Getting back to the grindstone – it’s been work, not laziness, that accounts for a little sparsity in these parts of late – it’s past time to take a look at the year’s publishing sensation. No, not Amanda Brunker’s Champagne Babes, which I haven’t got round to looking at yet, but The Lost Revolution, which just about everyone on the Irish left seems to either have read or be reading. (And if they aren’t, they should.) And this is as it should be, because its story – that of the Official IRA, the Workers Party and their associated groups – is an important one, dealing with a movement that used to be very big and had a serious impact on Irish politics, and dealing with it in a wealth of detail that hadn’t previously been available.
I admit to having enjoyed it immensely, and would go so far as to use the Belfast colloquialism, stickin’ out. It’s a breeze block of a book, with a good 600 pages of text, and obviously quite a lot that still was abbreviated, and yet it’s a compulsive page turner. I finished reading my copy maybe nine or ten days ago, and yet still keep flicking through it, revisiting episodes and making notes. There is a fair old bit in there that I didn’t know. There is a lot that I used to know but had either forgotten or remembered wrongly. There’s that weird feeling you get when reading a history book that’s dealing with quite familiar figures. And the engaging narrative style is not just a bonus but a part of the whole.
It’s been said, including by the authors themselves, that this is not an analytical work but a narrative. I don’t have a problem with that, in general. I do like polemics (hence my fondness for the written works of Caoimhín Ó Beoláin), but a polemical approach would maybe have curtailed the authors’ access, and more importantly, the straight narrative does have a valuable place in historical writing. It does mean there are some odd disjunctures, when a leading figure says something and then a few years later says something exactly opposite. But even assuming the authors could have agreed on an analytical approach, it would be difficult to fit a close study of the movement’s ideological development in the narrative. (I’m currently having a reread of Seán Swan’s book, which is more bounded in time, more focused on the ideology, and geared more towards the enthusiast than the general reader. It works reasonably well as a complement.) What I think The Lost Revolution does achieve is to establish itself as a primary source, not unlike what The Secret Army did for the pre-1969 IRA, and some more interpretive approaches in the future will doubtless have to take it into account.
There is something else that is very important in terms of the book, and that is the extraordinary number of interviews that the authors have carried out to supplement the documentary record. It’s what lends the book a lot of its flavour, as Richard English was saying at the Belfast launch. It’s in the quotes from the interviews that you get a sense of the movement through the eyes of the people who were in it, their experiences, memories and impressions. You also come to form quite a vivid picture of the leading individuals. So you have Goulding, a character who, had he not existed, his friend Brendan Behan would have had to invent him – there’s certainly a sense of what an attractive figure Goulding was, as well as what a pain in the ass he could occasionally be. You have Mac Giolla as the cautious conciliator, always anxious to avoid unnecessary division, yet resolute once he had picked his side. You have Costello the dynamic, sometimes arrogant hotshot – he almost swaggers off the page – impatient with those who hadn’t caught up with his latest brainstorm, and with a fatal tendency to choose drastic action as the first resort. And there’s the enigmatic figure of Garland, who may have liked to be the self-effacing behind-the-scenes operator, but whose presence makes itself felt even when he isn’t there.
The characters come to life, and so do the settings. Mary McMahon’s sometimes caustic recollections of the Sticks in West Belfast ring absolutely true. To take it somewhere else, I’ve never had the pleasure of sitting through a Des O’Hagan lecture on dialectical materialism, but I’ve been in closely analogous situations and can well imagine what it was like.
There is in all this some danger of getting too close to your subject, but that’s a danger I can live with. We’ve had lots of books on the Provos that treat the Officials as a more or less interesting footnote, and it’s a movement that has really demanded to be considered as a thing in itself. What is more, you need to bring out the subjective factor. I hope readers will excuse me here as I go off on a bit of a ramble about a couple of historiographical bugbears, which you find in republican writing with its well-defined hagiographies and demonologies, but also in a modulated form in leftist writing. This will take us quite some way from the subject matter, so bear with me.
The first issue can perhaps be dealt with by starting with Leo Strauss’s distinction between a historical account and a historicist account. Strauss was specifically talking about his specialised area of classical philosophy, and how modern understanding of classical philosophy tended to be filtered through a Christian understanding of, say, Plato, rather than how Plato would have understood his own work. It’s debatable whether a pure historical account can ever be achieved, but you get the point. And Marxist writing has a particularly bad case of this, often dressed up as historical materialism, which dismisses the subjective aspect of history in favour of some modern-day schema.
I’m not just talking about anachronisms like interpreting the English or French Revolutions in terms of the Russian Revolution. (Trotsky using the categories of Thermidor and Bonapartism to try and analyse Stalinism was one thing; retrospectively interpreting Robespierre and Bonaparte as Lenin and Stalin avant la lettre is something else entirely.) There’s also the idea that if we have a convenient category – bourgeois/proletarian or reformist/revolutionary – then we can bypass the subjective factor. If you say that Cromwell led a bourgeois revolution, that tells you something in a general sociological sense, but if you want to understand Cromwell’s actions in any detail, you have to go into the very un-Leninist territory of the Puritan religion that was central to his thinking, and the conflict between duty to God and duty to King. Likewise, while the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène may be a little self-serving, it’s easy enough to determine what Robespierre or Bonaparte thought they were trying to do, rather than looking at them through the prism of events in Russia 120 years later.
I don’t mean that the subjective obliterates the objective, just that the two need to be taken in tandem, and unintended consequences also need to be factored in. You might look, for instance, at Jonathan Neale’s little book on the Vietnam War, which more or less explicitly says the NLF was fighting to build state capitalism. No it wasn’t. If you adhere to the Cliff theory of Stalinism you can say that state capitalism was what issued, but as far as the NLF was concerned it was fighting for national independence and socialism. Its actions can’t be explained otherwise, and if it didn’t achieve its highest ideals, that’s where unintended consequences come into play. And this is quite important in terms of Official Republicanism, because it used to be a byword that, while the Provos were relatively easy to figure out – any change that Gerry wanted to make would be signposted well in advance – you never knew what the Sticks would come out with next. Actually, much that at first glance seemed unbelievable, bizarre or unprecedented would be perfectly explicable in terms of the WP’s own discourse. This, of all movements, needs to be looked at in its own terms, if we can discard the idea that by sticking on a label of “reformist” or “Stalinist” we have thereby explained the movement.
My other point – and I know this is getting a bit prolix already – is about hindsight, and a sort of telescoped causality. You get a lot of this in writing about the Provos, which often assumes Gerry to be a superhuman genius or a uniquely malevolent figure (sometimes both) who is doing exactly what he wanted to do and moreover had everything planned out well in advance. My favourite example is Billy McKee’s argument that he’d always thought Adams to be basically a Stick. I’m not accusing Billy of being dishonest about his opinion, and I don’t want to dismiss it on the basis of his personal relations with Adams, which varied between the prickly and the poisonous. We can take his dislike and distrust towards Gerry as read, but there is actually a case that could be made along those lines. You could note that the young Adams was an enthusiast for the civil rights strategy, and was close to those in the Belfast leadership who went with the Officials in the split, being a particular protégé of Liam McMillen and Jim Sullivan. You could note Billy’s opposition to this strategy from a traditionalist republican standpoint, which is in continuity with his later opposition to Adams’ innovations within the Provos, which to a traditionalist would make Gerry look rather like a Stick on time delay. You could also note (as Sullivan pointed out in 1986) that Adams had attended the 1970 Ard Fheis, where he neither spoke nor walked out, and that his unit in Ballymurphy had been the last in Belfast to side with the Provos in the split. Those things are known, and to a particular way of thinking will indicate something of particular significance.
However, I don’t think this argument holds water, at least in those stark terms. For one thing, the thesis that Gerry was a Stick all along involves believing that he spent about 25 years pretending to be a Provo. Occam’s Razor would err on the side of him actually having been a Provo, but having ended up somewhere he didn’t anticipate. Besides, I’ve never believed that Gerry has spent twenty years or more assiduously working towards something like the present New Dispensation at Stormont. It makes more sense of the peace process if we assume Gerry to have spent much of his time navigating without a map or compass, in circumstances largely (though not entirely) beyond his control, chancing his arm in negotiations, and not always being fully conscious of what he was doing. Aspects of his character or preconceptions, which may have been apparent at earlier stages, will have informed whatever decisions he’s made, but beyond that I’m reluctant to go. It’s like taking de Rossa’s actions in 1992 and reading them back into something he said in 1982 or 1972. For that matter, although the de Rossa of today might try and say that he has always followed a consistent line (this of course is a normal human trait), I don’t think the de Rossa of 1992 was secretly aiming to move towards the positions he holds in 2009. It’s bad causality.
So, to take us (finally!) back to the matter at hand, you have to have the subjective aspect, and the contemporaneous aspect. You have to look at the Officials in terms of what they thought they were doing when they were doing it. You have to take into account the pressures they were under, internal and external. You have to take into account the tendency of radical movements to take positions based on considerations of tactics or expediency, then harden them into ideological stances, painting themselves into corners. Often people do the wrong thing for the right reasons, and only later does it become clear it was the wrong thing. Such are the confusions of real movements. Context, context and always context.
Well, that was just a bit of an extended rant about historical writing. Let me reiterate, I found the book most enjoyable and I think it’s mostly avoided the pitfalls I’ve been griping about. I’ll be returning to the book at length in the next wee while, looking at various themes that have leapt out at me. In the meantime, there are further considerations here, here and here.