Circular Politics
Circular Politics

Circular Politics

By Lean Tolentino

Wednesday 5 July 2023

Lean Tolentino is a member of the editorial committee and an eco-socialist. The views expressed herein are only their personal views.

On the picture, members of the Limerick Soviet, photographer unknown.

Against Movementism, Against Tailism

People in the socialist movement are often very afraid of criticising themselves or any past projects they associate with, they engage in a circular kind of politics, drawing a strong circumference which they rarely expand, though often-times leaving when caught up in the moment. The reality is that the history of the socialist movement in Ireland can be described largely by one word: failure. I firmly believe a large part of this failure is down to an obsession with leaving this circle on a whim and ‘following the current thing’, this comes in two key forms in Ireland, either in following the current majority of the republican and socialist movement, referred to as ‘movementism’, or ‘tailism’, meaning blindly following popular sentiment.

Modern Success, Modern Failure

We see this with issues like the water charges, socialists capitalised on the issue and it worked very well, allowing themselves to establish bases of support in working class communities in the big cities of Ireland. However, this is one of a few rare instances. For example, when the BlackLivesMatter movement occurred worldwide, various parties organised protests and marches without an underlying and clear strategy. They did manage to create some long-lasting anti-racist groups in various communities out of these, however their success was largely limited by a failure to continuously and actively engage with minority communities on the issues that plagued them, i.e. a failure to conduct a concrete analysis of the specific issues of racism in Ireland. Nowhere is this clearer than with the Mincéirí. The Mincéirí community is perhaps the most oppressed group in this nation, the liberation of the Mincéirí community is the principal issue of anti-racism in Ireland, yet socialists were and are very afraid to extend their support to the community to any extent that would damage their reputation with a largely prejudiced populace. 

This issue is clearer up north. Recently, so called republicans attended the coronation of a foreign monarch, Charles. This led to almost every socialist party in the six counties blasting them for abandoning their principles and breaking their promises. While most republicans were disappointed and many swore they would never vote for Sinn Féin again (I can say this from personal experience canvassing), this was not the deciding factor in the election. We can thus say two things, that socialists were caught up in the coronation fever, however, we should be honest, and also say this approach of criticising Sinn Féin and not caving into sectarianism and nationalist sentiments at the expense of the class struggle was the right approach. At first sight, it may appear that it was the wrong move, however, if ever Ireland becomes united, republican communities will find to their horror only a 32 county free state, and the stance against the constitutional nationalism of modern Sinn Féin will be vindicated.

Socialists were right in this regard and unlike many times before, did not sacrifice long term success for short term victories. Their failure to truly make clear and push the consciousness of workers away from the sectarian Sinn Féin versus DUP premise of northern politics is noteworthy, but they at least succeeded in falling to opportunism.

The History of Movementism in Ireland

However, the curse of uncritically following popular sentiment in Ireland, or abroad is not just a recent thing, as I have claimed it has plagued Irish socialism for generations. During the Irish Civil War, the labour movement was obsessed so vigorously with the Soviet experiment that they neglected the national question. They set up their own soviets and denounced the anti-treaty and pro-treaty side as enemies of a 32-county socialist republic. The labour movement neglected a concrete analysis of the current crisis of the Irish Civil War, the nature of the free-state dictatorship and its hostility towards both workers and republicans, thus allowing the government to crush both of them.

During the late 60s, the civil rights movement in Ireland campaigned for equal rights for Catholics in the north. It proved the case of mass participation in the struggle in the six counties, however, it fell apart because the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association was not capable of defending itself from the onslaught of the crown forces, these crown forces and their guns had essentially destroyed civil rights activists from being able to engage in marches and protests. 

Yet on the other hand, while the provisionals realised the case of socialism and workers rights was necessary to achieve a 32-county republic as outlined by the 1916 rebels, they failed to unite armed struggle with mass struggle. This essentially led to them engaging in adventurism1 and in some cases, unjustified atrocities. It is this mixing up of adventurism and hardline socialist politics (creating the idea to some they are identical), along with the opportunism of the like of the 1986 leadership of Sinn Féin that lead to their abandonment of working-class communities in the occupied six and the free state. Gone are the days of Dublin Housing Action Committee2, of a republican land war with free state forces. 

What Our Response Today Should Be

Socialists today should realise despite the growth of militant republicanism amongst some communities, that the Good-Friday-Agreement and the failures of the provisionals have rendered provisional-style armed struggle ineffective in today’s context. To ignore this fact would once again be a case of blindly ‘following the current thing’. In fact, many of these militant republican groups would not even push for such acts today.

Socialists should realise the necessity of a 32-county republic, yet also realise the fears of violence by a majority of the populace. Socialists should state clearly, we want peace, however, the current peace forged by the Good Friday Agreement is, as Martin Luther King would say, a peace born out of lack of tension, not the presence of justice, arguing for the latter peace we must make clear our demands for not a 32 county free state, but a 32 county socialist republic, and that any individual act of repression must be appropriately justified.

So what is the solution to ‘following the current thing’ blindly? Quite simply, it is appropriate and concrete analysis, not one that is withdrawn, behind the books, but one that is active, dynamic and born out of struggle, out of action. After all, it is when our strategies and tactics do not yield precisely the result that we want, that we realise their flaws, but we must in fact, learn from these flaws, we must not repeat them and we certainly must not continue along the same line of action which sprung up these flaws in the first place. But this analysis should not be limited to just Ireland or the past. We absolutely must consider new tactics, and we must look at the countries, those of us in the Western world too often ignore, the Philippines, Mexico, and the Kurdish territories. We should not engage in meaningless sectarianism, there is much to be learnt from the success of anyone who has revolution on their mind, even Lenin read and learnt from the liberals and revisionists.

We should be highly critical of the immense and countless failures of the past, of the failures of the armed campaign, the civil rights movement and beyond. Marx himself said, ‘ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.’3 While holding onto Pearse, Connolly, Costello and the likes, we must not be afraid, and realise that ultimately many of their decisions resulted in failure, we must take from them what we can and furnish something successful out of it, as it is precisely what they would have wanted.


  1. Adventurism, meaning here, engaging in radical actions without first building a broad and effective base of support
  2. A radical direct action group that fought with Dublin City Council and the landlord class, engaging in occupations, protests, and more. Sinn Féin was heavily involved in the organisation.
  3. Marx K., Letter To Ruge, 1843

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