Workerist Sectarianism is not revolutionary

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Oct 18 12:59:44 MDT 1995


On Easter Monday in 1916, 1200 members of the Irish Volunteers and 
the Irish Citizen Army seized the General Post Office and other sites in 
Dublin in the hopes of sparking a general uprising.

The British crushed the rebellion. Nevertheless, it send a shiver of fear 
through the ruling classes of Europe who were in bloody midcourse of 
W.W.I. W.W.I was supported by most labor and socialist leaders and 
the Easter rebellion was a warning signal that the class-struggle would 
soon confront the imperialist warmakers and their socialist 

During W.W.I, the class-struggle left-wing of the socialist movement 
was debating issues of national self-determination. The issues raised by 
the Eastern rebellion became part of this debate. There were broadly 
speaking 3 positions within this left-wing grouping. One position as put 
forward by the Polish revolutionary Karl Radek maintained that “the 
right of a petty-bourgeois formula that has 
nothing in common with Marxism.” At the other pole was the position
held by Lenin who argued that socialism was inconceivable “without 
revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe.” Trotsky held a 
position somewhere in the center between Radek and Lenin, stating that 
“the historical basis for a national revolution has disappeared even in 
backward Ireland.”

I will present some significant sections of articles by Trotsky (“Lessons 
of the Events in Dublin”) and Lenin  (“The Irish Rebellion of 19”) 
and conclude with my own views on the debate.


The historical basis for a national revolution has disappeared even in 
backward Ireland. Insofar as the Irish movements in the last century 
were popular in character, they always drew their strength from the 
social antagonism between the rightless and starving pauper-farmers 
and their all-powerful British landlords. But whereas for the latter 
Ireland was merely an object of exploitation by agrarian plundering, for 
British imperialism it was a necessary guarantee of domination of the 

It was Gladstone who first set the military and imperial interests of 
Britain quite clearly higher than the interests of the Anglo-Irish 
landlords, and inaugurated a broad scheme of agrarian legislation 
whereby the landlords’ estates were transformed, through the 
instrumentality of the state, to the farmers of Ireland--with of course 
generous compensation to the landlords. Anyhow, after the land 
reforms of 1881-1903 the farmers were transformed into conservative 
petty proprietors, whose attention the green flag of nationalism could no 
longer distract from their small holdings...

The experiment of an Irish national rebellion, in which Casement [a 
nationalist leader, LP] represented, with undoubted personal courage, 
the outworn hopes and methods of the past, is over and done with. But 
the historical role of the Irish proletariat is only beginning.

On May 9, 1916, there appeared, in Berner Tagwacht, the organ of the 
Zimmerwald group, including some of the Leftists, an article on the 
Irish rebellion entitled "“Their Song is Ovr"”and signed with the initials 
K.R. [Karl Radek]. It described the Irish rebellion as being nothing 
more nor less than a “putsch”, for, as the author argued, “the Ir
question was an agrarian one”, the peasants had been pacified by 
reforms, and the nationalist movement remained only a “purely urban, 
petty-bourgeois movement, which, notwithstanding the sensation it 
caused, had not much social backing”...

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by 
small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary 
outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie WITHOUT ALL ITS 
PREJUDICES [italics in original], without a movement of the 
politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses 
against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, 
against national oppression, etc.--to imagine all this is to REPUDIATE 
SOCIAL REVOLUTION. So one army lines up in one place and says, 
“We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are 
for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who 
hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion 
by calling it a “putsch”.
While there'’s much more I have to learn about the history of class 
relations in Ireland, I tend at this point to agree with Lenin'’s approach 
to the 1916 rebellion. Trotsky'’s approach, while not as schematically 
sectarian as Radek'’s, adapts too far in that direction. It represents what 
one might call a “workerist” approach, one that Trotsky broke with in 
latter years.

For Lenin, the class-struggle never appears in its pure form where an 
undifferentiated mass of workers stands opposed to an undifferentiated 
mass of the bourgeoisie. Mass struggles against capitalist oppression 
have always involved all sorts of petty-bourgeois prejudices, reactionary 
fantasies and weaknesses and errors. It was Lenin'’s gift to be able to 
approach such mass struggles dialectically and see the objectively 
anticapitalist character that defined them. As Lenin put it in the same 
article, it rests upon the “class-conscious vanguard of the revolution, the 
advanced proletariat” to express the objectively anticapitalist character 
of the “variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented” 
mass movement and unite and direct it toward capturing power.

It seems that Lenin'’s approach to Ireland would also serve to help us to 
understand much of the mass movement in the United States since the 
1960’s. Phenomena such as black and latino nationalism, feminism, 
gay liberation, etc. are not pure expressions of proletarian militancy. 
They incorporate all sorts of reactionary fantasies, weaknesses and 
errors, but those in the US left, who like Radek, stood on the sidelines 
and clucked their tongues at these inchoate movements, were also 
missing the essential point. The Marxist movement does not set the 
terms of the class-struggle. It must participate wholeheartedly and 
unselfishly. That is the way capitalism will be eventually defeated.

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