The Lost Revolution: the Intercontinental


The story told in The Lost Revolution is often grim, but at points there’s a surprising amount of gritty humour, much of it showing through in the interviews. There’s one anecdote from near the start of the Troubles which, though it could have turned out very seriously at the time, had me almost falling off my chair in laughter. The context of this was that, after the split in the republican movement, both factions suspected that the other had left sleepers behind – which was almost certainly true – and in the febrile atmosphere of Belfast, where personal and family connections ran so deep, this led to a lot of paranoia. Apparently, at one stage the Official leadership in Belfast suspected Mary McMahon of being a closet Provo. Given what we subsequently know about Mary Mac’s years of stalwart service to the Workers Party, this seems so incongruous as to be almost surreal. But then, that’s with the benefit of hindsight.

Actually, there is a parallel to this in that for years it was rumoured around the Provisionals that Jim Gibney was a Stick. And I don’t mean in the pejorative sense that some militarists might have called Adams a Stick, because they thought him too political – it was actually alleged that Gibney was a Stick. I never believed that, and the only evidence anyone seemed to have for it was that he lived in Twinbrook, but it’s easy to see how these things get started and then develop legs of their own. And it demonstrates how the lines were not as clear-cut as perhaps partisans of either side would have liked to think.

If these posts have had a theme, it’s been on the unpredictability of historical events – events that are both overdetermined, to the point where they seem inevitable in hindsight, but also contingent. The 1969/70 split in republicanism is a classic example. There was of course the basic force of the different constituencies within republicanism all pulling in different directions; there were also multiple political issues, which changed quite rapidly in both their form and their weight. Here I want to pick out four interlinked aspects of the debates leading up to the split.

The National Liberation Front
In a sense, nobody but the most hardened military elitist denied the need to forge links with other radical tendencies – to the extent that those tendencies existed, for there could be nothing analogous to the alliance between the IRA and Fianna Fáil in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Indeed, the very idea of republicans leading a popular mass movement presupposed that others would be involved. One recalls the short-lived Dáil Chonnacht movement as something that, while initiated by the Provisionals, was far from being a Provos-and-fellow-travellers affair – it included intellectuals, Labour Party members, possibly a discreet communist or two, radical Catholics, advocates of Gaeltacht self-government and so on. There are even later echoes in Costello’s big idea of the Anti-Imperialist Broad Front.

But the core of the NLF strategy, as formulated in the 1960s, revolved around the question of republicanism’s relationship with Irish communism. There were factors on the communist side of the argument, too – remember that Irish communism, as personified by Seán Murray and Mick O’Riordan, had significant roots in republicanism, and had recognised republicanism as the native form of political radicalism. (Of course the Comintern’s formulation of the United Front was first devised for alliances with anti-colonial movements and only later extended to social democracy. Probably more immediately relevant was the Kremlin’s contemporary interest in anti-colonial movements internationally.) What was more, the CPNI by then had shed its extreme pro-British colouring of the 1940s, come firmly under the influence of Desmond Greaves Thought and was moving towards reunification with the southern party.

There is little doubt that what Johnston was pushing for was a formal and permanent alliance between the republican movement and the two communist parties, in a schema that would see the communists provide a theoretical sophistication the republicans lacked, while the republicans had a popular base and organisational clout that the small and isolated communist parties did not have. The CPs’ trade union links were also an attractive factor, in particular the possibility of the CPNI providing a link to the Protestant working class. It must be emphasised, though, that Johnston didn’t have some sort of mystical power over the leadership, most of whom were willing to go along with Johnston’s brainchild because it seemed like a good idea to them. Goulding in particular didn’t seem like the kind of man to allow a Trinity intellectual to lead him by the nose.

It was also, of course, the specific alliance with the communists that caused dissension from traditionalists – from North Kerry, from Cumann na mBan, and with Mac Stíofáin fighting a rearguard action within the leadership. Mind you, the social background of the time was an Ireland where Masses still regularly included a prayer for the conversion of Russia.

The civil rights strategy
In a way, the civil rights strategy in the north, notwithstanding the theoretical framework Greaves had given it, was just a regional counterpart to Economic Resistance for the rural western base, and the growing housing agitation in Dublin. The big difference was that civil rights became a big enough movement to take on a logic and momentum all its own. In areas like Derry, Dungannon and Newry there quickly developed a situation pitching entire communities against the Orange state. The marching tactic, brilliant in its simplicity, proved ideal for building up a mass movement, which reached the parts Operation Harvest hadn’t.

Belfast, as ever, was different, and NICRA did not employ the marching tactic in Belfast – though Peoples Democracy did, occasionally and on a relatively small scale. This related in part to the internal politics of Belfast republicanism. On the one hand, the McMillen-Sullivan leadership, although it was interested in social agitation of the Dublin variety, was keenly aware of the sectarian dynamics of Belfast, and therefore reluctant to resort to what could be literally incendiary marches. On the other, there was a cabal of veterans in Belfast who were openly scornful of civil rights as a reformist strategy, who had been sidelined or expelled by the leadership in the preceding few years, and who would go on to form the core of the Provisionals in Belfast. We’re talking here about Jimmy Steele, Jimmy and Máire Drumm, Billy McKee, Leo Martin and probably John Kelly – later, in the aftermath of the August 1969 pogrom, they would summon Séamus Twomey and Joe Cahill from the vasty deep, and make a bid for support on an essentially Defenderist programme. In the meantime, the leadership was understandably cautious about staging anything that might look like a provocation.

There is a further footnote to this in terms of the relationship between the republican movement, the CPNI and Peoples Democracy within NICRA, and the 1978 official history of NICRA, for what I believe are factional reasons, obscures this issue. Bernie Devlin’s quip that the Communist Party was as conservative as the Unionist Party was a bit of hyperbole, but there’s no mistaking that, as civil rights got some momentum behind it, Betty Sinclair and her allies in the NICRA leadership did come to be the conservative wing, especially when PD changed the rules of the game with the Long March. There is still an unanswered question about the 1969 NICRA AGM, when PD carried out an effective coup against the communists, for which they must have had republican votes. The question mark is posed by the communists’ firm belief that they had a pledge of support from Goulding. The possible explanations are that Goulding was not quite as supportive as he let the CPNI think; that republican organisation was shambolic enough for Goulding’s position not to be conveyed to the northern members; or that the northern members were aware of the leadership’s wishes and disobeyed them. Any one is plausible.

In any case, the lines in 1969 were a lot more blurry than later accounts, informed by the rapid souring of relations between the Officials and PD, would indicate. Certainly, there was a lot of instinctive sympathy amongst northern republicans for the young militants of PD, and this had been indicated early on as the Long March went through South Derry. Sinn Féin had been cautiously positive about the PD campaign in the Stormont general election of 1969, with the reservation that PD at that time was very resistant indeed to raising the issue of partition. And contemporary statements from both Goulding and Garland go well beyond what was the stance of the communists in NICRA.

The organisational issue
In any factional dispute, there is always an organisational issue, and this takes on a slightly baroque aspect in Irish republicanism, which is simultaneously a political party and an armed conspiracy. Basically, we are talking about what might be termed dual subordination, where the armed wing was subordinated to political rather than military ends in its activity, while the party was organisationally subordinated to the armed wing. This didn’t prevent oppositionists like Mac Stíofáin acting independently, but it certainly complicated things, not least in the version of democratic centralism that would have the IRA making a decision internally, then voting en bloc within Sinn Féin to secure a majority for whatever the IRA had decided.

It’s tempting to read into this a precursor of how the WP came to operate democratic centralism, and chronologically that’s the case. But a more apt parallel would probably be with how dissenting Provisionals have characterised the Adams approach – Tony McIntyre will tell you that Sinn Féin has been running the Army Council for years, while recalcitrants in the political wing would complain about military discipline operating in the party, and they would both be right. In any case, this sort of management is bound to produce more grievances than strictly necessary.

There’s no doubt, this was the line in the sand for the traditionalists. And when we call republicans traditionalists, we are talking about quite serious traditionalism. One of the leaders of the walkout at the 1970 Ard Fheis, quite aptly, was the 1916 veteran Joe Clarke. Joe must have been almost ninety at the time, and needed crutches to get about, but he was still sharp enough and fiercely attached to republican fundamentals. By this point, he had made it his personal mission to outlive the traitor de Valera, and that tells you all you need to know about the character of Joe Clarke. He, or Jimmy Steele, or Seán Keenan, may not have been great men for political theory, but they knew what traditional republicanism was, and they had an instinctive aversion to anything that smacked of reformist backsliding. (Not, I believe, that the Official leadership were reformists, but we’ll get onto that. We are talking here specifically about the trad-republican view that de jure recognition of the state was reformism.)

And yet, in the north this was less of an issue than you might suppose, at least as far as Leinster House abstention was concerned. Back in 1965, Seán Caughey of Belfast had resigned as Sinn Féin vice-president out of impatience at the failure to drop abstentionism and politicise fast enough. He later joined the Provisionals. At the beginning of 1969 six Tyrone republicans resigned from the movement in protest at Sinn Féin’s refusal to put forward an attendance candidate in the Mid-Ulster by-election. One of the six was a certain Kevin Mallon of Coalisland, which name might ring a few bells.

In fact, projecting backwards, although a split was probably inevitable at some point, it was far from predictable who would be on what side, unless you’d managed to predict in advance the exact combination of circumstances and relative weight of issues. Garibaldy was saying elsewhere that Brian Keenan couldn’t have been a member of the Workers Party. I think a more precise way of putting it would be that Brian Keenan, in terms of the man he became and the things we know he was involved in, could not have been a member of the WP as it subsequently developed.

Maybe Keenan is too incendiary a character to mention in a game of What If. I’ll say here, then, that in my opinion the best politician the Provisionals had was Dáithí Ó Conaill. He was arguably the sharpest thinker, certainly the most articulate speaker in a movement not overburdened by such, and had been an early advocate of a political turn in the Curragh debates during Harvest. Had he not been an ironclad abstentionist, it’s quite easy to imagine him having made a rather effective Workers Party TD. And we can reverse that, as Joe Sherlock always had more of the aspect of a traditional Sinn Féin politician than a Marxist-Leninist. (Perhaps this is why I could never quite buy Joe as a Labour politician in later years. He always seemed to look a little bereft, as if wondering where old Tom Gill had got to.)

For many participants, which side they chose in the split will have been determined by where they lived, by what their background was, who their friends were, who they were related to (especially important in Belfast, where the republican movement mostly consisted of six or seven extended families) and by which figures in the leadership they looked up to and/or had most contact with. Even if you rationalised it on political grounds, much was still contingent on the precise balance of pressures. Had there been a split on abstention without a crisis in the north, the Provos could have been as marginal as RSF today. Had it been the other way around…

The canonic figure for the confused nature of this process was Costello, who was both the most aggressive exponent of politicisation, the left turn and ditching traditionalist theology, as well as being a thoroughgoing militarist with a strong physical force line on the north. That the 1969/70 split didn’t finally resolve the issues at dispute was proved by the subsequent splits in 1974/75 and 1986. No, this was not a simple division between the politicos and the militarists. It was much more involved than that, and the logic behind the different factions’ evolution would take years to work out yet.

The Lost Revolution: from the Harvest to the New Departure


It’s well known, and chronologically indisputable, that the republican movement’s turn to socialism in the 1960s came out of the failure of Operation Harvest. What I want to do in this post is to consider the question of whether that turn was quite as thought-out or as seamless as it appears in retrospect. The short answer of course is No, but hopefully the meander around the subject will cast some light. What I want to emphasis is the ad-hocness of the development towards socialism, in personnel and ideological terms.

Operation Harvest ended in February 1962 with the frank admission of failure. There’s an easy, seamless narrative which says that then the new leadership of Mac Giolla as Sinn Féin president and Goulding as IRA chief of staff, who then steered the movement towards political activism and socialism. In fact, things were a lot more confused than that. Firstly, the “Three Macs” leadership had largely been displaced from the top of the IRA in the course of the campaign, in what was a generational shift more than anything else. The old leadership then retreated to Sinn Féin, which evidently they saw as some sort of factional headquarters – though this was factionalism without alternative programmes, but really about control of the movement. Having been routed, there was then a drawn-out process in the spring and summer of 1962 which involved Pádraig Mac Lógáin resigning as party president, followed by his associates resigning from the ard comhairle. Thereafter you had Mac Giolla taking on the presidency, initially on an interim basis, and various co-options of younger personnel until the ard fheis could formally confirm a new leadership team.

The change of leadership in the army happened in September 1962, basically because the incumbent chief of staff Ruairí Ó Brádaigh (for it was he) was tired out after the campaign and wanted to go back to teaching in Roscommon. Nobody else wanted the job. At first Goulding didn’t want it either, but in the absence of anyone else he was talked into it. Now, it is important not to have an anachronistic view of Goulding. He was certainly a Marxist in later life, but whether he was a Marxist in 1962 is seriously doubtful. At the time, it appears that he was seen as a bit of a militarist – not merely in that he had an army background, but that he had been in the IRA since the late 1930s and it was only in the mid-60s that he was cajoled into joining Sinn Féin. Evidently, we’re talking about someone whose ideas changed quite considerably – his personal reliance on Johnston being a big factor – and the process by which people’s ideas changed is worthy of consideration.

The IRA statement ending Harvest had admitted defeat on the grounds of popular indifference to the national struggle, and, whatever one might say about Seán Cronin’s military theories, that was the decisive factor, with the large passive support shown in elections to Westminster (1955) and Leinster House (1957) going into marked decline as the campaign dragged on with no prospect of making any progress. So you had the need for political action, discussed in a broad-ranging sense by the Curragh inmates during the campaign, largely posed in functional terms – that if the movement was to survive and even prosper, it would need to get itself a mass popular base. This had been dimly understood in the past, with the various unsuccessful attempts by the 1930s IRA, following the enormous disappointment of Fianna Fáil in office, to set up front parties. It was even understood by the Three Macs, and was the motivation for the army’s takeover of Sinn Féin at the start of the 1950s, even if, once having acquired SF, they didn’t have much idea of what to do with it.

So then the question was, what sort of politics? Republicans of the time have often been described as essentially Fianna Fáilers with guns. This isn’t precisely correct. In formal programmatic terms, FF was perhaps to the left of SF (and Labour!) in that its constitution incorporated (and may still do to this day) the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, which the SF programme did not. Labour did not formally describe itself as socialist until late 1966 (in a very vague way) and SF not until 1967 (although it then tried to elaborate its socialism, as Labour did not). Taking it back to 1962, what set the republican movement apart was its adherence to abstentionism and physical force separatism. So if you were going to graft politics onto such a movement, there was then the question of what sort of politics. There were both internal and external factors at work.

To take the external factor first, de Valera’s gutting of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, followed by the enactment of a new constitution and the declaration of a republic, meant that in practical terms, the southern state – the north being different of course – looked as independent as it was ever going to get, and the insistence of republicans that the Dublin government was merely a puppet government, not to mention adherence to the de jure republic of 1916, came increasingly to look like a piece of baroque theology. But then you had the Lemass government abandoning autarkic economics, and this opened up the road for a neo-colonial analysis that reformulated imperialist domination of Ireland in economic terms – particularly significant being the British imposition of tariffs on industrial imports, in flagrant ignorage of the Anglo-Irish free trade area; the menace of the EEC also loomed increasingly large. These were areas where Johnston and Coughlan, with their Marxist background, could impart some coherence.

Internally, the 1930s tradition of IRA involvement with leftwing politics could be resurrected – in fact, even after Russell’s rightist coup there were examples of the movement getting involved in things like physically resisting evictions. A project of radical agitation, based on fusing the movement with the masses, made sense on this level. But this also needed to take into account the actually existing base, so you then had Donegal once and twice. Once with Fr McDyer’s co-operative experiment, in which Dáithí Ó Conaill and other republicans had been involved, and which fed into the developing programme. Twice with the re-emergence, via the WTS, of Peadar O’Donnell and the renewed relevance of his ideas. The Economic Resistance perspective, with its fish-ins and such, was straight out of the O’Donnell repertoire.

But of course the new departure wasn’t only a matter of rural agitprop, important though that was. There was the increased willingness of the movement to identify itself as socialist, with the resurrection of Connolly and Mellows in republican thought. Certainly there was a functional aspect to the movement’s socialism in the early stages. Also important here is that, post Vatican II, the Catholic Church was no longer opposed to socialism and this dimished the power of the red scare – there could even be, as the 1960s wore on, a little trendiness about socialism, with the s-word being employed even in the proverbially timid Labour Party, and Garret FitzGerald floating the (in hindsight, doomed) idea of Fine Gael reinventing itself as a Social Democratic Party. The fear of Muscovite communism, however, did remain tangible, which was the big strike against Johnston’s apparent aim of formally fusing the republican movement with Irish communism. (One suspects the SACP’s role in the ANC might have been a model here.) This evolutionary process perhaps helps to explain Mac Giolla denouncing the communist menace in the 1960s, only to become the communist menace a few years later.

So you had a developing programme of agitation around socio-economic issues. Although SF remained under fairly tight army control – look at the short shrift given to conservatives in North Kerry, or in the notoriously traditionalist Cumann na mBan – increasingly you had the army being used in pursuit of this agitation, providing support to strikers and squatters in an echo of its 1930s left period. And this also posed the question of electoral intervention. Costello was always forcing the pace of course, and his own experience as a councillor in Bray fed into that. But the majority of elected councillors were out in the rural west, and in this context we may again note that those who went on to form the Provos were not necessarily against electoral intervention – Ó Brádaigh and Mac Fhearghail had been elected abstentionist TDs in 1957, and Ó Conaill had nearly won a seat in Cork in 1961. Their Rubicon was on recognition of the state, which few people were arguing for early on in the new departure (Tom Mitchell of Tyrone was one prominent exception), but which would come back onto the agenda whether the leadership liked it or not.

Again we see that a project embarked on – in this case politicisation and an agitational perspective – can easily develop a momentum of its own, throwing up questions not even considered at the beginning of the process. And in this context, a moderately successful project can reveal as many, if not more, contradictions than a heroic failure.

The Lost Revolution: A sketch on republican geography


In Joy Street in Belfast, at the edge of the Markets, there is a little wall plaque paying tribute to Joe McCann on the spot where he fell in 1972. I used to walk past it every day on the way to work, although it barely registered for a long time, the way you don’t really notice something that’s always been there. In The Lost Revolution, Hanley and Millar describe the Markets as “notoriously clannish”, which I guess is one way of putting it, and mention McCann’s rare ability as an outsider to be accepted there. Which leads me onto the importance of geography and territoriality as regards Irish republicanism and how it developed.

In his book on the Officials, Seán Swan has a nice aside at one point about how Dublin was distant from Belfast, and was also distant from Kerry. The contradiction Seán refers to is that you had a movement whose leadership was headquartered in Dublin but whose base was mostly rural and western, and moreover which had a powerful element in the north with very different concerns again. The basic schema, and I know this is a great simplification, is one of a traditionalist republican constituency in Connacht and Munster, a working-class socialist constituency in Dublin (Costello, from Bray, counts as an honorary Dubliner in this instance) and an essentially Defenderist constituency in the north. There’s a lot of truth in that, but, as I say, it’s a simplification.

We may start, I suppose, with western republicanism, which doesn’t quite get the understanding it deserves – Goulding, Garland and Costello were always impatient with the rural traditionalists, and Adams has shown little sign of a deep understanding. Western republicanism is a thing in itself, quite distinct from the concerns of the east coast metropolis, but is well worth considering as it was, prior to 1969, the main reservoir of support for republicanism. The WP would in later years consider this a petty bourgeois element, which may be true in strict Marxist terms – the typical activist would be a small farmer, a schoolteacher, a publican or an auctioneer, not Tone’s “men of no property” but rather men of small property. And while western republicanism had a strong militarist streak, it was primarily concerned with southern matters.

We are talking here about a movement formed by the memory of the Civil War, but that wasn’t as distant in the 1960s as it seems now. There were still rather a lot of Civil War veterans around. The Civil War was still a living memory, and much more so were the persecutions of republicans that followed, with those enacted by Fianna Fáil felt with especial bitterness. For traditional republicans, de Valera was a byword for treachery – even today, it’s hard to get traditionalists to take a balanced view of him – while men like Joe Clarke and Tom Maguire were personifications of republican fidelity. Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, from Longford, will talk not only about his father, a hero of the Anglo-Irish War who was badly wounded and died relatively young as a result, but also about how he, as a young boy in the 1940s, attended the funerals of republican hunger strikers. Such is the republican concept of living history that there are always veterans around to transmit the memories.

What animated the traditional republican in the west was a burning, visceral hatred of the Saorstát and all its works and pomps. This found its expression in abstentionism, and in the legitimist concept that the de jure Republic of 1916 still existed in shadow form, and that the Army Council of the IRA was the legal government of the Republic. (Abstentionism and legitimism aren’t inseparable, and it’s logically possible to have one without the other, but they make for a powerful, mutually reinforcing combination.) These people were anti-partitionist, to be sure, but were equally if not more concerned with sustaining a revolutionary opposition to the southern state. This is important to consider when we come to the 1969 split. It wasn’t the north that occasioned the split, though the eruption of the north sharpened the questions. Nor was it the move to socialism as, though there was still a genuine fear of Muscovite communism, most traditionalists were not opposed, or at least not strongly opposed, to the moderate co-operativist socialism of Sinn Féin in the latter half of the 1960s, as long as this did not involve breaching abstentionism. The movement had in the past swung to the left and to the right and back again, and would do in the future, but abstentionism was the line in the sand that the traditionalists would not cross, and that by itself would have precipitated a split.

Things in the north were, of course, different. Northern republicanism was never all that concerned with the theology of the traditionalists, and northerners were often dismissive of abstentionism, particularly as regards Leinster House. Recall that the northern IRA had rallied to Mick Collins, because Collins provided guns to the north and took a tough line against the unionists. Republicanism in the north was and is basically separatist and anti-unionist, with a strong overlay of defence. Even so, there are significant regional differences.

Let me illustrate this concretely. War and an Irish Town is a good read, but what you miss is how untypical Derry was. Since there were relatively few unionists on the west bank of the river, and there are many fewer now, the Troubles in Derry took the form of a more or less demographically solid nationalist community pitched against an external force in the shape of the state. There are few other areas of the north – South Armagh, perhaps, although that’s a very different place – where the lines were as clear cut. Even in mostly nationalist areas of Tyrone and Fermanagh, where separatism was a realistic programme, there were still considerable numbers of unionists living cheek by jowl with their neighbours. The potential for a separatist project to devolve into sectarianism was always there, and the need to consider defence was always there.

Things become more complicated still in Belfast. If you go to Short Strand, you get a good sense of the physicality of ghetto Defenderism. It’s a small, overcrowded estate in East Belfast, surrounded on three sides by hardline loyalist areas and on the fourth by the Lagan. During the Troubles and even at points in the peace process, the fear of a loyalist pogrom has been tangible in the area. It’s not surprising, then, that Short Strand republicans have a notoriously independent streak – whether they’ve borne allegiance to the Provos, the Sticks or the INLA, the theoretical leadership of their organisation has always had trouble keeping the Strand in line. Equally, Ardoyne republicans are essentially focused on what affects Ardoyne, and don’t particularly want to know about West Belfast.

Even in West Belfast, where there’s some security in numbers and relative geographical spread – which is why Bombay Street in 1969 was such a shock – one should never underestimate the importance of defending the community against the Prods. One could be a Second Dáil legitimist or a socialist equally well, as long as defence was not forgotten. What’s more, there is an element of variation that will come into play in terms of the story of the Officials. If we want to talk about the Sticks in Belfast, to a very large extent we’re talking about their strongholds of the Lower Falls, Twinbrook and the Markets, and the specificities of those areas, and the friction with the Provos that aris at regular intervals. (I quite like Henry Patterson, but his vision of Stickyism seemed a very long way removed from what people in Twinbrook would understand by it.) And again, if we’re to understand why the IRSP/INLA turned out as they did, it’s worth remembering that most of their Belfast membership spent 1975 physically under siege in Divis Flats, which would have a disorienting effect on anyone.

And that leaves us with Dublin. It’s probably an exaggeration, if we’re talking about the republican movement in 1967 or so, to see there as being a real constituency of horny-handed proletarian republicans in Dublin. Sinn Féin’s paid-up membership in Dublin at the time was probably in the same ballpark as Mick O’Riordan’s IWP. Quite a few of these people (including leadership figures such as Tomás Mac Giolla or Seán Ó Brádaigh) would have been rural transplants. Of those who were native Dubliners, there would have been as many from a small business background (Goulding with his painting and decorating business, de Rossa from a shopkeeping background) as actual wage labourers. Nonetheless, it was the case that most of those Dubliners who moved into republican activism were motivated at least in large part by the experience of poverty, and that led to an openness to socialist thinking.

What you had then in Dublin was not so much an actually existing working class constituency, as an ideal or potential constituency. But this constituency was not particularly interested in traditional republican concerns, and much of the Dublin-based leadership (Costello comes to mind) were either indifferent to or even contemptuous of those concerns, not being animated either by Civil War resentments or by northern sectarianism. The trouble then is when you have a leadership that, in pursuit of a new constituency, develops a fractious relationship with the old one. And when that leadership makes inroads into the new constituency, beginning to reshape the movement in its own image and at the same time accelerating its own evolution – that’s when you get a combustible mix, just ready for a movement to split right down the middle.

Some preliminary thoughts on The Lost Revolution, and a bit of a rant on historiography


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.

Belfast launch for The Lost Revolution


Last night, I did something that in years past I would have thought twice about, maybe three times, then thought better of. I went into an enclosed space with a lot of Sticks.

The occasion for this was the Belfast launch for The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar. Many readers will already be beating their way through their copies, and having nearly finished the book, I can well recommend it. I’ll get back to the book and the questions it raises at greater length, but just a few comments on the launch itself.

A good wee crowd in Queens Bookshop for it, and many copies being shifted. A lot of familiar faces, some of whom I couldn’t put names to, some that I hadn’t seen in years and who were looking noticeably greyer. It was the sort of event where you nod at someone in passing and then you think “Jesus! That was X! I wondered what had happened to him!” What was encouraging to me was the diversity – lots of people were either members or former members of the WP, but there were people there with backgrounds in just about all the republican groups, some of which would have clashed violently with the Officials in years gone by. And a rather hale Brian Feeney, who used to be one of the WP’s most rambunctious critics, caught my eye.

There was an element, then, of an old-timers’ reunion, but it wasn’t all like that. There were quite a few people there below pensionable age, and even some young folks. I’m not sure whether they were students, or people interested in what their parents used to do, but it did at least mean it wasn’t an entirely “the socialists will be seventy” affair.

Richard English gave the introduction, ably plugging the book. He remarked, and this would be a bit of a running theme, that the Official Republicans had been poorly served by history, not only by their factional opponents but also by their friends and supporters, and how important it was to give an account of them that recorded the facts and did so in an unpartisan way. He also flagged up the heavy use of interviews to capture the flavour of the period, and read out some pithy quotations to emphasise that even amongst all the grimness of the story, there was a lot of grit and even humour to be found.

Richard also talked about how, although the Officials hadn’t achieved what they set out to achieve, their interventions in Irish politics were important nonetheless. And he returned to something that was a little predictable from his own discussions of republicanism, that the departures of the Officials – the renunciation of armed struggle and the engagement with unionism specifically – were ahead of their time, and others had since followed in that path. I don’t entirely buy that, because it decontextualises the development of two very different processes. But it’s not irrelevant in that it’s also the WP’s understanding of its own history, as in Mac Giolla’s famous quote that “we were right too early; Adams is right too late; and Ó Brádaigh will never be right.”

Brian Hanley then took the stage, looking very much like the academic he now is. Brian spoke generally on the importance of telling this story, and about the work that had gone into the book. He especially talked about all those interviews, and paid tribute to the people who had welcomed him and Scott into their homes and relived often painful memories, on the basis that this was a story that needed to be told. He also spoke about his initial scepticism that this was a book that could be written, and the challenge of doing so since he and Scott had disagreed on just about everything. But he was proud of their achievement, and I think rightly so.

Finally, Scott Millar, who I didn’t know at all, spoke, and gave a very interesting little talk revolving around a number of themes. Firstly, he talked about how, as a young man in Dublin, the influence of the Workers Party had been pervasive, and he had canvassed for Proinsias de Rossa. (Perhaps, he quipped, not something that would be universally popular with his audience.) The WP had in its time played a very significant role in Irish politics, and on many issues been ahead of its time, but hadn’t got its due in historical writing, much of which, where Official Republicanism was concerned, was just mired in polemic either for or against.

Scott also remarked on the decision to be up front about the party’s unorthodox methods of fundraising. To be fair, I don’t see how a historical treatment of the Workers Party, unless it was an in-house hagiography, could avoid mention the various enterprises that Group B was involved in. Yet, as Scott pointed out, whatever you thought of Fenian and Bolshevik methods of fundraising, as employed by the Officials, it was remarkable that this was the first history of an Irish political movement to give such prominence to the money question. Left republicans had made waves forty years ago by attacking Taca, the then fundraising arm of Fianna Fáil; had accounts of FF paid more attention to the money men, the Irish taxpayer might not now be having to bail out the successors of Taca.

Finally, Scott mentioned something I’ve noticed about the book myself and heard said, that it’s a narrative history but light on the analysis. As per Scott, it was a deliberate decision not to build a big analytical structure, but rather to let events speak for themselves and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. I can see that, in that it’s a work for the general reader, whereas Seán Swan’s Official Irish Republicanism 1962-1972 is a book for the specialist; I can also see that the authors of a polemical work might not have got the extraordinary access that provides such a huge part of the book’s material. But Scott also remarked, and it was nice to hear this, that left republicanism was not the property of a single party or organisation, and he emphasised the broad spectrum of people for whom the thought of Wolfe Tone was still relevant. A polemical work, one which sought to either claim the Official tradition as the sole repository of true republicanism or simply to dismiss it as an alien Stalinist aberration in Irish politics (and we’ve seen writings along these lines) wouldn’t serve much purpose to those who want to gain a rounded understanding, the better to inform ourselves for the future.

So, that was well worth going to. WorldbyStorm has already written up on the Dublin launch, and some more thoughts on the book itself will be forthcoming presently.

Mad Max: The Cold Warrior

I remember being in Dublin ten years or so ago when Democratic Left voted to dissolve itself into the Labour Party. At the time, everyone I spoke to was firm in the belief that this marked the end of the Stickie experiment in Irish politics. “And about time, too” was frequently added. It was a bit surprising, although in retrospect it shouldn’t have been, that the Sticks would very quickly take over the Labour Party and have an iron grip on it to this day.

I thought of this a few weeks ago when Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) was interviewed on The Daily Show. Webb was promoting his new book, which is all about restoring a fair and just America. Jon Stewart, of course, is sharp enough to know that America is not based on fairness and justice but on the free market.

Stewart: Sir, I had no idea you were a Trotskyite.

Webb: Well, it was a bunch of Trotskyites who got us into this war in Iraq.

Actually, for generational reasons, about the only neocons left who actually were Trotskyists are Kristol the Elder and Podhoretz, but it’s a useful bit of shorthand for that intellectual tradition. More precisely, I suppose, the roots of the neoconservative movement are tied up with the late Max Shachtman and his tendency. And that’s an interesting little footnote for Cold War socialism.

You’ll recall that Shachtman’s WP/ISL led an independent existence for a whole eighteen years after breaking from the SWP in 1940, generally identifying as a Trotskyist current if in an increasingly loose sense. That was certainly the case in the 1950s when Cliff, having been knocked back by Pablo and Mandel in his attempts to get them to offload the bandit Healy and award Cliff the Fourth International franchise, arrived at the arresting notion of an alternative FI based around a lash-up between his group, the Shachtmanites, with a few other groups holding unorthodox theories of Russia. In this we can safely say that Cliff was twenty years ahead of his time, so it isn’t surprising that this cunning plan never took off.

In 1958, having arrived at the conclusion that their declining organisation had no future, Max led the ISL into Norman Thomas’ Socialist Party. And here’s where our Irish analogy comes in. The SP, despite being an established brand with a largish paper membership, turned out to be even more decrepit than the ISL. Within months Max and his mates had taken over the whole outfit. They did not, however, lead it to the left as one might have supposed. Instead, they led it to the right at a rate of knots and, by the time of Shachtman’s death in 1972, the majority found themselves in the Nixon camp. How did this happen?

The Shachtmanites had a lot of interesting thinkers, not least Max himself, who was apparently an attractive figure to a certain type of young intellectual, as well as being a bit of an annoying smartarse. They didn’t, on the other hand, have much theoretical output that’s stood the test of time. What did distinguish them was an absolutely consistent and ironclad Stalinophobia. And by that I don’t mean simply anti-Stalinism, but rather the exaggerated and one-sided anti-Stalinism criticised so heavily by Trotsky in the 1940 split. That’s what eventually led them from what was, if anything, an ultraleft position during WW2 to the destination of Cold War liberalism.

Not that it was a quick or straightforward evolution. Certainly, Shachtman’s The Bureaucratic Revolution, a little volume of Max’s greatest hits, was given a bit of judicious editing to make Max look as if he’d always been as staunch a foe of the Evil Empire as he was by then. No, for a long time the Shachtmanites’ Big Idea was the Third Camp, which has lately been given a bit of an airing by Max’s would-be apostle Matgamna. The idea (probably emanating from Joe Carter) was cooked up to avoid defending the Soviet Union during the Finnish war in 1939, and posited that in a clash between Stalinism and democratic capitalism (or even fascism, in the case of Mannerheim’s Finland) you back neither side but instead look for independent movements of the working class. Great in principle, somewhat more difficult in practice.

And made more difficult still by the Shachtmanites’ refusal to have anything to do with working-class or national liberation movements that had even a tangential connection to Stalinism, the logical outcome of Carter’s bright idea that the western communist parties were new bureaucratic ruling classes in embryo. Sometimes the convolutions could be quite funny. Tim Wohlforth has a nice story about how Hal Draper agonised over the Vietnam War, not wanting to back US imperialism but unable to find a local movement measuring up to his stringent anti-Stalinist standards. Hal apparently got very excited on discovering the Cao Dai religious movement in South Vietnam, who at the time were running their own private army. Could this be the fabled Third Camp? Alas, it soon transpired that the Cao Dai programme was to convert Vietnam into a theocracy…

It was so much easier, in the long run, to just defend democratic capitalism and put off the struggle for socialism to an indefinite future. And so you get the drift into Cold War liberalism, with old Marxist polemical skills being put to use on behalf of new masters. In Shachtman’s case, that meant none other than Scoop Jackson. But it shouldn’t be inferred that the Shachtman group’s support for Scoop’s presidential candidacy in 1972 was purely mercenary. No, they backed Scoop because he was the only candidate saying the Vietnam War could still be won. And when McGovern secured the Democratic nomination, they refused to support him, and a significant number went directly over to Tricky Dick. Hence Socialists For Nixon, that whimsical precursor of modern-day neoconservatism.

What a sad way to go out. And what’s the excuse of those who want to recreate this sorry devolution?

The reductionism of Sendero Luminoso

Yes, exceptionalism. I’m actually quite a strong believer in exceptionalism, not in the radical sense that if you go to, say, Japan then the laws of political gravity no longer apply, but in the sense that you need to be keyed in to the peculiarities of your environment. This might just be a manifestation of my broader historicist streak, but I think it’s basic common sense. That’s why Lenin and Mao and Mariátegui put so much effort into arriving at an empirical study of what was distinctive about Russia and China and Peru. I suppose Connolly could be included there, although Labour In Irish History hasn’t aged very well.

That’s why it’s interesting to take a brief look at Peruvian Maoism, just to get a stunning example of schematism. And that’s actually a point in itself. A lot of people have wondered why, when Latin America was being swept by the Cuban model of national liberation, and when Argentina and Bolivia had developed powerful Trotskyist movements, Maoism should take root in Peru alone and come to dominate the left there. The answer is relatively simple, and doesn’t require any deep study of Peruvian land ownership patterns or Quechua culture or notable similarities between 1970s Peru and 1930s China – which is kind of the point. It came about through the more or less accidental situation that Peru’s leftist military government of the early 1970s cultivated close links with China, and so it was that Mao Zedong Thought became the hegemonic discourse in Peru’s universities.

This is actually quite important in the case of Sendero Luminoso. There’s a tabloidised view of Sendero as rooted in the inscrutable culture of the Andean peasantry. Apart from owing a lot to Peruvian whites’ fears about Indian savagery, supposedly epitomised by the rebellious Ayakuchu region, it’s simply untrue. What is amazing is that Sendero did win a mass Indian base, given its radical insensitivity to Peru’s distinctive social system.

One of the great things about Mariátegui was that he gave real serious thought to Peruvian society and particular the intersection between race and class. It’s the obvious line of inquiry for a society where issues of race, class, language and identity are inseparable in the centuries-old tension between the mainly white elite and the Andean peasantry, not to mention the mestizo layers of the population. In fact, since Peru is even more diverse than it was in Mariátegui’s day, with large Japanese and Chinese populations making an impact in the urban centres, the founder’s insights are arguably more relevant than ever. And this project of a thoroughly Peruvianised Marxism ties in very nicely with Mao’s insistence on the Sinification of Marxism.

All this, however, was a closed book to Sendero. Even though they, in theory, drew on Mao and Mariátegui, these basic insights didn’t make into the party’s codification of “Presidente Gonzalo Thought”. What did make it into the party’s ideology was a mishmash of slogans and schemata imported wholesale from China. (Sendero’s deadly rivals in the PCP-Patria Roja charged that not only did they not understand Peru, they didn’t understand China either, and they were really just infantile leftists with only the most primitive grasp of Mao Zedong Thought. I have some sympathy for this view, but that’s another story.)

So, in this context, Sendero’s policy on the all-important issue of race was that they had no policy. No, that isn’t quite right – their policy was that, once the revolution was one, the problem would disappear. Sendero’s turn to the Andean peasants was not down to some affinity for Quechua culture or deep understanding of the racial divide; they turned to the peasants because their people’s war schema demanded a turn to the peasants.

Needless to say, the party was officially colour-blind in its internal organisation, and needless to say the indigenous majority didn’t benefit from this policy that would seem so unexceptional in the abstract. In fact, one of the most striking things about Sendero was that, while its footsoldiers were heavily made up of brown-skinned Quechua-speaking peasants, its leadership was almost entirely composed of Spanish-speaking white professionals. Nor were they entirely free from racial backwardness – under the Fujimori regime, the semi-official party paper El Diario on occasion resorted to open anti-Asian racism in its polemics against the “slitty-eyed” president, something that was to say the least incongruous from a tendency that supposedly worshipped Mao.

You had a similar thing with women. In this case, Sendero did slightly better in that they put some serious effort into promoting women cadres, and some foreign observers even took them to have made a refreshing break from Latin American traditions of Machismo-Leninismo. But on closer examination, the record wasn’t quite so good. A very high number of the women in the top leadership turned out to be the wives of male leaders. And, while organising women was encouraged, there wasn’t the merest hint of a programme for women’s liberation. Again, the line was that the victory of the revolution would sort everything out. The answer was socialism, and that was all there was to it.

Having said all that, the wonder is that Sendero managed to win the level of support that they did from the oppressed groups that they treated so dismissively. But really, for people in a desperate situation, “the answer is socialism” has a certain simplistic appeal. Combine that with a dedicated and energetic cadre who were deadly serious about the war, and it’s not really surprising that the oppressed could rally to the Sendero cause. And yet, that doesn’t make up for their reductionist logic, and it didn’t really inspire much confidence in how well the oppressed would have done if the war had gone the other way.

Cliff’s greatest hits

Lefties, or rather left groups, aren’t generally very good at reflecting critically on the past. And for all we talk about the Stalinist airbrush, Trot groups are particularly bad at it. It’s probably because most Trot groups combine a top-down leadership culture with a “golden thread” worldview according to which their history is one of unique ideological correctness. One thinks immediately of the pre-split Militant’s publication of a volume of the best of Grant, which somehow managed to omit most of Ted’s barmier prophecies. Not a great record for a tendency that used to claim it could stand over anything it had ever published.

One of the better examples, I suppose, was set by Cliff Slaughter’s faction of the WRP after the Healy implosion. Slaughter promised he would open up the pages of Workers Press to a free and honest debate, and actually there was some refreshing self-criticism for a while. This process was only slightly undermined by the a priori insistence that Cliff Slaughter was a nice man who, in all his thirty-year association with Healy, had never had the faintest idea what Gerry was up to.

Which brings me to the current ISJ, where there are a couple of articles of interest. Firstly, Renaissance Man Chris Harman has a review of Marcel van der Linden’s encyclopaedic book on the debates within western Marxism on the nature of the Soviet Union. Now, Chris has for as long as I’ve know him, and undoubtedly longer, been a tireless defender of Cliff’s line on state capitalism. He has even gone beyond the call of duty by claiming the law of value operated in the USSR when even Cliff didn’t attempt to do so (although Cliff did reintroduce it by the back door via foreign trade). Chris is also a stalwart advocate of the Permanent Arms Economy, a theory that Kidron abandoned thirty years ago on the reasonable grounds that, while an interesting hypothesis, it had never been validated. There’s little to do in this context except to salute Chris’s indefatigability.

And so we find in this review mainly a complaint that van der Linden’s determination to provide a comprehensive overview of the question means that he doesn’t devote enough space to explaining why Cliff was right. Indeed, van der Linden is cheeky enough to criticise Cliff, and apparently doesn’t give Chris Harman his due for enriching Marxism. Given that Chris spent decades playing Lou to Cliff’s Andy, one can understand his sensitivity on the point, but it all seems a little sour.

Moving swiftly on, there is a much more interesting article by my old chum Ian Birchall on Cliff in 1968. I must admit, I like Ian. He’s genuinely erudite, has an unbelievably accurate memory and is also possessed of a nice sardonic streak which for some reason always reminds me of Dogbert. But here we find Ian in his Byzantine court chronicler mode. One suspects that this is a sneak preview of Ian’s forthcoming biography of Cliff. In the meantime I direct readers to Jim Higgins’ More Years For The Locust, which Ian has criticised on some minor points of fact, but which is a genuine pleasure to read and paints a portrait of Cliff that will instantly ring true to anyone who ever had dealings with him.

In this instance, Ian’s stress is on Cliff’s seizing the moment. Immediately anyone who has struggled through Building The Party will cringe. Yes, it’s the context for Cliff’s rediscovery of Lenin, and 1968 is important not only in that IS did rather well out of the year’s events, but in that Cliff’s Leninist turn ended up being extremely important for how the organisation ended up. Ian, as always, provides plenty of useful information, but what’s perhaps more interesting is what he doesn’t say.

For instance, how was it that IS ended up playing such a prominent role in the Vietnam solidarity movement, and calling for “Victory to the NLF” forbye? After all, the Fourth International had been doing Vietnam solidarity work for years, and had often been disparaged for this sort of thing by the Cliff group, who adduced further evidence of the Pablo-Mandel FI’s softness on Stalinism. IS, by contrast, believed the NLF was fighting to establish state capitalism – a theory that got a new airing a few years back in Jonathan Neale’s little book. Cliff’s Deflected Permanent Revolution thesis, indeed, sought to combat the virus of Third Worldism in the ranks by positing that Third World revolutions would more or less automatically wind up in state capitalism, and were therefore of little intrinsic interest. An anti-imperialist campaign came up against the problem that Kidron had demonstrated, at least to the satisfaction of those IS members who read his thesis, that imperialism in the Leninist sense no longer existed. No wonder IS’s emergence at the head of the movement left the likes of the IMG and the Healyites scratching their heads.

In retrospect, the Ho Chi Minh turn can be seen as an early example of the Cliff method of accumulating recruits by being the most forceful advocate of whatever is popular with the kids, and not worrying too much about whether it’s compatible with your formal ideology.

Now let us take the “Urgent Challenge of Fascism”, and the subsequent unity appeal. We may see in retrospect that the dockers’ march for Enoch, shocking though it was, hardly marked any sort of fascist danger. Nonetheless, IS and Terry Barrett in particular did stirling propaganda work on the issue. The half-baked left unity campaign was another matter. Ian, quoting Duncan Hallas, is good enough to admit that the object of the exercise was to swallow up the IMG, or at least to poach a chunk of its cadre. The IMG were canny enough not to fall for the ruse. But this did usher in the Workers Fight episode, which Ian relegates to a tactful footnote.

The occasion for this was Cliff’s turn to Leninism. In Manchester IS Colin Barker found himself short of allies in his struggle against the libertarian wing, and had heard that this bloke Sean Matgamna (for it was he) was a red-hot Leninist. The mechanics of the fusion were that Colin introduced Sean to Cliff, the pair shook on it, and Cliff breezily informed the next EC meeting that IS had acquired a tendency. Sadly, it was not long before Colin Barker had figured out Sean was more trouble than he was worth, and not long after that that Cliff started cursing the fact that he couldn’t get rid of Sean as summarily as he had brought him into the group. This marked the beginning of a three-year faction fight culminating in Sean being defused (he complains about the procedure bitterly to this day, despite long since having graduated from serial expellee to expeller). One might also attribute some of the group’s later illiberal atmosphere to this ill-considered fusion, one of the earlier although by no means the last of Cliff’s get-rich-quick schemes.

This all took place in the context of Cliff’s conversion to a rather stentorian Leninism. The issue of the democratic centralist constitution was the occasion for an enormous outpouring of hot air. We will remark on only two points. Firstly, Cliff took it for granted that a democratic centralist party would have factions and tendencies, and that minorities would have proportional representation on the leading bodies. This may surprise SWP members who have been schooled for decades to see the monolithic party as an ideal. Secondly, even in the democratic centralist camp there were multiple agendas. A large chunk of the leadership saw democratic centralism as a device for exercising some discipline over Cliff and curbing his tendency to appoint himself a one-man politburo. Cliff saw democratic centralism as a device for getting the group to more effectively implement Cliff’s brainstorms. It took several years and several hundred expulsions, but we know who won that one.

The rationale for all this was France, where Cliff coined the theory of the “missing party”. Ian, who knows a great deal about French politics, does not stress this as much as it’s often been stressed, which reflects well on him. The idea was that the eventual failure of the French events was down to the lack of a revolutionary party. As Ian knows, and as Cliff surely knew, there were in fact quite a few pretenders to the revolutionary party, but discussing why they didn’t measure up leads us into messy territory. In later years this theory would be refined into what one might call “the missing party of a new type”, which essentially means an SWP-type party. A whole library of books and articles have issued from the SWP on Portugal, Iran, Chile and any number of other lost revolutionary opportunities which might have turned out differently had there been an SWP-type party armed with Cliff’s theory of state capitalism.

All this, Ian stresses, was profoundly Leninist. For my part, I tend to think that, when a group leader proclaims a turn to Leninism, it’s time to run for cover. Not least because these gurus have a tendency to paint Lenin in their own image. If you have the patience, go back and read Cliff’s Lenin biography. You will find in it rather little about the Marxist programme, nor considerations of what is and what is not relevant for the modern day in the thought of a man who died in 1924. What you will find is a portrait of a Lenin whose overriding concern was always building his organisation, and whose genius resided in his unparallelled ability to seize the moment and bend the stick. If this Lenin sounds uncannily like Cliff to you, pat yourself on the back. Not to mention, those 45 bloody great volumes of the Collected Works are just full of quotes that could be drummed into service to lend authority to whatever Cliff wanted to do.

This may seem a little harsh. There were plenty of positive developments in the group as well, which Ian is right to flag up. Not to mention that in the immediately following years IS would begin to sink quite serious roots in the working class, to the point where a third of its members were manual workers. This may also come as an eye-opener to those who say “industry” when they mean “schoolteachers”. It’s clear that IS could have gone in a number of different directions. But I do hope that, when Ian’s book comes out, it gives us a reasonably unvarnished portrait, although this might cause Ian some discomfort. We already have a devotional work praising Cliff’s nonpareil wisdom and perspicacity, in the form of Cliff’s memoirs. I’m not sure that more hagiography performs a service to someone who really did make a contribution that’s worth remembering.

At Sparta as at Athens

Right, so I just wanted to make a few short comments on the question of autonomy and self-organisation. And what I’ve been thinking about in this regard is the great flowering of minority radicalism in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Everybody, of course, knows of the Black Panthers, the great trailblazers of this sort of self-organisation, and there’s an enormous amount could be (and has been) written about them. In some ways, though, I’m at least as interested in the groups that came after and which, in contrast to the rather inchoate politics of the Panthers, were a hugely important part of the New Communist Movement.

There were lots and lots of these groups about, but they’re very little known these days and, with the significant exception of Max Elbaum’s invaluable Revolution in the Air, there’s almost no accessible material on them. This is a pity, because there are all sorts of fascinating aspects to the movement that seem really odd to us now.

One might not have expected, for instance, the emergence of Red Guards in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a place that’s been in the news a lot over the last few days. Actually, from the outside, it would have seemed a deeply unlikely place to be a hotbed of radicalism. Much of the community was petty bourgeois (in the strict economic sense) and the leading figures in the community were extremely reactionary people, fiercely loyal to the Kuomintang. And yet, in the late 60s, a very large layer of Chinese youth became radicalised, partly under the influence of the Cultural Revolution and partly inspired by what the Panthers were doing to resist racism in Oakland. And, with the youth in motion, you found old-time Chinese communists, who had kept a very low profile for decades, coming out of the woodwork. And this combination of circumstances led to some fairly strong organisations and the revival of a tradition of militancy that had been almost forgotten.

And you had similar phenomena in other minority communities. And, what was most important, you had organisations that were not simply ethnic advocacy groups but openly identified themselves as part of the revolutionary left.

Now I’m not going to go in any detail into the history of these movements. I want to consider a few points about their strengths and weaknesses and why they failed in the end, after showing so much potential in their early years. This is where a lot of observers go in for the unattractive phenomenon of Marxist hindsight – you know, like in those books telling you what great things Lenin and Trotsky could have achieved had they only had Cliff or Grant around to advise them. Often the criticism says more about the critic than about the criticised – if you ever hear anyone saying that the problem with the Black Panthers was that they didn’t build a multiracial socialist party with a transitional programme and an orientation to the industrial working class, it’s a bit like criticising a fish for not having feathers.

In the end, the failures of the movements had a lot to do with a period, a fair bit to do with state repression and yes, their own mistakes were a significant factor. But we shouldn’t be so arrogant as to assume that we, the possessors of hindsight, are immune from making those mistakes.

There are three issues I’d like to point out.

The first is that minority radicals, in their great majority, were drawn to some variant of Third World Marxism. This is often held against them, but it’s quite understandable. Yes, cultural links might explain why Puerto Rican radicals might turn to Castroism, or Chinese (and Korean and Filipino) radicals to Maoism. Yes, the CPUSA’s tradition of antiracist work might explain the affinity of many Black militants to pre-1956 Stalinism. But it goes beyond that. The big attraction of these brands of Marxism was their practical involvement in the anti-colonial struggle. Which wasn’t just a matter of “Third World solidarity” or some theory of ethnic minorities as “internal colonies”. You literally couldn’t be a Chinese militant in San Francisco without opposing the Kuomintang, you couldn’t be a Puerto Rican militant in New York without having something to say about what was happening on the island. It’s sobering to realise how few minority radicals were attracted to Trotskyism, which after all is supposed to be the permanent revolution tendency and has an impressively sophisticated theoretical apparatus for dealing with racism and imperialism.

The second is the question of democracy. Let’s take the Black Panthers, who get cut a lot of slack in retrospect because of their cool image. You can talk about the various failings of the Panthers in terms of, say, the primitiveness of their politics, or their backward attitudes towards women, or how the movement became vulnerable to an influx of criminal elements. Most of the Panthers’ internal failings could have been dealt with had they been a democratic movement, but they weren’t. The internal regime of the BPP was one of total military centralism, combined with a compulsory personality cult of “Supreme Servant of the People” Huey Newton. Weirdly enough, although the more orthodox Maoist and neo-Stalinist groups continued to uphold the monolithic party as an ideal, their record in this respect was actually much better than that of the Panthers.

Finally, we have a history on the left of clever white blokes pontificating about whether or not minorities have the right to self-organise. This is really a moot point, not to say an entirely counter-productive discussion. History teaches us that minorities have a habit of self-organising without bothering to ask the permission of clever white blokes. That’s how it works in the real world, and that’s how it should be.

There are some rather transparent parallels for the present day, but I’ll leave them to yourselves for the time being.

The Irish Workers Group, Peoples Democracy and early Irish Trotskyism


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.

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