In 1961, the French nationalist Dominique Venner wrote and published a manifesto titled For A Positive Critique whilst imprisoned for his membership of the OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète). It was a dissident paramilitary organisation committed to maintaining French colonial rule in Algeria.
Written in the aftermath of the failed military coup that year in French Algeria which served as a humiliation for the Right, Venner sought to extricate the movement from the various vices that plagued it (archaism, mythomania, opportunism etc.) and emphasize the importance of a sound, unifying doctrine, to serve as “a rudder for thought and action”.
Venner thus makes a distinction between the national and the nationalist. The national to Venner was he who was inherently without a foundation, an ideological conception which therefore lacked a sound mode of action.
In Ireland today, there is an emerging nationalist scene that could very well successfully hatch out from the cocoon into a movement. At its front there is a nucleus of intelligent and capable activists forming and a steadily developing social infrastructure, all of which are welcoming signs. However, it must always safeguard itself against complacency.
Whilst its potential is high, Irish nationalism finds itself in a very disadvantageous position, relative even to other nationalist movements in the Continent, where not only must it contend with the all-powerful enemy of neoliberalism, but it is yet to finish its original struggle in breaking the connection with England. It must not be forgotten that there remains almost two million people in the north-east under foreign occupation.
A clear, positive, and unifying doctrine is necessary to act as a bedrock, as the foundation of whatever Irish nationalist movement that materialises, like the Parable of the House on the Rock.
Above all else, a conceptual understanding of what it is you are standing for is the foundation to build a movement. It must be in the form of a positive doctrine, not merely reduced to a negative or intuitive way of thinking.
There is an interesting tale dating back to the Troubles, involving the UVF leader Gusty Spence, who was serving time in Maze prison. Spence was an interesting character in the loyalist movement, he was of course like many in the UVF, indicted in sectarian activity, having been convicted for the murder of an 18-year Catholic civilian. However, he also rather strangely had a unique and genuine respect for Irish republicans, seeing them not as terrorists, but as soldiers and worthy enemies. In a movement that was notorious for its thuggery, disorganisation, its internal feuding, and lack of any real political strategists or thinkers, Spence stood out as one of the more intelligent and strategically capable men.
He also began to experience a change in his political thinking whilst in prison, he began to ask his fellow comrades in prison, some of whom incredibly young, “Why are you here, son?”, for what cause were they fighting for. He rarely got a satisfying answer to his questions, and it invoked quite a lot of annoyance and contempt amongst his comrades. But what Spence was seeking to show was the lack of ideological understanding that underpinned why these people had decided to forsake their freedom for a cause they did not seem to really understand.
What was the Ulster these people were fighting for? What defined the “nation” of Ulster? What defined the Ulster Protestant? All these questions seemed to remain unanswered. It was what differentiated, in the eyes of the British, a highly dedicated, well-organised force in republicanism, to a mere collection of gangsters in loyalism.
From this Spence concluded that the loyalist movement needed to go down a political and more ideological road, and managed to build up a small circle of people who either shared or were won over to his way of thinking. These men would be instrumental later, as the conflict in the North was losing steam by the early 1990s, in brokering loyalist ceasefires and helping to develop the peace process.
“For a Positive Critique” is often heralded as a right-wing equivalent of Vladimir Lenin’s “What is to be done?” and Venner himself makes that comparison, stating:
The works of Marx are immense, unreadable, and obscure. A Lenin was needed to extract a clear body of doctrine and to transform this enormous hotchpotch into an effective weapon of political war. Nationalism has behind it its collective Marx, just as obscure and unsuitable as the companion of Engels could be for the Russia of 1903. It is imperative to create a collective Lenin.
Other nationalist movements cannot be spoken for, but for Irish nationalism, it can be said that it has its collective Lenin: Pádraig Pearse, and its own “What is to be done?” in the Coming Revolution.
In the final four chapters of the Coming Revolution, from “Ghosts” to “The Sovereign People”, Pádraig Pearse assembles, in his words, the gospel of Irish nationality. In it he seeks the counsel of the ghosts of Ireland past, and unites eight hundred years of the separatist struggle into the nationalist creed. These can be reduced to three basic key tenets:
- The political unity of the nation in all its parts (Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter) and the necessity for breaking the connection with England, establishing a nation that is totally independent and self-governing.
- The spiritual freedom of the nation which necessitates the preservation and revival of its native Gaelic character.
- The sovereign right of the people, the sole and total right of the Irish people to the land of Ireland, never allowing such a right to be subverted by any hostile faction, domestic or foreign.
This is Pearse’s threefold conception of Irish freedom: freedom of the political, freedom of the spiritual, and freedom of the sovereign. From this conception alone from one of Ireland’s greatest men with the counsel of Tone, of Mitchel, of Lalor and of Davis, a more than sufficient doctrine for Irish nationalism can be found.
To Pearse, the nation is as holy to the nationalist as the Church is to the Christian:
“Like a divine religion, national freedom bears the marks of unity, of sanctity, of catholicity, of apostolic succession. Of unity, for it contemplates the nation as one; of sanctity, for it is holy in itself and in those who serve it; of catholicity, for it embraces all the men and women of the nation; of apostolic succession, for it, or the aspiration after it, passes down from generation to generation from the nation’s fathers.
A nation’s fundamental idea of freedom is not affected by the accidents of time and circumstance. It does not vary with the centuries, or with the comings and goings of men or of empires. The substance of truth does not change, nor does the substance of freedom. Yesterday’s definition of both the one and the other is today’s definition and will be tomorrow’s.
As the body of truth which a true church teaches can neither be increased nor diminished — though truths implicit in the first definition may be made explicit in later definitions — so a true definition of freedom remains constant; it cannot be added to or subtracted from or varied in its essentials, though things implicit in it may be made explicit by a later definition. If the definition can be varied in its essentials, or added to, or subtracted from, it was not a true definition in the first instance.“
But of course, there are different trials to be faced than those that the men of previous generations had faced. The Ireland of today is obviously radically different from the Ireland of 1798 or 1848 or 1916. A nationalist doctrine must anchor itself onto the wider struggle against the current global neoliberal system, and clearly define what neoliberalism is. A term which is often aimlessly bandied about as a vague descriptor, a bogeyman of sorts.
But they are Ireland’s most powerful enemies, their roots on this island are from English dominion, and today take on many different forms. Namely, in the form of the entire political apparatus both north and south, in the form of non-governmental organisations, in the form of big capital and faceless bureaucracy, in the form of Anglo-American soft power. Their tentacles over this island are gargantuan.
Connolly’s warning that the English would still rule Ireland through its landlords and financiers if not through its army and government was prophetic. Indeed it is very sensible to condemn that wretched social order of capitalism, or the social derangement as James Fintan Lalor would describe it most brilliantly:
“But it is accomplishing something more than mere social derangement, or a dislocation of classes. It has come, as if commissioned, to produce at length, and not too soon, a dissolution of that state and order of existence in which we have heretofore been living. The constitution of society that has prevailed in this island can no longer maintain itself, or be maintained.”
You also cannot help to feel that there are many people who see that timeless watchword of “Ireland for the Irish”, first proclaimed by Mitchel, then reasserted by Pearse, as merely an anti-immigration slogan, for that seems to be its only real employment. There is nothing wrong with being opposed to mass immigration, no doubt, but “Ireland for the Irish” encompasses something much greater.
“Ireland for the Irish” means the whole island of Ireland, and that the whole land of Ireland belongs to the whole people of Ireland; not vested in any oligarchy but in the common ownership of the material wealth of the nation, and yes, “Ireland for the Irish” also means an Irish Ireland. And what will make an Irish nationalist movement unassailable is an equally dedicated commitment to each of those three pillars of Irish freedom.
There are many of the vices that Venner is scathing against in regards to the “nationals” in French Algeria that can be said to have been or still be prevalent within the Irish nationalist movement. We can certainly think of neurotic cranks or opportunists, one would perhaps use the more apt term “grifter” for those who belong to the latter category; there are the archaists, clinging on to now worthless modes of action and rapidly fading ideals or long dead ideals; or the mythomaniacs who see themselves as rebels according to their own self-delusion.
Every so often, there are debates about the same worthless and banal subjects, whether it be debating the Treaty or Celtic paganism, or some other irrelevancy; there are the same continued semantics as to what or who constitutes a nationalist or a republican? What is a nation? What does it matter? What purpose do those discussions hold, other than at best being a waste of time, or at worst, some snide attempt at derailing? As Pearse very wisely said of the movement of his time, a nationalist movement that wastes its time on such expediencies devolves into a debating society.
It is evident however that there are many capable and intelligent people within these circles who wish to establish a legitimate nationalist movement, and that requires many things; perseverance, dedication, intelligence; but it requires most importantly as the foundation of a movement, a guiding principle, a sound doctrine, and mode of action worthy of the national spirit it claims to represent and serve.