I was reading Henry Patterson’s Ireland since 1939 the other day, which is never a good sign, and was taken aback by his account of the 1960s. Specifically I am thinking of the Peoples Democracy “Long March” of January 1969, which Henry these days ascribes to a Leninist vanguardism on the part of PD. Back in his Workers Party days, Henry would have accused PD of ultraleftism, which I believe Peter Hadden still does. The thing is that, although PD’s historical record deserves a good bit of criticism, this is anachronistic and owes more than a little to the historiography developed by SFWP in the late 1970s, when they had long since fallen out with PD.
It’s a criticism, though, that pops up in the most striking places. I well recall Lord Trimble some years ago, no doubt drawing on the account of his friend Lord Bew, expatiating on how the “Trotskyites” had undermined the reforming unionist government of Captain O’Neill. You can, to be sure, draw a sort of line of descent, in that the nearest PD had to a theoretician was Mike Farrell, and Mike had been in the Irish Workers Group, which was Trotskyist after a fashion, and the Young Socialist Alliance of which he was the leading figure played a considerable role in setting up PD. QED. But again, this is anachronistic. The early PD wasn’t Trotskyist, and didn’t become so until about 1974-5. This anachronism, though, opens up the fascinating world of Trotskyism as it began to emerge in this country. Seán Matgamna, by the way, is writing a series on this, although like much of Seán’s work, while it contains lots of valuable nuggets, it’s prolix and tendentious in the extreme. Anyway, I’ll wait until it’s finished before reviewing it.
As Rayner Lysaght remarks in his “Early History of Irish Trotskyism”, a most enjoyable little essay, the movement only got established here very late, and after a number of false starts. The wartime RSP showed some real potential, but quickly sank without trace. For a brief while in 1944, the Trotskyists were holding bigger meetings in Belfast than the official CPNI, but by 1947 the Irish “section” of the FI was reduced to Johnny Byrne, a sympathiser of the US Shachtmanites, and Tony Cliff, cooling his heels in Dublin while waiting to be allowed back into Britain. And so the RSP was pretty much forgotten. (Paddy Healy eventually acquired a copy of the RSP’s 1944 Theses, but rather than publishing them as he should have done, kept the document stashed away in his sock drawer.)
Nor did the Trotskyist groups in Britain show much interest in Ireland, despite Gerry Healy, their main leader, being a Galway man by origin. Healy’s Socialist Labour League came to establish a branch of itself in Belfast (the young Tom Paulin was a member), but Gerry didn’t bother to try setting up an Irish section until 1970, when he needed an extra vote against Lambert in the International Committee. Militant picked up Irish students in Britain by ones and twos in the late 60s and early 70s before setting up an organisation, and IS did likewise after an abortive attempt to win over PD as a fraternal group. What that bequeathed us was the two most prominent groups on the further left today, although they remained very much moulded by the worldview of their British parent groups.
Post-war Irish Trotskyism as such therefore is the progeny of one man, that man being Gerry Lawless. Gerry, having been a dissident republican of sorts during Operation Harvest, somehow got a hold of some Trotskyist publications via the good offices of the American SWP, and became much taken with Trotsky’s analyses. Fetching up in London in the mid-60s, he founded the Irish Workers Group as a broad revolutionary formation, no less broad because of its small size.
The IWG was not initially a Trotskyist organisation, which is important to note. It began as a holding pen for anyone slightly to the left of the CD Greaves-Connolly Association milieu. Likewise, its membership in London was open to Irish expats, British leftists of Irish extraction, and British leftists with a vague interest in Ireland. It eventually acquired branches in Belfast and Dublin through London members going back home, circulation of the Irish Militant and so on. It also got a bit more politically defined, more by the natural workings of things than by design, notably when Brendan Clifford decamped with the Maoist faction to form the ICO, later the BICO.
Then Gerry did one of those things that must have seemed like a good idea at the time. He correctly realised that one of Irish Marxism’s big historical weaknesses was in the realm of theory – we’re even weaker in that area than the Brits and Yanks – and was also aware of his own limitations as a theoretician. So he recruited a bright young man, an expat from Clare, who seemed to have some ideas, and had already gathered a small following around himself.
Unfortunately for all concerned, Seán Matgamna (for it was he) had just completed his reading of JP Cannon’s The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, a great book but a dangerous one in the wrong hands. All fizzing over with Cannonite zeal, Seán had no sooner been recruited into the IWG than he declared a faction around the demand for a “homogeneous party”. What this meant in practice was a demand for the expulsion of Gerry Lawless. Seán was eventually defeated at the IWG’s March 1968 conference, but not before the atmosphere had considerably soured and the IWG was a limping shell.
And this leads us directly to October ’68 and the founding of Peoples Democracy. The YSA was the socialist core of PD, to be sure, but their socialism was of a very vague kind, and owed more to Marcuse than Trotsky. They were at the time extremely anti-Leninist in their organisational ideas, mainly because Farrell had been profoundly browned off by Matgamna’s habit of pulling out a quote from Lenin to sanctify whatever Matgamna wanted to do. And this, mixed in with the general 1968 zeitgeist, goes a long way to explaining just what an anarchic setup the early PD was. It was a regime that would even have our modern anarchists tearing out their hair.
Yes indeed, it was another age. Dovetailing a little with the Left Archive project over on Cedar Lounge, this sort of thing is worth coming back to again. Some of the exotica of Irish leftism – I’m thinking outfits like the LWR or the Workers League that have left the scene entirely – has a real antiquarian interest. And some might be embarrassing to those who don’t want their past record open to scrutiny. I really should do more of this historical sectariana.