movement finds itself now politically is exactly where it was always headed. Their socialism has never been more than rhetoric and their political project has always been about the building of what has been referred to variously as an 'Irish Ireland movement' or 'Pan Nationalist Alliance'. In the early 1990s, the 'Peace process' as it was to become known, was underway. The British government had effectively conceded that the IRA could not be defeated militarily. On the other hand republican strategists were well aware that 'war weariness' was setting in and that a new strategy was needed. At the Sinn Fein Wolfe Tone commemoration in June 1991, Gerry Adams outlined Republican thinking "While Dublin and the SDLP refuse to stand up to the British government it will continue to think it can do exactly what it wants in IrelandÉ" stated Adams, going on to put the onus firmly on the Irish government to take up the cause of Irish unity "ÉDublin should seek a change in Britain's current policy of maintaining the union to one of ending it and handing over sovereignty to an all-Ireland government, democratically elected and accountable to the Irish nation". According to Adams, the Dublin government should take on the task of "persuading the unionists that their future lies in this context [ie in the context of an all-Ireland government] and to persuade the British to accept that they have a responsibility to influence the unionist position. To secure a national and international consensus on this the Dublin government needs a strategy for unity and independence. Such a strategy would involve winning international support for the demand for Irish independence and would require the full use of Irish diplomatic skills and resources."

So basically the strategy as being outlined by Adams was that the Irish government was basically going to 'persuade' the unionists that their future lay in a united Ireland. The government that was going to do this persuasion, mind you, was led by none other than Charles Haughey and was at the time presiding over massive unemployment and poverty. Over the previous 5 years, severe restrictions on the living standards of workers and the unemployed had been implemented through 'national programmes'. The series of employer/union/government deals which has continued to this day had begun and workers' living standards were under huge attack. This was the bright prospect that unionists were supposed to warm to being persuaded by. Instead of looking to a strategy which might unite working class people north and south of the border in a common fight against what was the beginnings of the neo-liberal economic agenda, looking for a strategy which would aim to smash both states and replace them with a truly socialist Ireland, the game of playing footsie with Haughey and his cronies was well underway.

Now, it might seem ridiculously obvious, but it is impossible to go anywhere without first knowing where exactly you are headed for. And while Sinn Fein might in theory have the objective of a socialist Ireland, the lack of any real definition of what is meant by that phrase has meant that the road to socialism has had some very strange twists and turns.

But maybe there is a grand master plan. Maybe Adams, McGuinness and Gerry Kelly have a brilliant secret plan which will eventually lead us to the promised land of a socialist Ireland. Maybe we should just stop all the begrudging and trust them to get on with the job. Sure when we arrive at the glorious socialist republic, won't it all have been worth it.

Or maybe not. You see we anarchists are a contrary lot. We believe in a concept called democracy &endash; more particularly we believe in direct democracy which allows every individual an input into every decision that effects his/her life. We are also sticklers for a concept much loved by republicans too &endash; freedom, not the type of 'national freedom' pursued by republicans though but individual freedom &endash; the freedom of each individual to live his/her life to its fullest potential. And - what makes things worse for the 'leave it to the lads, trust them, they know what they're doing' argument &endash; we believe that the means leads to the end. What I mean by that is that if you want to create a free, open and democratic society then the organisations which you build on the way towards that new society, the paths which you follow, the political tactics which you use must also be free, open and democratic &endash; the complete opposite in fact to the political tactics of the republican movement whereby the general membership's role in past times was basically to act as cheerleaders for 'the lads with the guns', and more recently the role of the general membership has become one of being expected to accept without question the leadership's pronouncements from on high. Acceptance of political dissension within the ranks has never been something for which the republican movement has been known.

I want to look briefly at each of the three topics that I just referred to &endash; democracy, freedom and how we organise &endash; because I believe they clarify quite effectively some of the principal differences between anarchists and republicans, indeed between anarchists and other socialists.

But first I want to go back to something I referred to earlier &endash; the importance of having a clear goal, of knowing where it is we're going. The anarchist society that I want to live in, the only goal that I believe is worth working towards, is one where the division between leaders and led is abolished. It will be a society in which everybody will be able to realise his/her full potential, one in which everybody's contribution will be valued and which will put into action that old catchcry of "from each according to ability, to each according to needs". There will be full equality for all &endash; an end to poverty, exploitation and discrimination, it will be a socialist society built from below - non-exploitative, non-hierarchical and run collectively, based on direct democracy and direct management of production. I'm not interested in wasting my energy fighting to overthrow the current set-up merely to end up replacing one set of bosses for another, to have to end up listening to someone else telling me what to do. Neither am I interested &endash; and this certainly marks out anarchists as being completely different to every other political current &endash; neither am I interested in ending up in a position of power, in being the one who runs things, who tells others what to do. And ultimately republicans &endash; and socialists &endash; will, if they are successful, end up in just that position. Of course they will tell us that they would run society in all our interests but, because they ultimately see the role of the general working class as being supportive rather than central involvement, they eventually end up running things in an authoritarian way. For a successful anarchist revolution to take place, the democratic structures must be put in place which will allow no-one authority over anyone else.

That's the picture of where we want to end up. But how do we propose to get there? Well that brings me back to the three concepts I mentioned earlier &endash; democracy, freedom and methods of organisation. When anarchists refer to democracy we mean real democracy &endash; or as it is sometimes referred to direct democracy or participative democracy. It has little or nothing in common with what currently passes for democracy, the parliamentary democracy that allows us to every 4 or 5 years put a mark or a number on a piece of paper beside a name of our choice but gives us no input into the actual decisions made or allows us no mechanism to un-vote for that person if he/she doesn't do what they said they would.

Direct democracy is not about choosing who will rule over us. It is instead about discussing the issues that affect our daily lives, about debating the pros and cons of any proposed course of action and about everyone having an equal say in determining what course of action is to be taken. It about coming up with new ideas, not just giving the nod to a set of proposals already worked out by some group of leaders.

Direct democracy is also about delegation. Popular local assemblies elect delegates to carry out particular tasks or fulfil particular mandates, if they fail to do this they are immediately recalled and someone else is appointed in their place. Power remains in the hands of the assembly, not the delegate. This delegation can happen on a local, regional, national and even international level. By retaining power in the hands of the assemblies, and by rotating the delegates often, it is possible to ensure that no informal 'elite' or leadership emerges.

Direct democracy is ultimately about - as the Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin stated &endash; "the government of industry administered on behalf of the whole community". It could, I suppose, be described as government of the people by the people and for the people but not government over the people.

Freedom is another concept which is absolutely central to anarchism. Anarchists want to create a society in which &endash; as I've already said &endash; people can realise their full potential as free individuals. This is ultimately THE most basic premise of anarchist thought. That said, there is no such thing as absolute freedom. As I've heard someone else put it, my freedom to swing a frying pan ends where your nose begins. Or to put it another way the only limits on one person's freedom would be that it doesn't impinge on the freedom of someone else. Maximum personal freedom cannot be realised at the expense of others.

It is only in a truly socialist society in which the artificial divisions between us now based on religion, colour, nationality etc. no longer matter that this sense of freedom can be attained. It is only if we manage to build a non-hierarchical society without leaders or bosses that that concept of maximum personal freedom can possibly be attained. Freedom needs a particular social environment in which to blossom and grow &endash; that environment must be based on direct democracy and the direct management of production by ordinary people for the good of all.

Which brings me neatly to the road to socialism. I passionately believe that the means leads to the ends. By this I mean that if we want to get to a free, open and democratic society then we need to put such concepts into practice in our day-to-day lives and political activity. In every campaign in which anarchists are involved, you'll hear us arguing for maximum participation and maximum democracy. In unions, in community groups, in campaigns we want to see people organise in a democratic way, setting their own agenda, deciding what they are fighting for and how they want to get there. We don't sell people false shortcuts or sow illusions in blind alleys either such as "armed struggle" or electoralism. Reliance on the tactic of armed struggle ultimately leads to the vast majority being mere spectators, providing support &endash; in what has to be an unquestioning way &endash; for what has to be a secret army. Electioneering, we argue, is not only a waste of time given that no parliament will ever be allowed to bring about any meaningful change. But worse than being a waste of time, electioneering actually damages the fight for socialism by creating a clientist mentality whereby people sit at home and wait for someone else to sort out their problems rather than taking action themselves. And no matter how many times a political party or organisation tells us that their participation in elections is merely tactical, it inevitably becomes the dominant tactic &endash; again reducing the role of the general mass of people to that of supporters rather than participants.

People will only learn to be free by exercising their freedom. People learn about their own power to change society by participating directly in campaigns which effect their own lives. Direct action transforms those who use it, it is a means of self-liberation because it gives people a glimpse of what is possible, a glimpse of their potential power and when all that power is eventually harnessed we'll be on the road to a truly free society. The German anarchist, Rudolf Rocker in his book 'Anarcho Syndicalism' said "Socialism will be free or it will not be at all."

That's the only socialism that's worth fighting for, it's the only freedom worth fighting for.


More WSM talks