These days Bew is best known as one of Ulster unionism’s small and hardy band of intellectual boosters. He was of course a long-time member of Trimble’s kitchen cabinet. Today he is a bigwig at the neoconservative Henry “Scoop” Jackson Society, a body whose patrons are a motley assortment of Cold War loons and whose journalistic farmhands include towering intellects like the oleaginous Kissingerite Oliver Kamm and the howling Croat nationalist Marko Attila Hoare. This marks him out as an honorary member of Nick Cohen’s Decent Left. But ‘twas not always thus. For most of his career, Bew was an early Althusserian Stalinist, and had some claims to be one of Ireland’s leading Marxist intellectuals.
It has to be said, though, that this was Marxism of a very peculiar kind. Bew was a member of the Workers Party, a group that managed to marry Irish Republicanism with Stalinism and replicate the least attractive features of both. Indeed, Bew adorned the WP’s ard chomhairle for many a year. His Marxism was therefore geared towards the practical needs of his sect. In doing so, it reached a level of sophistry wondrous to behold.
The best example can be found by simply turning to the seminal book The State in Northern Ireland, 1921-72: Political Forces and Social Classes (1979), by Swami Bew and his disciples Gibbon and Patterson. Don’t bother with the book as a whole – what you need to know is in the introduction. Therein Bew, Gibbon and Patterson declare that they have produced the first Marxist analysis of Norn Iron – all that has gone before is not Marxism but “Connollyism”. The three stooges dispense with this unscientific doctrine and restore Marxist orthodoxy by stripping out all that bollocks about imperialism (Leninist or otherwise). Instead, the Orange Bantustan was declared to be a normal bourgeois state, where sectarianism was a mere excrescence. In fact, there was a class struggle between “reactionary” and “progressive” wings of unionism, and the job of socialists was to support the progressive wing in its project of reform. Totally absent was any reference to the nationalist working class, except insofar as this imaginary progressive unionism had to be defended against the “Provo fascists”. Bew simply followed the logic of his ideology by becoming an advisor to David Trimble, the leader of unionism’s progressive wing.
But even before Bew made the break to unionism, this gobbledegook became part of the official theory of the Workers Party, and served to mislead the many thousands of workers influenced by that group down the years. It also influenced whole generations of politics students at Queens, where Bew acted as mentor to leading intellectuals like Austen Morgan (hagiographer of Connolly’s opponent Walker), professional red-baiter Anthony McIntyre and, er, Ian Óg Paisley. And goodness knows how many young socialists had their radicalism knocked out of them by exposure to this provincial variant of Stalinism.
So now Bew, alleged “expert on the Troubles”, scourge of any socialist who claimed imperialism had any relation to modern Ireland, has joined the appointed house of British imperialism’s legislature. In his rightward gallop, he now figures as an analogue to the late Gerry Fitt, only without the working-class background and instincts. And his former disciples must be green with envy that they haven’t been elevated alongside him. Having done just as much damage as Bew, surely they deserve a pleasant little sinecure on the red benches.