Nearly 25 years ago a major ideological shift took place in the Socialist Workers Movement, one that virtually nobody in today’s SWP will be aware of. This was of course the “neo-colony” debate, although debate may be putting things a little too strongly. It was decided, on the basis of a hefty document from Kieran Allen (The Nature of the Southern State), that the Free State was not in fact a semi-colonial, “imperialised” state but rather an advanced European capitalism much like any other.
The debate was unusual in that, if memory serves, the initiative did not come from Britain. One irritating thing about the SWM was that our conference could decide what it liked, but big shifts in policy would normally arrive with the Pooka, as Cliff would have a brainstorm in the run-up to the British SWP conference in November and this would then be translated into Irish terms. Now, Kieran was always basically a Cliff man – Cliff had elevated him to the leadership, after all – so it can be safely assumed that the Poms were consulted before the change was taken to the Irish membership. I wasn’t in the inner circle, so I can’t be certain of this, but I would lay money on it. Nonetheless, the drive for the change came from Ireland, though Cliff’s methodology was much in evidence.
Cliff used to have a rationale for arriving at new theoretical positions, which was based on working back from a bad position to its supposed theoretical roots, and then formulating a new theory which would safeguard his organisation against the bad position. A lot of the supporting argumentation for the state capitalist theory of Russia took the form of arguing that the Healy movement’s pro-Stalinist position during the Korean War derived from their holding a degenerated workers state position, and the adoption of state capitalism would allegedly protect us from this terrible deviation. (See also the Harman-Mandel debate in the 1980s, when Chris Harman, a very intelligent man, was forced to systematically falsify the history of the Fourth International.) Kieran’s document on the Southern state was really an application of the same method.
What exercised Kieran was the Provos’ embrace of electoral politics and a (largely rhetorical) leftism, and the magnetic pull that was having on the far left. Already we had seen Peoples Democracy, a much stronger organisation, go into a state of virtual collapse as the majority of its militants went over to Sinn Féin. We were also leaking members, albeit on a smaller scale – partly because we had fewer people to lose, mainly because PD’s concentration in the North and much more intimate links to the Provo base rendered them more vulnerable. The dominant view in the SWM was that we had to guard ourselves against the danger of defections to the Shinners, and it was that pragmatic view that informed the ideological shift.
Kieran’s basic argument was that PD had got what was coming to them because they had “tailed” republicanism – a pretty tendentious view given their and our comparative records over H-Block. But then, for reasons best known to himself, he chose to aim his fire at our theory of the Southern state, which had been pretty well established since the SWM’s formation in 1971. Of course, the preceding SWM position was not dealt with directly, as Kieran’s polemics were mostly aimed towards the extravagances of republican politics, such as the Provos’ argument that the Southern ruling class were direct puppets of Britain, or some of the absurdities developed by the Sticks under the baleful influence of Eoghan Harris. The positive argument for the new position was simply a few tables showing that various characteristics of capitalism applied to Ireland, while failing to hide the fact that this was a very peculiar sort of capitalism.
But, as you might expect, the debate centred not on the empirical evidence or lack thereof, but on the supposed consequences of neo-colonial theory. It was argued that, if we accepted the South as a neo-colonial state, we would inevitably be driven towards Stalinist-style popular front politics, towards unity with Irish capital and specifically with Fianna Fáil. This ignored the fact that in the previous eleven years we had never felt the urge to unite with Irish capital – nor for that matter had Peoples Democracy, the IWG or the LWR, all of which had substantially similar positions.
At the time I didn’t challenge this, nor did I seriously question the new position until after the SWM had dispensed with my services some years later. I was much more concerned with our line on the North, and the general view was that not only would this not weaken our position on the North, it would actually strengthen it, as we would have no illusions in the possibility of there being a “patriotic bourgeoisie”. Actually, as it happens, there were consequences flowing from the new line that we weren’t really aware of at the time, and that did serve to weaken our politics in the longer term.
The basic consequence was that the national question was confined to the North. Without really noticing it, we moved away from a perspective of a nationwide struggle for national liberation and socialism, and towards a view that in the South there was a class struggle pure and simple, with only a platonic connection to the North. That became the consistent line. It also strengthened economistic tendencies in the Northern SWM, although less consistently as reality had a tendency to impose itself. Opposition to imperialism, which was the outcome of an all-Ireland perspective, came to be reframed simply as opposition to sectarianism, which I think is the logical outcome of a perspective confined to the North. Not that we ever went over to the West British Marxism of Militant – even the most strident economists balked at Militant’s conclusions – but we gradually developed premises that weren’t a million miles from theirs.
And the moral of this story? I suppose that you have to try and base your politics on empirical reality, and think through your conclusions before you jump. And if you believe that adopting a particular dogma can ward off political sin like a cross repels a vampire, you’re likely to find the unintended consequences of that hastily adopted dogma turning round and biting you in the ass.