Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic 1867 as a signifier of Class Struggle

Proclamation of the Irish Republic 1867

The Irish People of the World

We have suffered centuries of outrage, enforced poverty, and bitter misery. Our rights and liberties have been trampled on by an alien aristocracy, who treating us as foes, usurped our lands, and drew away from our unfortunate country all material riches. The real owners of the soil were removed to make room for cattle, and driven across the ocean to seek the means of living, and the political rights denied to them at home, while our men of thought and action were condemned to loss of life and liberty. But we never lost the memory and hope of a national existence. We appealed in vain to the reason and sense of justice of the dominant powers.

Our mildest remonstrance's were met with sneers and contempt. Our appeals to arms were always unsuccessful.

Today, having no honourable alternative left, we again appeal to force as our last resource. We accept the conditions of appeal, manfully deeming it better to die in the struggle for freedom than to continue an existence of utter serfdom.

All men are born with equal rights, and in associating to protect one another and share public burdens, justice demands that such associations should rest upon a basis which maintains equality instead of destroying it.

We therefore declare that, unable longer to endure the curse of Monarchical Government, we aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour.

The soil of Ireland, at present in the possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people, and to us it must be restored.

We declare, also, in favour of absolute liberty of conscience, and complete separation of Church and State.

We appeal to the Highest Tribunal for evidence of the justness of our cause. History bears testimony to the integrity of our sufferings, and we declare, in the face of our brethren, that we intend no war against the people of England – our war is against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields – against the aristocratic leeches who drain alike our fields and theirs.

Republicans of the entire world, our cause is your cause. Our enemy is your enemy. Let your hearts be with us. As for you, workmen of England, it is not only your hearts we wish, but your arms. Remember the starvation and degradation brought to your firesides by the oppression of labour. Remember the past, look well to the future, and avenge yourselves by giving liberty to your children in the coming struggle for human liberty.

Herewith we proclaim the Irish Republic.

The Provisional Government.

Historical Backround

It is no accident that this document was written in the same year as Marx’s Das Kapital was first published, and one year before the publication of the Communist Manifesto. Europe’s young intellectuals had been gripped by the philosophies of Socialism and Anarchism, and looked to the Working Class as the only class which could save mankind from the terrible direction it had taken – a direction that was to result in the Gas Chambers and the extermination of millions. Four years after the 1867 Proclamation, the workers of Paris would attempt to create the world’s first workers state – the Paris Commune of 1871, which lasted from March 26 till May 28. During this time the workers formed committies or “communes” for the organisation of life in Paris.

Going through the text adopted by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, we realise that its writers were very much part of this European intellectual zeitgeist. The first paragraph places the struggle firmly in the material economic struggle of the working people, as does the whole document. The complaint is not only that aliens, but that an alien aristocracy, has “usurped our lands, and drew away from our unfortunate country all material riches.” The conflict is put in the terms of class war. Aristocracy versus working people. We see an implicit denial of the right of private property in the words: “The real owners of the soil were removed to make room for cattle, and driven across the ocean to seek the means of living.” The owners of the land are the Irish people – not those who happen to hold title deeds to it. It would not have escaped the attention of the writers that a large number of native Irish graziers had sprung up by 1867. These native Irish strong farmers were still renting the land from Anglo-Irish landlords in 1867, but had been just as vicious as any English landlord in pushing the people off the land to make way for cattle. The Land Act of 1881 transferred half of the land of Ireland over to just 20,000 native Irish graziers – who continued to drive literally millions of people off the land and onto the emmigrant ship. As the noted economist Raymond Crotty pointed out in his essay, “The failed Industrialisation of Ireland in the 19th century,” these 20,000 wealthy native Irish families have de facto ruled Ireland ever since, made the treaty of 1921 and formed the ruling elite of the free state. This small group of families continue to be the power brokers in the free state, their power still based in their ownership of the land of Ireland.

As Marx points out in Das Kapital, the 1867 Proclamation realises that relations/associations in society are based on material conditions – not on any sort of devine right, or genetic determinism (the idea that the rich are rich because they are genetically superior to the working class.) The text states that “justice demands that such associations should rest upon a basis which maintains equality instead of destroying it.” In other words, equlity should be the law which oversees the distribution of material wealth – not who your father was. There can be no justice and no democracy, where wealth is unevenly distributed. Since it would be impossible for every citizen to own exactly the same amount of land, of exactly the same productive potential, land ownership must always lead to inequality and the destruction of democracy. “The soil of Ireland, at present in the possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people, and to us it must be restored.” These words could have been written today. The land remains in the possession of an oligarchy – not only that, but the landless workers must now bail out these oligarchs to the tune of tens of billions of Euro, via the NAMA scheme. The only way to stop NAMA and the enslavement of our children, is for a Revolutionary Proletariat to take the land into its own possession in the form of a workers state.

The Republic, in the 1867 text is seen as the only way workers rights can be secured along with the material basis of those rights – the land of Ireland. Church and state are seperated – how nicely DeValera ignored this along with every other part of the document – and a call is made to the workers of England to join the struggle in solidarity. The enemy is clearly isolated – the landed elite. The Proclamation calls to English workers: “Our enemy is your enemy.” This is a lesson that many of todays Republicans would do well to remember: “As for you, workmen of England, it is not only your hearts we wish, but your arms. Remember the starvation and degradation brought to your firesides by the oppression of labour. Remember the past, look well to the future, and avenge yourselves by giving liberty to your children in the coming struggle for human liberty.”

This document is, tragically, far to the left of the position of many of today’s Republicans – who have fallen under the spell of bourgeois ideology, and will hear nothing said against the rights of landed private property. Many of todays Republicans also follow the dictum of DeValera that “labour must wait.” They say that first we must get the Brits out and then we can think about the social problems. The 1867 Proclamation of the Republic realised that it is the class war that brings the Republic – not the other way around. The Republic exists because of class war. Class war is its raison d'être. The Irish Republic comes about as part of an international class struggle.

Some definitions:

Signifier: Any word which names something. Example the word "car" names a particular type of machine used for transport. Or "love" names a particular type of emotion. The thing named is called the signified.

Master Signifier: These are words which name things that have no actual existence, as a car does or an emotion does, but are rather abstract concepts - such as "republicanism" "democracy" "Christianity" or "state." We say they are signifiers that do not have a particular or concrete signified, in the sense that they are really open or empty concepts can can be filled in in many ways. For example, Fianna Fáil's idea of Republicanism is very different to to say RSF's or the 32CSM's. So what we are to take Republicanism as meaning will depend on who we are listening to. In a sense Republicanism is the sum total of all the definitions of it, and is distinguished more by what lies outside that sum total - for example, monarchy. Equally, the signifier "state" has no concrete signified. If I asked you to show me a state, you would not be able to do it. The state is an empty concept that can be filled in by many differing ideas. Master signifiers are really words of belief. They exist only because we or someone else believes in them. A Master Signifier will exist as long as at least one person believes in it, or we believe that at least one person believes in it. We find that all our language, all the signifiers we use, tend to become centred around these Master Signifiers. "Bread" is not a Master Signifier, its an ordinary signifier that has a concrete signified, i.e. a type of food that we can really eat. But the production and distribution of bread will depend on the Master Signifiers we believe in - such as "free market" or "Communism." Very often the term "Master Signifer" is shortened to "signifier" for ease of use, when its clear from the context that a Master Signifier is being refered to. I often do this below.

The Proclamation of the Republic 1867 as a Master Signifier

Laclau and Mouffe's 1985 book “Hegemony and Socialist Strategy” points out that there is no necessary relationship between reality and the language we use to describe it. Particularly social reality. Indeed, our social reality usually changes to fit the language we are using rather that vice versa. For example, “politically correct” language has moulded social behaviour in many ways, particularly in relation to women and minority groups. PC language does not describe reality, but how reality “should be” according to those who use it. By using a language of “should be,” actual reality can and does change. So by using PC language, a person has taken an ideological position. He or she has decided not to use language to describe what actually happens in the would, but what they wish to happen.

So we see that language is always an expression of an ideological position. If I use PC language I’m making a certain ideological statement, if I don’t use it Im making a different ideological statement. Which one will win out? Its certainly not down to a question of which one best describes reality. Perhaps in Ireland of today, the non PC version best describes the daily reality of life in which sectarianism, racism, sexism and homophobia are rife. That may be the case, but still PC language is pushing out its non PC rival, to the point where the only public figures who will use it are the likes of Iris Robinson – and even she cant do it without threat of going to court. In other words a language that doesn’t really describe reality is pushing out a language that describes it much more accurately.

The same process could be seen in Germany of the 1930s. The Nazis won out over the Communists, not because they described a Germany in crisis more accurately – but because they made their telling of the crisis stick. That there was indeed a crisis – one caused by the Communists, who were being controlled by international Jews. That none of this was true made no difference. The social reality of Germany was moulded to fit the Nazi narrative. Once the Nazis had the hegemonic position, then language meant what they said it meant. Thus a Jew was no longer a term which meant a particular religion or ethnic group, but a term that stood for everything that was wrong with Germany – all the traits that the good German had to purge from him or her self. The term Communist no longer meant someone who wanted a particular type of economic system, but someone who wanted to destroy Germany from within and without. We see the same process here in bourgeois British dominated Ireland, where Republicans are now defined in terms of the GFA, not in terms of the Irish Republic. We are no longer something positive, but refusers, wreckers, criminals and dissidents. As Stalin said: the pen is the sharpest weapon the party has. Who controls language controls and shapes reality. In Nazi Germany, the term “Jew” became the term to which all others related and against which all others were defined. So Communists were on the side of the Jews and thus enemies. Nazis were against the Jews and so were patriots and heroes. In occupied Ireland today “GFA” is the term to which all others relate. In the economic sphere “free market” is the hegemonic term. Those who are for the free market are modern and successful. Those against are out of date loosers. (Though the crisis in capitalism has allowed this hegemony to be seriously challenged.)

So we see that ideology not only gathers itself around a type of language, but needs particularly powerful single terms on which to hang itself. We get what are often refered to as “Master Signifiers.” These are terms like “GFA” “free market” “democracy” “freedom” etc. These terms are a kind of short hand that allow us to know where the speaker is coming from. But more importantly, they are used to dominate the discourse of a nation or even group of nations such as the EU. Think how often the master signifier “democracy” has been used to beat Republicans over the head, and think of all the times Republicans have struggled to defend themselves against it – usually not very successfully. These terms will be fought over continually, with various groups claiming to have the correct definition of them. The term “democracy” will obvious mean very different things to different people – but it is the liberal democratic bourgeois definition that is hegemonic in Europe.

“Class War” is the master signifer of Marxism. All other terms are defined in relation to this one term. Class is considered the one antagonism on which all other antagonisms rest. It’s the term which gives all other terms their meaning. Marxists will not say that bourgeois society is held together by “democracy” or the “free market” but by the oppression of one class by another class. The structures of the bourgeois state – its bureaucracy, army, police and state media – are there to maintain the private property of the ruling elite and to maintain control over the landless workers. Marxists also use another term or master signifer to denote a future time, when it will be possible to wipe out class antagonism. This is refered to as Communism. Again, Communism is a term that is hotly fought over – with the bourgeoisie doing their best to make it stand for the worst evil on earth. However, before a signifier can be fought over, it must be put into the public domain. As we saw with PC language, the very saying of the word “Communism” creates a change in reality – if only to make the ruling class fearful and paranoid about their ill gotten gains.

We see that the Proclamation of the Irish Republic 1867 explicitly recognises class conflict as that which structures the current reality “our war is against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields – against the aristocratic leeches who drain alike our fields and theirs.” Unlike the Proclamation of 1916, the conflict was not narrowed to a conflict of nationality, but a conflict of one class against another. Its internationalism is one of workers solidarity. The problem is clearly stated – the class conflict – and the solution given is the Irish Republic. The Irish Republic becomes the signifier of the end of class conflict through the defeat of the landed elite: “We aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour. The soil of Ireland, at present in the possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people, and to us it must be restored.”

The State is an Empty Space - A Master Signifier

“The French Republic” is a Master Signifier, which refers to the state which French people give their allegiance to, most of them seem to anyway. I purposely didn’t say “the state which exists in France,” precisely because it doesn’t exist in France – or anywhere else. States have no actual concrete existence. The bureaucracy and armed forces of a state are not the state. They are institutions of the state but they are not the state. In a monarchy, a king or queen stands in for the state – to give it some kind of immediate concrete presentation for the masses and for the ruling classes. But the king is not the state. The king is standing in for an empty space. An empty space named by a Master Signifier. The empty throne is a good metaphor – as is the empty centre of the crown. Likewise in a Republic, a president is not the state, but stands in for the empty space that is the state. So if we take the signifier/name “The French Republic” it is certainly not refering to nothing. It is refering to an empty space - a space that is framed by the act of naming - a naming done by the founders of the state and maintained by succeeding generations, i.e. maintained by all those who believe in it.

These days a constitutional monarch or a president has nothing to do with law except to sign it or send it back for legal testing. But the signing is important, as the name of the president or the monarch on the piece of legislation is the last word, beyond which there is no other word. It’s the mark of the empty space that is the state. The full authority of the state consists only in its name – the name of the empty space, i.e. the Master Signifier. In this cynical age, the president or the king or queen often plays the all important function of playing that at-least-one that we believe really believes in the state. When the marching bands and troops go past the reviewing stand where the great leader sits, there is a sense of the masses saying to the monarch or president: We know that the state doesnt really exist, but we are doing all this to help you to believe for us. The same can also often be said about religious ceremonies. This role of the "one supposed to believe" is all important in any ideological construct. And states are ideological constructs.

Its at this point that groups like the 32CSM and éirígí are mistaken when they say they do not recognise that the Irish Republic exists. Because in saying that, they are implying that other states do exist – when they don’t, except as the empty spaces named by signifiers.

As the king or president takes over the role of the chief believer in the empty space that is the state, so in 1867 the Supreme Council of the IRB took on the role of the chief believer in the Irish Republic. Probably not so difficult as they were about the only believers in it. As the priest says at mass: through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The huge variety believers are made one community by the signifier “The Holy Spirit,” and particularly through the chief “person supposed to believe” in the Holy Spirit, the Pope. Hundreds of millions of people become one community through the action of the Master Signifier. And its an important point that the only thing vital about the president or the monarch or the Pope, is that he/she performs the role of believing. They can be a complete idiot, as many of Europe’s monarchs have been. It dosnt matter. The important thing is that they perform the act of beliving in the state. There is no surer sign that belief in the state is genuine than the willingness to kill and be killed for the empty space that is the state. Indeed, the sacrifice of blood seems to be an important psychological factor in winning the belief of people in a state and winning their allegiance to it.

So what is it about human society that causes the need for states? Or put another way, what is that thing that the Master Signifier “state” is an attempt to name. What is that trauma in society that the state is brought forward as the answer to? The simple answer to that is class. The fact that some people have wealth and power and others do not. That society is organised around the division of people into those who labour and those who enjoy the fruits of that labour without working for it. A capitalist will see that state as that which has the function of maintaining private property and the class relations that go with private property. The Proclamation of 1867 called for an entirely different function for the state – “We aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour. The soil of Ireland, at present in the possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people, and to us it must be restored.” How far the 1867 Proclamation meant to go with this is open to question, but certainly a Marxist state is one which addresses the question of class by closing the gap between the classes and thus leading to the withering away of the state. This brings us to the crux of the matter. The Master Signifier names an empty space – the state. But what is that empty space in reality? None other than the gap between the classes. This gap beween the classes, this empty space, is the trauma on which society is based and which the state is called into being to name and control.

So what do we mean when we say we recognise the 32 County Irish Republic as the legitimate state in Ireland? Do we mean we recognise it because people voted for it in 1918? No, we don’t mean that. Votes really have nothing to do with the origins of states. They come into existence as signifiers to give a name to the gap between classes. What name we give the state will declare in what way we mean to manage the gap between the classes. The 32 County Socialist Republic obviously means that the state we give our allegiance to is a state which will close this gap and abolish class distinction, thus leading to its own withering away. On the other hand, the 26 county free state is a state which intends to maintain the gap between the classes and thus maintain itself as the signifier of an empty space. It will do this through its armed police, state media and education system.

So we see that it is incorrect for the 32CSM and éirígí to say that the Republic does not exist (I dont know RNUs position). The Republic exists as much as any other state does, i.e. not at all except as a signifier which describes class division. The Republic, as proclaimed in 1867, is a signifier for the closing of class division. The British state is a signifier for the maintainance of class division. It is surely entirely counter-productive to claim that only the British state exists in Ireland, as this is to deny the signifier of the closing of class division. From 1867 onwards, we have had a tradition of the maintainance of at least one institution of the Republic. Nobody appointed the IRB Supreme Council to be the first institution of the Republic. The space was empty and nobody else wanted to step into it, so they did. The same can be said for the Provisional Government of 1916. The same can be said of the First Dáil. The fact that Sinn Féin had won a majority of votes was neither here nor there. The space of the Republic had been created already. In 1922 the bourgeois elements realised that the British state protected their interests better that the Irish Republic would and they turned on the Republic. The Second Dáil continued holding the place of the Republic open, and when it could no longer do that, it passed on the task to the armed forces of the Republic. There was nobody else who could do it. And so it has continued till this day. CIRA openly state that this is their function. RIRA do not say so, but they behave as if they do. In fact, RIRA exercise the Governmental Authority of the Irish Republic just as much, if not more so, than CIRA does. The Governmental Authority is not a football that has to be passed from person to person. Or that somebody can hold for themselves and only pass on to chosen people. No, everyone becomes part of the Governmental Authority of the Irish Republic simply by acting as part of the Governmental Authority. But the armed forces of the Republic cannot do anything but maintain the empty space of the signifier. For the Governmental Authority to really change the de facto disposition of class structure in Ireland we need civilian institutions of the Republic. There is no question of asking any permission from the armed forces to do this, or of the IRA handing back the Governmental Authority in a 1938 style proclamation. The civilian institutions - federated community councils - will be legislating institutions of the Irish Republic, will be the de facto Governmental Authority of the Irish Republic, because that's what they will actually be. Any statement after the fact will be superfluous. Its true that at present a majority of Irish people do not want to be part of the institutions Irish Republic, but that is certainly not the same as saying that no institution of the Republic exists, or that the signifier of the Republic does not exist. It is also true that a great many Irish people would like to be part of the instutions of the Republic if that choice was available to them. It seems to me the immediate task of the Republican Movement is to make that choice available to the Irish people. Neither the Brits nor the free staters would be able to stop us doing this.

The Republic is our Greatest Strength

To deny the Irish Republic is to deny the ability of the Irish people to create signifiers. Its to say that our signifiers must be created for us by the British and then presented to us with the permission of the British government. It is really to deny the intellect of the Irish people, as a people.

The Republic is our great strength, our words and actions are the concrete manifestations of the Republic, which inspires us to do and say them. Every Republican action or word is in itself a present victory of the Republic. Bourgeois states are manifested in pomp and splender and the bleeding of the working class. The 32 County Socialist Republic is manifested in the awaking of the Irish people and our breaking of the chains which hold us - both mental and physical. Indeed, its the great strength of the Republic over the bourgeois states that the Republic is fully manifested in the words and actions of the most humble Republican and without permission or thanks from anyone but him or herself. Republicans are the institutions of the Republic. And this should never change, even after the defeat of the bourgeois states. Direct Democracy will mean that there is no higher institution than the citizen.

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