One often hears it said that we need more unity, that “unity is strength” and on the other side the despairing wail (and sometimes facile sneer) that “the Left (or Republicans) are too disunited to do anything”. But rarely does one see the question analysed. Unity with whom? On what basis? For how long? Can unity actually contribute to weakness instead of strength?
I have five siblings and at times we quarreled among ourselves, especially the older ones. I remember my mother telling me about a father (or it might have been a mother), who asked his five sons (who presumably also quarreled) to bring him ten sticks as long as their hands and as thick as their thumbs. Of they went, probably quarreling about where would be the best place to get them, who should be in charge, what kind of wood etc……. But eventually, they arrived and produced the ten sticks.
The father handed one stick to each son and then asked them to snap it in two. Puzzled, each one tried and, of course, succeeded easily. Then the father picked up the remaining five sticks and tied them together in a bundle. He handed the bundle over to his youngest son and asked him to snap the bundle in two. The youngest son tried until sweat broke out on his brow but was unable to break them.
“Hand the bundle over to your brother,” said the father, indicating the next youngest of the brothers. The son shamefacedly handed over the bundle. But he cheered up when he saw that brother couldn’t break it either. And so it went, the bundle passing up the line until it came to the eldest and though he sweated and strained, he also failed.
“Do you see,” asked the father, “how easy it was to break any one of you on your own? And how impossible when you were all together?”
My mother had adapted an old European story attributed to a Greek slave called Aesop in the 4th or 5th century BCE but we didn’t know that then. As we grew older the story seemed to reflect a truism, one that had been incorporated into movements of resistance including defensive ones such as trade unions.1
But of course, we also saw movements and organisations grow and split. I witnessed a lot of such activity (and participated in some of it) while working in London and some of my siblings passed through Sinn Féin, Official Sinn Féin and the IRSP and another passed through Sinn Féin and Provisional Sinn Féin (as did my father before he left that and joined Republican Sinn Féin).
And always the wailing cry all around – if only we were all united! The call for unity seems so intuitive, so basic that one rarely gets to hear any of the harmful effects of unity. But is that because there are no harmful effects? On the contrary!
IRELAND AND CHINA
The nationalist Irish Volunteers organisation was formed in 1913, ostensibly in response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers the previous year with a declared aim of preventing Home Rule (a kind of national autonomy similar to that of the Dominion territories then) which had been promised to the nationalists (broadly-speaking, the vast majority of the Irish population). The Irish Republican Brotherhood, the moving force behind the foundation of the Irish Volunteers, had plans to use it in insurrection against Britain.
The nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party, the preferred conservative, constitutionalist and even pro-Empire party of the Catholic Irish bourgeoisie, at first ignored the movement. But when it grew to 100,000 members amid enormous enthusiasm, the IPP became worried it might oppose them politically and John Redmond, the party leader, demanded an additional 25 places for nominees of theirs on the Volunteers’ 25-member executive, even though it already contained some supporters of theirs. The IRB, who despised Redmond as a collaborator with British rule, held a meeting among themselves and agreed to vote against accepting that pressure. Most of them did vote against but some changed their mind and, along with some non-IRB nationalists on the executive voted in favour, so that the Redmonites were admitted on to the organisation’s controlling body.
At that time, the IPP was the largest Irish nationalist party and no other party came even close in winning the votes of Catholic men eligible to vote. It is easy to see what the majority on the executive must’ve thought when they voted to accept them: “We’ll be stronger after this, more united; the Catholic Church and the Catholic media will be friendly towards us and encourage even more recruitment. Britain will have to give us Home Rule and we can have an argument later about what kind of politics we want for Ireland when we have our own Dáil” (Parliament). On the other hand, they might have thought that unity with Redmond and his IPP would be far better than being opposed by them.
IRB men Thomas Clarke and Seán Mac Diarmada and others were furious – they foresaw a time in the future when Redmond and his IPP would use their positions, along with allies they had made on the Executive, to try to sabotage the project of Irish independence, upon which the IRB had set its mind and heart. Such an event came to pass after the outbreak of the First World War when John Redmond made his speech on 20th September 1914, on the occasion of reviewing a Volunteer troop at Woodenbridge, Co. Wicklow, encouraging the Volunteers to enlist in the British Army.
That call, and the resistance to it from within the movement and its executive body, led to a split which reduced the Irish Volunteers from the 170,000 membership which it had reached to a force of 12,300, the majority siding with Redmond and many going on to the war slaughter on the Continent.
The IRB continued to organise in secret among the remaining Volunteers but a number of the Volunteers’ founding executive had always been non-IRB, such as Eoin Mac Neill and The O’Rahilly, and that continued to be the case. When they learned at the last moment that the IRB nucleus planned to proceed with an uprising on Easter Sunday 1916 and calling out the Volunteers to join, Eoin Mac Neill and The O’Rahilly2 did everything they could to halt it. They succeeded only in sabotaging it sufficiently that only about on third of the Volunteers mobilised, and they mostly in Dublin, on Easter Monday instead.
The above lines in these examples are not typed to suggest that thousands of Irish would not have gone to join the British Army in 1914 or even that the whole of the Irish Volunteers would have taken part in the Rising were it not for a) Redmond’s split and b) the cancellation by Mac Neill. I reproduce them only to show that unity can have harmful effects too.
After the 1916 Rising, the survivors of Cumann na mBan, Irish Volunteers, Fianna Éireann and some from the Irish Citizen Army reformed their military organisation which in time came to be called the Irish Republican Army and fought the War of Independence from 1919-1921 against the British. The IRA and the party that had grown around them, Sinn Féin, was also a coalition of people of different ideologies and, when the British offered a partial compromise of a partitioned Dominion status “independence”, the movement split again, out of which emerged the State and its vicious Civil War, with the execution of 83 Republicans by the new State and many unofficial murders carried out by its security forces.
Let us go a bit further in geography though not so far in time to the unity between the Communist Party of China and the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai Check, a national bourgeois party, against feudal warlords and the plunder of their country by foreign imperialists. The First United Front, also known as the KMT–CPC Alliance, was formed in 1923. Together, they formed the National Revolutionary Army and set out in 1926 on the Northern Expedition. The alliance fell apart due to factors and incidents we need not go into but the result was an anti-communist purge of Communists and the Shanghai massacre of 1927, in which between 300 and 400 were purged and 5,000 communist and trade union militants disappeared. It took the Communist Party two decades to recover their strength and begin to build their influence.
Again, recounting this history is not necessarily in order to prove that the Communists were wrong in their attempt at unity but merely to show the disastrous effect of the way in which events turned out for them and how vulnerable they were because of that unity at that time. In the 1940s, on the other hand, another unity worked out better for the Communist-led patriotic forces, though Chiang Kai Shek had to be forced into that alliance.
“THE PEOPLE, UNITED, CAN NEVER BE …”
In Chile in the early 1970s, a left-wing democratic anti-imperialist movement grew. It had many different components: nationalistic and/ or social democratic petit-bourgeoisie; revolutionary communists; revolutionary socialists of other types; masses of supporters of unclear ideology but focused on social justice and opportunity to make more of their lives and the lives of their children. Its party was the Popular Unity party and the leader of this coalition was Salvador Allende, essentially a social-democrat, who was elected President.
The United States ruling class, the major imperialist power in the area, not only seriously disliked many of the policies of the new Chilean regime but also feared that the ideas might catch on in other parts of the world or, even worse, that people outside Chile in Latin America would gain hope and confidence from what was going on in Chile and attempt the same in their own countries. The problem was that the Chilean people had voted by majority for the Allende option. Well, not so much of a problem for the USA – they had disposed of democratically-elected governments in the under-developed world before. Obviously a coup was what was needed – and the CIA began to work for one.
The CIA or even 50 CIAs cannot overthrow a government – to do so they need an army of some sort. It might be by US military invasion, as they did in Nicaragua in 1912, Haiti in 1915, or Dominican Republic in 1916. Or it might be by invasion of a neighbouring region, as they did by supporting and instigating the invasion of Guatemala from Honduras in 1954 or of Iran by Iraq in 1980. The Iraq-Iran war lasted eight years but the Iranian government did not fall and Iraq was defeated. Or it might be by a “rebel” army, such as the infamous Bay of Pigs US-funded invasion of Cuba in 1961 or the Contras, funded and trained by the USA, against the Sandinista Nicaraguan Government from 1979 to the early 1990s. Or it might be the army of the very State they want to subvert — and so it was in Chile in 1973.
Now, how was it that Allende didn’t see that coming? Was he stupid? Far from it – Allende knew the history of the USA in Latin America and he knew that the commanders of Chile’s Army, Navy, Air Force and Police, and most if not all of the higher ranks of the three services too, were right-wing in ideology, some downright fascist in outlook.
Allende’s options were to try and deal with the senior military ranks and hope they would remain loyal, or to dismiss them and appoint others more trustworthy, from lower ranks. But dismissing them might precipitate the very thing he was trying to avoid – a right-wing military coup. However, that threat could be met by arming the workers.
On the other hand, arming the workers might provoke the military and police.
Both options were risky. To a revolutionary, I would think, relying on the loyalty of the military was the riskiest while the second, much less so. But Allende was a social-democrat, not a revolutionary. He chose to hope that the military would not revolt and when the coup came, it was not just he who paid with his life but thousands of his followers and others on the Left. They didn’t have enough arms with which to resist for long and arrest, torture and death awaited them. The toll of the coup was over 3,000 dead or missing, thousands of prisoners tortured, and 200,000 Chileans forced into exile.
Before the coup, a slogan that had become popular in Allende’s Chile declared: “El pueblo, unido, jamás sera vencido”. It has been changed by socialists abroad to “The workers, united, will never be defeated”, as though saying “workers” instead of “people” made the slogan more revolutionary. But a large swathe of the people in Chile were united, and even more united were the workers — they had marched and voted for the Allende option and were eagerly awaiting the benefits of a different regime. And still they were defeated – by a much smaller but much better armed and much more ruthless enemy.
A different slogan came into being after the coup (and perhaps it had been around earlier too but got drowned out by the other): “El pueblo, armado, jamás sera aplastado” (the armed people will never be crushed). People may argue that is simplistic and they may be right – but it contains a lot more truth and sophistication than the slogan it replaced.
We are constantly being urged today in Ireland towards “unity of the Left” and “unity of Irish Republicans” and, before we nod our heads in reflex action and shake them in despair, it would be worthwhile to look at this proposition a little more closely.
Firstly, what is the unity for? As a minimum it can only be, if we are to consider it a serious proposition, to strengthen our resistance and to defeat austerity measures and state repression.
Then, who are we to unite with? “The Left” means different things to different people and that too needs some exploring. For example, is the Labour Party to be included? Some would say “yes”, including many trade union leaders and activists.
Yet the Labour Party is part of a Government that is heaping austerity upon working people and of a State that is using its police, courts and jails to repress resistance. How can we unite with that? And if the Party is not the same as its members in the Government, why doesn’t the Party denounce and disown those Ministers? No, this cannot be – we cannot have unity with those who work with our enemies.
Others would include Sinn Féin in the list of groups with which we should join for “unity of the Left”. But in what way can Sinn Féin be seriously considered to be part of the Left? In the Six Counties, it is part of a Government of a colonial state and has imposed austerity on the working people there. It has also colluded in State repression of Republicans. SF is mounting no serious opposition to any austerity measure either side of the Border although it often makes the appropriate noises. It does not support the necessary and appropriate action of civil disobedience, never mind organise it. Its mantra is “Vote for us and we’ll see everything is made ok”. That is not a suitable partner in any “unity of the Left”.
Excluding Sinn Féin and the Labour Party removes the largest party and the most TDs from the proposed “united Left” and that is one reason some do not wish to exclude them. However it would be dangerously stupid to try to build unity with these and, even if temporarily successful in some imagined scenario of the future, both elements would desert and even betray us at a crucial moment when we would be preparing a campaign of serious disobedience, to say nothing of revolution.
PRINCIPLES AND TACTICS OF UNITY
Who does that leave? Well, tiny parties and even smaller groups of independent TDs and local authority Councillors, a wide variety of independent activists and a number of campaigns of varying size. Well, better small than rotten at the core, right? And there are millions of others out there yet for us to draw support from in future!
But having unity across that broad mass of individuals and organisations? How? Shall we draw up a constitution and get everyone to agree? They never will and we’ll waste valuable time on the project. Is it all hopeless then?
Not at all. What we need is agreement upon a few fundamentals – the bare necessities, as in the title of Terry Gilkison’s lyrics in the 1967 Disney film “Jungle Book”. Let’s imagine we have come together to discuss cultivating a field. We dropped the Labour Party from our work force because they had been sowing fields with weedkiller. We dropped Sinn Féin because they had sowed a part of the field with weedkiller and were arguing that we didn’t need to clear stones and weeds or dig in the rest of it.
That’s not to say that we won’t have any problems with any of those left but let’s see, eh?
So all the remainder agree that the field needs cultivating, that stones and weeds need removing and digging needs doing. There might be some who don’t (or won’t) agree on what crops to sow and when but at the moment we have the maximum unity, admittedly on paper, for the minimum tasks required.
It might be that on the first day some turn up at the appointed time, 8am and others straggle in at 9, 10, 11 …. OK, it’s early days yet. But those who didn’t turn up at all? They are on notice of dismissal. That is fair – we all agreed that this work needed doing and they are not contributing to it at all.
Now, it turns out that some got tired or bored at noon and left the job, while others worked on to 8pm. Some of those who worked until later are those who turned up later so, although not in the way we expected and agreed, they have put in their hours (and twice that of some who turned up at 8am and were gone by noon). We don’t expect people to work 12 hour shifts every day but we will set a minimum – a realistic one according to our numbers and our people.
Probably, when we started we set up a committee to administer and organise the work – organise tools, meals, accommodation, allocate work to different areas, organise delivery of fertilizer …. And later, decisions will need to be made about what seeds to sow and seasonal work priorities but we can make those at a democratic assembly. And assemblies can elect the members of the administration too – but as individuals, not as the slates of parties or coalitions.
As the year progresses, more will join the work and some will leave or be expelled – but the decision will be made on the basis of the minimum necessary work for the minimum task. If the project succeeds or is seen to be doing well, others will become interested and some of those will join. And they will see who works well and who does not, whom they feel they can trust and who not. And they will also learn to organise, propose solutions or questions, join in collective decision-making.
We may lose the small political parties along the way and some will wail at the loss. But what we have noticed about the parties up to now is that on the whole they put the Party first and the struggle (which also means the people) second. Of course not all ego-trippers, glory-hunters, niche-seekers and petty dictators are in political parties and we’ll have to deal with those individuals too, and their cliques. And not everyone in a party is a party hack. But the work decides (or it doesn’t and we learn from our mistakes) and the decisions are democratic, by popular vote of people involved in the work.
When the work required for the day or week is done or in quiet seasons we should run courses on agriculture. There will be different schools of agricultural thought – OK, fine, let each set up a school, or run workshops, print manuals, newsletters, run FB pages, etc, etc.
It seems to me that is a practical unity, one that can work. We can and I think need to tolerate differences of opinion. But anyone found spreading weedkiller on crop-ground – well, that needs dealing with very firmly. And those who don’t want to dig, remove stones, pull weeds? Their choice — but they won’t be in our workforce or eat from our field.
So, the principles developed in the example were:
The maximum unity on the minimum task
Unity in practice more than in words
Equal rights for all who contribute (and no special rights for anyone)
Freedom of speech and press (subject to the basic safeguards) for all who contribute
Open to all who join on the same basis
- Democratic decision-making
It seems to me that kind of unity will indeed be strength. Unity on other bases? Disaster waiting to happen, early or late.
1 In doing a snap piece of research for this article I note that the Nottinghamshire Miners’ Association had the fable represented on their banner – ironically or perhaps of necessity, considering the fractured history of the miners in that area. It was also on a Durham trade union banner, according to Wikipedia.
2 The O’Rahilly, seeing the Rising going ahead despite his efforts, joined it and presented his car for use in a barricade. On the Friday of Easter Week, he was mortally wounded leading a charge against rifles and a machine-gun behind a British Army barricade at the Parnell Street end of Moore Street. He died in a nearby laneway which now bears the name O’Rahilly Parade and where there is a monument to him, including a copy of his farewell letter to his wife in his own words script.