Progressive nationalism: combatting the far-right in the struggle for national liberation

Left Unity congratulates Sinn Féin on its historic election victory. As party president Mary Lou McDonald says, this is indeed a revolution at the ballot box and we wish Sinn Féin every success in broadening and deeping this process. We are proud to publish here the contribution of Sinn Féin Senator Paul Gavan, given at the No Pasaran: confronting the rise of the far-right conference in London last year.

“It was a great privilege to be asked to participate in the London Conference: ‘No Pasaran – Confronting the Rise of the Far-Right’. The Conference demonstrated all that is good and beneficial when the left comes together to share experiences and exchange ideas particularly when we need to unite to face the rising threat from the far-right. And it is clear to any political observer that the political far-right is on the offensive. Irish Republicans are all too familiar with the far right. It could be said that we’ve been battling colonial, reactionary and right-wing policies for 800 years! The struggle for national liberation and socialism in Ireland is still not yet complete.

In recent years in the North of Ireland, we have had the so-called ‘flag protesters’, supported by so-called ‘Britain First’ and their fellow-travellers. And of course we have the DUP, the Democratic Unionist Party – famously described as the ‘political wing of the 17th Century’ – with its backward racist, homophobic, and fundamentalist nonsense. A party which is currently at the centre of political dysfunction in Belfast and political dysfunction in London. The only upside of the DUP’s new-found status within Westminster is that an awful lot more people in Britain are now aware of the anachronistic politics of the DUP. So, how are we combating the political far-right in Ireland?

Firstly, by insisting on an Ireland of Equals. This is to be achieved through building alliances and sticking first and foremost to our task of a rights-based society. By giving support to the broad-based campaigns for issues like equal marriage, legislative language rights, women’s reproductive rights, and legacy mechanisms for victims and survivors of the conflict. And by campaigning for a Unity Referendum as the vehicle for full Irish independence and sovereignty.

The imposition of Brexit on Ireland is a direct consequence of partition. Partition has stunted economic, political, social, cultural and community development across the island. As Gerry Adams once said: “The failure of partition is the strongest argument for its abandonment.”

In the light of Brexit, Irish reunification is increasingly being viewed as the most practical and viable route to economic prosperity and social progress in Ireland. Unity is also the only principled position for anti-imperialists to take. Sinn Féin will continue to encourage this discussion within Ireland and will continue to advocate for constitutional and political change. But we need support for this position from everyone on the Progressive Left internationally.

In this context, I wish to briefly explore the topic of ‘Progressive Nationalism’ and the responsibly on all of us on the left to support the completion of the anti-imperialism struggle in Ireland and internationally. It is a point I discussed at the No Pasaran Conference and on which I received most feedback. It is however something which I feel needs to be repeated.

As the Progressive Left, we need to get away from a simplistic view that that nationalism in any manifestation is bad and regressive. We cannot cede that ground to the Right and allow nationalism to become a dirty-word amongst the Left. Nationalism is indeed a weapon employed by the Far-Right, and a deadly weapon at that. But it should not be their sole preserve. There is progressive nationalism, particularly since anti-colonial struggles have inevitably and inherently been national in their character and taken the form of national liberation movements. In Ireland, as in other anti-imperialist struggles, nationalism has been, primarily, a progressive vehicle in challenging oppression, domination and building resistance through indigenous identity, language, and culture.

Irish nationalism is not about excluding anyone. This identity is grounded in opposition to imperialism, militarism and aggression. It belongs to all the people of Ireland and the Irish diaspora in our increasingly multi-cultural and multi-ethnic diversity. The strong support for the rights of the Palestinian people across Ireland is one obvious and immediate example of the progressive instinct of this political culture.

Fundamentally, we should celebrate things that unite us – but also the differences and the diversity which gives us strength and sets us apart from the narrow, reactionary and inward-looking nationalism of the right – a misinformed perspective that has largely grown out of a culture of colonial oppression, domination, discrimination and inequality.

One form or another of Progressive Nationalism been the backbone of every anti-imperialist struggle of the last 100 years. Think of Cuba, think of Vietnam. If we misunderstand the nationalism of oppressed peoples, how can we then stand alongside National Liberation Struggles across the globe?

The articulation of a Progressive Nationalism – particularly in the pursuit of National Liberation and the creation of a socialist society – is entirely defensible. As the great socialist Irish Republican James Connolly once summarised:

We are out for Ireland for the Irish. But who are the Irish? Not the rack-renting, slum-owning landlord; not the sweating, profit-grinding capitalist; not the sleek and oily lawyer; not the prostitute pressman – the hired liars of the enemy. Not these are the Irish upon whom the future depends. Not these, but the Irish working class, the only secure foundation upon which a free nation can be reared.’

Elsewhere he said that: ‘the socialist of another country is a fellow patriot, as the capitalist of my own country is a natural enemy.’ So too do we see it today.

In my work in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I increasingly hear the shrill voices of Fascism. Whether it be members of the Fidesz Party, of Hungary, complaining that we should not use the words ‘Human Rights’ when speaking about migrants. Or the Polish Law and Justice Party or Alternative for Germany with their openly racist policies towards migrants and refugees. I have also seen the outworkings of Fortress Europe. An ongoing shame which leaves thousands of migrants to drown in the Mediterranean each year whilst paying off gangster Governments in Libya and Turkey to keep migrants away from European shores.

Across Europe we are witnessing the mainstreaming of Far-Right language and ideas. And one of the reasons this is happening is because there is a wall of silence in regard to these issues from much of the so called political-centre. A ‘centre’ which of course isn’t that particularly ‘centre’ at all! We need to call out the shameful silence of these so-called ‘centrists’. We need to highlight their repeated complicity in the Human Rights atrocities in the world today.

In Ireland, our governing party Fine Gael shares membership of the European People’s Party with the fascist Fidesz Party of Hungary. A party which flagrantly carries out immigration detention of children in cages along the Serbian border.

As well as calling out these so-called ‘centrists’, we need to recognise and learn from the mistakes and failures of the social democratic left across Europe. The social democratic left has not only been silently complicit in the growth of anti-migrant sentiment but also largely responsible for the demise of the welfare state and for the emergence of the post-Cold War global order.

Remember, it was the SPD under Gerhard Schroeder which first brought the Hartz reforms to Germany. It was the Irish Labour Party that acquiesced to a humiliating handover of economic sovereignty and years of crippling austerity. It was the British Labour Party under Tony Blair which championed US imperialism and endorsed the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

What civic involvement and support can social democratic parties expect from ordinary people when they are the same parties which contributed to poverty and increasing inequality through austerity packages and cuts for to public services? What faith in international solidarity can one ever have with them when social democratic governments supported the dropping of bombs in the name of a very selective version of humanitarianism?

But perhaps the biggest failure of the social democratic left is its failure of vision. In whatever form it took, in whichever state, it consistently failed to give working class people any vision of an alternative way to run society. A way to run things that was not completely compliant with the needs of big capital. This failure to articulate an alternative world, left a space which the political Far-Right was all too prepared to fill and occupy.

We as a radical, progressive Left need to be clearer and bolder in offering our vision of a different society. As Thomas Paine famously said: ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again.’

We must connect in a much more direct way with working people. We stand at a crossroads and the choice is simple; the progressive left must turn resolutely to a united platform of political, economic and social transformation. We must build new strategic political and civic alliances.

These must be both domestic and also international; the cause of progressives in Ireland is that same fight for equality and social justice across Europe. And, in the context of the increasing existential threat posed by climate change, we must build a global movement for social justice and change across our world. In the face of these enormous challenges we must not allow Europe to splinter and fragment; we must unite in order to strengthen our collective cause. We must pluralise, not reduce, the sites of political struggle. We must endeavour to build a pan-European movement, as part of a global community, through shared political platforms, and common protest initiatives. Undoubtedly this is a mammoth task, we face huge challenges as a continent and internationally.

We must deal with rapidly advancing climate change; an ever evolving world of cyber-crime, and arenas of conflict never thought possible only a few years ago. As a global community we must urgently meet the needs of the huge refugee movements across the world; a world where citizens are already increasingly on the move for work. There is little doubt we must confront these challenges collectively.

We must also stand united, and consistent, in our rejection and opposition to the continued rise of the extreme ethnic nationalists. We need to mobilise migrant workers and encourage them to organise as part of the labour movement; not alienate them further. We need to definitively renounce neo-imperial ambitions; not chase a liberal European superstate with a common army.

We need to dismantle the neoliberal bureaucracy which remains a tumour on the European project; not abandon the European Union in its entirety. We need to build a parliament with revocable public offices and a non-technocratic, accountable, administrative apparatus. We need to bring to an end the austerity era and embrace labour market reforms that strengthen and extend workers’ rights in a real, Europe of Equals. We need to campaign for European-wide public ownership and extensive democratic popular control of the economy.

In short, having failed to reform Europe in the last decade; we need to begin the task of transforming Europe as an urgent political project in the time ahead.”

Paul Gavan is a Senator in the Irish Parliament and is Sinn Féin Seanad Spokesperson for Education and Workers Rights.

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