We may all be Chomskyans now, at least at an abstract level, but I still hold stubbornly that Sapir and Whorf were onto something. To recap, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, simply stated, involves the idea that linguistic structures are an important force in ordering cognition. There is a political analogue to this, which is that you can’t switch your vocabulary or categories willy-nilly without there being an impact on the underlying ideology. This is in contrast to most politicos, who hold to the Stephen Pinker view that thought is independent of language.
The one person in Irish politics who grasps this instinctively is Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, who may not be the first person you’d associate with theoretical linguistics. But if you get to hear Ruairí deliver a speech, you’ll be struck by how careful he is in his choice of words. This derives from the idea, quaint as it may seem today, that your words have an intrinsic meaning. And this, incidentally, is why RSF don’t contest local council elections in the North – while PSF candidates have merrily signed the mandatory anti-violence declaration, with tongue in cheek as Morrison said, Sinn Féin Eile refuse to sign a document they don’t agree with. It may be dogmatic, but it’s honest.
Now I want to consider the intrusion of liberalism into Irish politics, particularly as it’s affected republicanism and the left. I think we can take it that the first serious irruption of modern liberalism into the Irish body politic comes with the birth of the civil rights movement in the mid-60s. In its later manifestation as Humespeak, human rights liberalism has come to dominate discourse in the North, even being adopted in modulated form by the mad loyalists.
But I’m interested for the moment in its adoption by PSF, not universally by any means but being absolutely dominant with the more Sinn Féin Nua elements. Grizzlyspeak is not exactly Humespeak, just as PSF politics cannot simply be reduced to souped-up SDLP politics, but the categories are pretty much the same. The old republican touchstones have been replaced by a rights-based discourse, and even if those using this discourse retain republican opinions, it’s difficult to see how the shift in language couldn’t affect the underlying politics. It’s a bit like what happened to the old communists when they adopted the language of social democracy.
Actually, if I am right this is one of the few trends to move from North to South. For all the discussion of the D4 “liberal agenda”, and the concrete points of that agenda, the more nebulous ideological-linguistic element tends to go unremarked, except by Des Fennell. But it’s noteworthy that the Banana Republic has managed to reinvent itself as a model rights-based liberal democracy. This may or may not be a good thing in itself, but it’s worth remembering that human rights liberalism forms a discourse in itself, not only distinct from but opposed to the previously dominant discourses in the South, de Valera’s social Catholicism for most of the post-independence period and, prior to that, British parliamentary democracy. (A Burkean conservative would deduce from this that there is a tension between liberalism and British traditions, and he would be right.) These rival discourses go a long way to explaining why the tofu-eating South Dublin neo-democrats have never really constituted themselves as an Establishment in the British sense, but continue to see themselves as in opposition to Irishness as hitherto constituted.
You get similar tensions on the further left, but expressed in a different way. It’s my belief that British Marxism is extremely heavily influenced by liberalism, and you would expect that to be replicated by its Irish branch offices. It’s a lot more obvious with the SWP, who rarely use Marxist categories to explain anything. If you go to the Marxism event, you’ll be struck by this – unless you specifically go to one of the few educational sessions on Marxist theory, you won’t hear much that’s outside the bounds of Guardian liberalism. Differences will be in terms of conclusions, not categories.
The Socialist Party is a rather different animal. I’ve had occasion to lash the Millies for their economism, but it’s only fair to say that a little economism is a good thing. The problem that Marxists face is that Marxism, while it’s very good on economic categories, is extremely weak in certain other areas – notably politics, law and ethics. (There have been useful contributions on these, especially from the old Praxis group in Yugoslavia, but they don’t cut much ice with British neo-Trotskyism.) The trouble with the Militant tradition, following Kautsky, is that it deals with these gaps in a vulgar materialist manner, by stretching economic categories to cover areas they can’t really cope with. Hence the reductionist element in Militant reasoning.
But it’s not an easy question, is it? If we find Marxism to be inadequate in a particular area, do we stretch Marxist thought to breaking point to try and cover it? Engels certainly had a few choice words for the sort of cranks attracted to the early Marxist movement, each searching the answer to his own hobbyhorse. Or do we fill the gaps with liberal nostra, even if they don’t gel especially well with Marxism? And it’s the same thing with republicanism, which has always been more ideologically eclectic – do modern conditions require the adoption of liberal discourse, or can answers be found within the old traditions?