Nationalism and Reactionary Left Sectarianism

There is a tendency on the left towards purity. It is not a purity of the soul or a purity of blood, or even a purity of arms. No, the purity towards which the left tends is a purity of doctrine and praxis – a desire for the process of liberation to always already be liberated from the oppressions against which it struggles. We are told our struggles must be inclusive, they must not repeat the biases and particularities of our day which oppress us, which are social restrictions on our freedom to flourish as individuals and communities. And yet, we must construct our social movements within real existent society, within the societies which have biases, which are bound up in the mass thinking and feeling of the day. The result of this need for purity is a tendency for leftist movements to split on doctrinal or practical issues – rather than sustain a dilemma within a camp which recognizes its higher unity in a larger cause, movements tend to divide into multiple camps. This is damaging to movements because it means that the divisions are not worked out within an atmosphere of solidarity and mutual engagement, but as a conflict between pseudo enemies.

To make a simple example we can look at the history of the Republican movement in Ireland. In the 1960s what was left of the anti-treaty forces moved away from violence towards constitutional politics as the adoption of a marxist incremental strategy encouraged them to court the working class as such. This meant they spent a lot of effort to mobilize the Unionist working class, which was ineffective because at the time ethnic allegiance was stronger than class allegiance. The Republican movement saw the emergence of the Civil Rights struggle, which culminated in events like Bloody Sunday, the Battle of the Bogside, and Free Derry, as a confirmation of their move towards a politics of non-violence and non-sectarian struggle, which was no longer directed primarily towards a United Ireland, the traditional republican demand, but towards global marxist revolution. However, as the events of Bloody Sunday and other incidents of British violence against the catholic oppressed communities had a radicalizing effect on the situation, the Republican’s emphasis on non-violence and anti-sectarianism appeared inappropriate at a time when Catholic homes were being burnt by protestant mobs, supported by a police force made up almost exclusively by protestants (the RUC),  and also by a paramilitary police force made up of protestant thugs (the B specials). In this situation, a group of traditionalist republicans, disenchanted with the marxist politics of the republican leadership and irate at its failure to defend Catholic communities split off from the mainstream republican movement, forming the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and Provisional Sinn Fein – its political counterpart which split formally over the issue of recognizing the Dublin Parliament. Thus in the period where the conflict escalated there was not one IRA, but two – the PIRA and the OIRA, the “officials”. While there is little memory of the OIRA they also armed in defence of Catholic communities, and benefited from about as many new recruits after Bloody Sunday as the PIRA. There was no reconciliation between the two groups, however, instead inter-republican pogroms of 1975 weakened to the point of exhaustion the Official’s military capacity. Before that could happen, however, the officials had split again, forming a break off group of marxists who did not agree with the emphasis on de-militarization and ceasefire seen from the OIRA. This group was initially known as the Peoples Liberation Army, but quickly rebranded itself as the Irish National Liberation Army, which remained an important actor in the troubles particularly because of its members who participated in the 1981 Hunger Strikes.

The particulars of the history are less interesting to me as the general trend it demonstrates – rather than hold together as a unity a group of people who disagree on principles and tactics, but agree on a common end, the marxist republicans turned their emphasis on anti-sectarianism (meaning opposition to the distinction and insularity of the Catholic and Protestant communities), into their own brand of leftist sectarianism, where they split into different sects, weakening all.

The same phenomenon can be seen in the history of the Palestinian revolution. There a single nationalist group, Fatah, has existed as dominant since 1968. The communist groups, however, have split many times both within and sometimes by leaving the PLO – the loose arrangement of Palestinian resistance groups which has been key in holding the struggle together over the past generation. Whereas the marxist groups split if there is a strategic or doctrinal difference between its members, Fatah sustains these divides and remains united. For example, many members of Fatah oppose the current leadership’s drive for a Palestinian state – even many leaders in Fatah think this way. But they do not go off and form a new group because they know that would weaken the revolutionary struggle.

I think these histories show an important thing Fanon gets right which other socialists miss – the importance of the right sentiments and doctrinal rigour for the right time in the revolution. During the initial stage of the revolution, says Fanon, nationalism is the right value – which means there can be unity across class (although there won’t be this anyway, according to Fanon, because the middle class will sell out and support a non-violent transition which keeps the colonizer in economic control) and a wide array of anti-colonial sentiments can be included in the struggle. For Fanon, this can even include racism. However, Fanon is careful to show in his analysis that nationalism must give way to national consciousness if the revolution is to be liberating – simplistic opposition and violence must give way to including former colonists who turn against their mother country, and for the armed struggle to inspire productivity and the restarting of a dynamic indigenous culture no longer stuck in its steadfast opposition to colonization which keeps it in a situation of inertia.

Applying Fanon to the Republican movement in Ireland and the Palestinian revolution we can see the weaknesses but also the strength of nationalism as a unifying sentiment that motivates anti-oppressive struggles. On the upside nationalistic movements are better at maintaining cohesion and have been very successful at motivating anti-oppressive resistance even when the costs of such resistance are very high. On the downside, however, nationalistic movements tend to be less politically astute as for creating solutions which legitimately deal with the oppression they combat. This is partially because by focussing on national liberation they tend to ignore class issues, as was the case with the mainstream Irish republican movement. It can also be the case because an opportunistic leadership might use the unity afforded by a national movement to maintain power at the expense of the needs of its people, which is probably the case with Fatah today. However, these limitations to me suggest that leftist movements should try to make a difference within national liberation movements, rather than splitting off and becoming irrelevant. In the end, by splitting leftist sects become the sectarians they oppose – their “big tent” politics in fact includes very few because the specificity of the analysis. One party style national liberation movements provide space for disagreements within a larger less determinate cause, and this space should be exploited by leftist parties because this is more effective than the principled opposition and self-exclusion of splitting.

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