What programmes can tell us, and what they can’t


Apologies for returning once again to the Weedy Wanker, but this week’s edition provides an opportunity to draw out an issue that I’ve touched on in relation to the Respect row, but could do with expanding further.

On the way there, I notice that Mr Chamberlain, that greatest of living Marxists, devotes a big tendentious article to slagging off Liam and Andy while defending Mark Fischer’s Newsnight performance. He isn’t straightforward about this, of course. The article is topped with some windy ruminations on free speech, and the Fischer affair only makes an appearance over halfway through. Jack justifies “using the enemy’s media”, as he delicately puts it, by reference to Trotsky’s proposed appearance before the Dies Committee. All I will say is this:

1. Trotsky’s brainstorm was, as Jack notes, not uncontroversial in the US SWP. In fact, and this may upset the ancestor worshippers, it’s arguable that Burnham was right and Trotsky wrong.

2. The Dies Committee rescinded its invitation to Trotsky, so we’re talking hypotheticals here – unlike, say, Galloway’s Washington performance, which Jack unsurprisingly doesn’t want to cite as an example.

3. In any case, it’s quite a logical jump from the debate over the Dies Committee in 1939 to Mark Fischer going on Newsnight and proclaiming that the SWP are soft on the Taliban. And if Mark is surprised at how he was edited, then he doesn’t know very much about Michael Crick. If he is only feigning surprise, then he’s even more culpable.

Anyhow, let us proceed to Manson’s Kremlinology, which isn’t very interesting this week. I do however want to deal with this idea Manson is putting forward that the SWP represents the “socialist left” of Respect. No it doesn’t. In the current situation, and it pains me immensely to say this, the SWP is the right and George is the left. Which says more about the SWP’s degeneration than it does about George’s virtues.

Now it’s possible that Manson is just flattering the SWP’s membership with a view to poaching a couple of recruits, which would account for his dopey calls for the SWP membership to rise up and overthrow their leaders – given that there are no mechanisms for doing so, such actions could only lead to speedy expulsion, followed by an overture from the Weekly Worker. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that Manson is being serious.

The trouble is that, even though the SWP are the Marxists in Respect, or the bulk of the Marxists at any rate, this doesn’t feature in how they operate in Respect. They have opposed any idea of Respect adopting a socialist programme. Prior to their recent discovery of “communalism”, they have been much more protective of conservative Muslim sensibilities than, say, Salma Yaqoob. And while the anti-SWP combo’s orientation carries at least the possibility of Respect generating some momentum, with unpredictable consequences, the SWP has been rigid in its insistence on freezing Respect in the form of three years ago.

Manson’s argumentation bears the dread signs of programmitis. One recalls how Militant styled themselves the “Marxist tendency” in the Labour Party on the grounds that, while they might function like social democrats, in private (actually in secret) they had a Marxist programme. Then you had, classically, the insistence of certain Fourth Internationalists that the Maoist takeover of China in 1949 was a proletarian revolution because, even though the workers played no part in the revolution and indeed there were no workers in the CCP, the character of the revolution was determined by the CCP’s “proletarian” programme. It didn’t actually have a proletarian programme, but go with me here.

Now I’m going to say something that will be deeply counter-intuitive for many Irish readers. That is that between 1926 and 1967, Fianna Fáil was, in formal programmatic terms, far to the left of Sinn Féin. You may not be aware that, on Fianna Fáil’s formation in 1926, the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil was incorporated into the party Córú. It may still be there for all I know. Sinn Féin, on the other hand, did not formally become a socialist party until the 1967 Ard Fheis and prior to that, to the extent that the party had any social and economic programme, that programme was Rerum Novarum. What determined FF’s conservative nature from at least the late 1930s was its status as one of the Saorstát’s biggest vested interests; what determined SF’s revolutionary orientation was its de jure non-recognition of the partitionist governments, practically expressed through the policy of abstentionism.

In this I go part of the way with Cliff. I don’t share Cliff’s latter-day disdain for programmes as such – they obviously have an important function – but I do agree with him that you can’t judge political tendencies by what is written in their programme. You judge them to a very large extent by what interests they represent and by what they do. This is why I say that, in terms of its formal politics, the SWP is far to the left of Galloway; in terms of the actual dynamics of the situation, it stands to his right.

Therefore, even if Manson isn’t speaking with forked tongue, he is demonstrably guilty of an idealist deviation. And in the current state of affairs, of all the deviationists you could possibly have, an idealist is probably the least useful.

Interlude: Consimilis calefacio

Sorry about the move to moderated comments, which I hope will only be temporary and shouldn’t slow things down too much. It’s a pain in the arse I know, but no more so than my cyber-stalker from the Socialist Party, who is hell-bent on getting me to confess to affiliations I don’t have and “facts” he’s just made up. I suppose I should feel flattered to have attracted the attention of a heresy hunter, but to be honest I’m more irritated.

At any rate, to cushion the blow, we will be resuming our popular series on the revolutionary programme. I should, I realise, explain why we’re taking Éire Nua as the source for this discussion. This is partly for biographical reasons, because I’m familiar with the attempts to marry the programme to revolutionary practice, and partly because, whatever criticisms I may have developed in the interim, I still have some affinity for the old orange pamphlet. (This is why I can’t easily discuss the very interesting programmatic history of the Officials. I agreed with the first page of the Irish Industrial Revolution, but it seemed to go downhill after that.)

In the summer of ’71 I hove down to Leitrim, singing songs nobody knew and stories left undone. To metropolitan Dubs, Leitrim is Ireland’s answer to the seventh circle of hell, but if your roots are in South Derry it holds no terrors. Actually, heading out west was dead useful, as I was just in time to play a small part in the Dáil Chonnacht movement. No only did that mean spending some time with the wonderful Mayo and Conamara republicans, who really are a different breed, but getting a real taste of revolutionary political agitation. Those young people who think revolutionary politics is all about roads and hospitals don’t know they’re born.

Regional differences come into play here. As I’ve explained before, in the 1969/70 split the Officials had almost total domination of Dublin and the east coast, while the Provos were based mostly in the rural South and West. The North was in play for a while, depending on who could get guns to which areas. This tended to reinforce the stereotype that on one side were radical political sophisticates and on the other were conservative Catholic gunmen with no concept of politics beyond what you would hear on a Wolfe Tones LP.

There was of course some truth to this, particularly in the North where many, many Provos were essentially apolitical Defenders, and where the needs of Defenderism reinforced the apolitical trend. Above all, in the North the supremacy of the army was absolute. You could be in Sinn Féin, and lots of people were regardless of the party’s illegality, but the party was basically a front-cum-support network for the army. You had little standing if you weren’t a military man, and political nous was a poor substitute for a reputation as an operator. (As Grizzly himself has reason to know. If you can find anyone who was on an operation with the Dear Leader, I’ll buy you a pint.) In the South things were different, and the stereotype was much less applicable. The party had a life of its own, and you could play a useful role as a political agitator. This is the contradiction at the heart of republicanism, being a popular democratic movement and at the same time a military conspiracy.

Anyway, the programme. Even 50 years after the War of Independence, you could still find a pretty substantial population of irreconcilables who had never given allegiance to the Saorstát, and never would. These weren’t by and large “men of no property”, but men and women of little property, small farmers, schoolteachers and the like. If you had gone to the big Dáil Chonnacht meetings around the province, you would not have noticed an overabundance of rough-and-ready Ballyfermot types, but rather an awful lot of corduroy slacks and tweed sports coats. This was really the republican base outside of the Pale.

And the thing was that we had a programme that was perfectly attuned to the needs of that base. The Sticks called it Poujadism, or green fascism; we called it Comhar na gComharsan and linked it back to Pearse’s Sovereign People and the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil. The nationalisation of natural monopolies, workers’ control of industry, rural cooperatives and radical federalism might have seemed like an eclectic mix, although, with the exception of federalism, practically everything in Éire Nua had been part of the common discourse of the united Sinn Féin in the mid-to-late 1960s (we dumped the tincture of Communist Party Stalinism and kept the rest).

How this programmatic discourse melded with the larger revolutionary project is a subject I’ll be explaining in more detail. This involves quite a bit of thought about political methodology, and about problematic issues in both republican and socialist ideology, not to mention the difficult overlap between the two. I hope readers will get something useful out of this.

Rud eile: In mentioning the Defenderist nature of the Northern Provos, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Northern Sticks were also rather different from their Southern comrades. Anyone who’s been in the WP will bear that out.

And the skies are not cloudy, part 3

Today we return to our discussion of what a revolutionary programme for Ireland might entail, and we are going to deal with the place of economism in Irish Marxism. Don’t run off shrieking just yet – it isn’t as hard as it sounds, and I promise to keep the jargon down to a minimum.

The outstanding practitioners of economism today are the two major far-left groupings, the SWP and the Socialist Party. We’ll concentrate here on the SP, not to wind up my regular readers from that group – though that’s a bonus – but because the SWP’s politics constitute a moving target and so don’t lend themselves to this kind of discussion. The SP, on the other hand, are the dogmatists of economism and, to their credit, once they arrive at a position they tend to stick to it like glue. They have the merit of being consistent, even if they’re consistently wrong.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about the theoretical premises and historical development of the SP’s position on the national question. Marc Mulholland has done that quite ably, and, while I have my differences with Marc, his account will do to be going on with. Nor will I go into a big long ramble about what economism means outside Ireland.

What economism means, in the Irish context, is the studied refusal to consider the relevance of the “I” word; a writing out of Britain’s role; the proposition that the Banana Republic is a normal European country, comparable to say Norway or Holland; in the North, the denial of any material basis to sectarianism; the belief that spontaneous economic struggles will lead to the defeat of sectarianism; the advancement of “workers’ unity” as the all-purpose slogan for any situation; and the often unconscious tendency to privilege loyalist workers.

The best example of this approach is the SP’s last major publication on the North, Peter Hadden’s Towards Division Not Peace. Amongst other criticisms I could make, the pamphlet is characterised by magical thinking, which postulates that whatever we say is so becomes so. Therefore, since the British conceded the original NICRA demands, plus the Fair Employment Act and some other bells and whistles, it follows that discrimination no longer exists in any serious form. Many nationalist grievances are imaginary, and furthermore nationalists should keep quiet about them, because harping on these minor grievances only militates against the workers’ unity that is held to be constantly imminent – in fact, to even raise a grievance about sectarianism is, well, sectarian. This also explains, by a complicated logical process, the Millies’ enduring belief in the talismanic power of bread and butter.

Let me explain. If sectarianism doesn’t have a material basis, it can only then be described as a form of false consciousness. And this is in fact what the SP do – in their Weltanschauung, the workers are continually and spontaneously uniting around bread-and-butter demands, only for Machiavellian “sectarian politicians” to drive them apart again. So we move from the realm of materialism to psychological categories, in a way reminiscent of that old GLC anti-racist poster. (“Are you a racist? You’d be a nicer person if you weren’t.”) When workers unite in spontaneous economic struggles, so the theory goes, they see the potential power of a united class and the stupidity of sectarian divisions. This is what the SP call “the potential of class issues to transcend sectarianism”. The process is seen as virtually automatic – to the extent that it isn’t, all that is needed is the presence of the SP to point out to workers their objective interests.

There is a grain of truth in this, but only a grain. The reality of the North is that sectarianism finds it quite easy to intrude into the bread-and-butter sphere. I wouldn’t normally quote Gerry Adams as an authority, but he is fond of telling a story about his youthful activism in 1960s Ballymurphy, when local Catholics united with Protestants from New Barnsley to fight for a pedestrian crossing on a bit of road where a child had been killed. Eventually the crossing was won, but not before a Paisleyite rabble-rouser had broken up the united campaign. Gerry draws the obvious conclusion – if the working class found it so hard to unite for a pedestrian crossing, wouldn’t they find it much harder to unite for anything substantial?

Not to say that economic campaigns can’t possibly lead anywhere beyond their immediate demands, but one has to start out by recognising the difficulty of it and being prepared to confront the tough issues head-on. Allies who are easily swayed by taig-baiting will not be reliable allies. The SP, on the other hand, draw the opposite conclusion. Because economic struggle by itself undermines sectarianism, the need is for maximum class unity at all times, and one must at all costs avoid saying anything that might annoy the Prods. This explains why, any time loyalist bigotry rears its ugly head, the SP rush out statements condemning ALL sectarianism and none in particular.

What we end up with, therefore, and ironically from people who set out to avoid the Stalinist stages theory, is a stages theory turned on its head. Instead of uniting Ireland first and then fighting for socialism, the idea is that we achieve socialism – separately, North and South – then we talk about the national question. This is how the SP reconcile their formal position of a “united socialist Ireland” in the sweet by and by with their fervent unionism in the here and now. There’ll be pie in the sky when you die.

Or to put it another way, we have a reverse Leninism, where, instead of the advanced workers taking the lead, the most politically backward workers have a veto. Where Dev was supposed to have said “Labour Must Wait”, the SP say “Wait For Labour”. Anything that isn’t a simon-pure united workers’ movement is dismissed as reactionary, and we are condemned to sitting on our arse waiting for a radical movement that lives up to the SP’s impossible standards. Which is pretty much what Militant did throughout the Troubles, when they ignored very real struggles and instead exaggerated the political significance of every little sectional strike.

Next in this thread, we’ll look at the stages theory versus permanent revolution as a strategy for Marxists.

And the skies are not cloudy, part 2

So today we will continue our exploration of what a programme for revolutionary change in Ireland might look like, taking the 1970s Éire Nua as a jumping-off point. Actually we will row back a bit from Éire Nua as such in the next couple of posts and deal with some underlying methodological issues which need sorting out. For the benefit of my irritable chum from the Socialist Party, who is dying to get me writing about water charges, I should give an advance warning that this post will contain a few sweeping statements which will be counter-intuitive for most Irish socialists. Maybe he should prepare to amp up his critique from “slurs” to “outrageous slurs”.

First off, I want to argue that an approach to politics which is cast purely in terms of “left versus right”, or even “Labour versus Tories”, is totally inadequate for a serious investigation of Irish politics. Political categories which may be perfectly reasonable for analysing politics in England (although less so for Wales or Scotland) fail to translate meaningfully to either the North or the Dominion of ‘Éire’, despite some pretty sophisticated efforts to make them do so.

Leaving the North aside for the moment, in the South the major ideological division is, very broadly speaking, between Republicanism and Dublin 4. These are of course shorthand terms which need further definition. “Republicanism” in this broad sense is not identical to the active republican movement, with which it has a complicated relationship. Rather it refers to the de Valera consensus established in the 30s and 40s, representing the degeneration, although not the total reversal, of the Revolution. I should emphasise that although neither Fianna Fáil nor Sinn Féin Nua are republican in any operative sense, they are popularly regarded as such by the general public (consider workers’ identification with Social Democracy as an analogue). D4, again in the broadest sense, represents the recrudescence of openly counter-Revolutionary politics, combined with an aping of historic British and Protestant-colonial mores, and a generalised hostility to “Irishness” as such. The odd points of the D4 programme with which I might have some sympathy, its (very mild) anti-clericalism and (extremely limited) sexual liberalism, are subsumed in the whole and therefore their progressive import is nullified. This is the ideological tendency which dominates the broadcast and print media in the Free State, much of the state’s institutional infrastructure and the majority of Oireachtas members in all parties bar Fianna Fáil and the Provos.

(Parenthetically, it is worth observing that British Marxism, in virtually all its tendencies, is heavily influenced by liberalism, and this has been carried over into the London-centric left groups in Ireland. Members of those groups would of course vigorously reject that identification. My point however is not that these socialists share the conscious positions of the tofu-eating South Dublin neo-democrats – they don’t – but rather that they inhabit the same cognitive universe.)

So any socialist programme for Ireland has to begin by recognising that tasks remain from the unfinished National-Democratic Revolution, and rather than hoping for a simon-pure socialist revolution, socialists should be trying to harness democratic struggles to the struggle for socialism, of which they form an inseparable part. I don’t have the time at the minute to go into a theoretical exposition of permanent revolution, transitional politics or the united front – all of which are aspects of a common political method – but the intimate connection between the democratic revolution and the socialist revolution should be axiomatic. Indeed it’s perfectly obvious to a halfway thoughtful republican who has no knowledge of Trotsky’s writings. It takes the dogma of economism to insist otherwise.

There are concrete issues flowing from this, both in terms of the sectarian colony in the North and in terms of the deformation of the Saorstát and its specific dependence on Britain, which should be the red meat of any kind of radical politics in Ireland. In my next post I’ll deal with how Irish Marxism has handled the question of democratic demands.

And the skies are not cloudy, part 1

Readers of a certain age will probably recall the wee pamphlet pictured here. Yes, it’s Éire Nua, just when you thought it was safe to read a socialist blog. You’d tried so hard to forget it, hadn’t you? You thought that this was something that only Ó Brádaighite dogmatists cared about, and if those guys wanted to discuss theology in a smoke-filled room you could pretend it didn’t exist. But, begging your indulgence, I intend to reflect a bit here on the question of federalism and decentralisation, and how this might fit into the elaboration of a revolutionary programme in today’s Ireland. This will be a multi-part post, so please bear with me.

We should begin with the historical roots of the federalist policy. First you have to consider that in the republican split of 1969-70, the Sticks were totally dominant in Dublin and in satellite towns like Bray and Drogheda, while the Provos drew their strength from the West, the South and the border counties (the situation in the Six took a lot longer to be clarified). There is a standard view that this was a tidy split along lines of urban/rural, left/right, radical/conservative. This view is strengthened by ex-Stick elements now integrated into Dublin 4, who adopted the classic D4 sneer about “Rural Ireland” (anywhere more than half an hour out of Dublin). But things were more complicated – the Sticks’ rapid evolution into a rightwing Stalinist sect is a cautionary tale in its own right, while the early Provos, at least in the 26, were by no means as apolitical as usually assumed.

So we have in 1971 the publication of Éire Nua I, which was basically a social and economic programme the united Sinn Féin leadership had been working on before the split. It was a mildly socialist programme without the extravagancies of hyper-Stalinism that the Goulding-Garland faction later developed. The next year this was followed by the bit of the programme everybody knows, properly Éire Nua II, which was the bit about federalism. That was the part of the policy that was jettisoned by the Gerryites between 1979-82 on the grounds that it was a sop to the dílseoirí. I’ll get onto the northern issue in a future post, but for starters we’ll consider how decentralisation tied in with social and economic radicalism as part of an overarching revolutionary project.

Because, and make no mistake, in the early to mid-70s the situation in the North, and the ever-present possibility of it destabilising the South, did provide a revolutionary opening. In the so-called “no-go areas” in the North, there were moves, albeit very rudimentary ones, towards setting up alternative popular structures of government. The idea of linking these up via Dáil Uladh to form a revolutionary government – in essence dual power – was far from outlandish. The shadow assemblies sponsored by Provisional Sinn Féin in the other three provinces were conceived of as part of the same 32-county revolutionary process. And if the Leinster and Munster projects were little more than Provo fronts with no real life of their own, it was demonstrated that there was a potentially serious reservoir of support for Dáil Chonnacht.

The reason for this is not only that republicanism was relatively strong on Connacht, but the social conditions there could sustain a rural radicalism that included but wasn’t limited to republicanism. This flows into the reason why federalism was appealing to people in the West who weren’t necessarily republicans. The problems associated with the West – underdevelopment, depopulation, remoteness from the centres of power, the lack of a voice for the Irish-speaking minority – have been historically connected to the unevenness of Irish economic development, and in particular the overdevelopment of Greater Dublin. These problems are further accentuated by the neutered – virtually powerless – local government structures inherited by the Saorstát from the old British system. (We also have a clue here as to why radicalism in the West would express itself in a republican form, while the Dublin-based Sticks would move ever further away from republicanism.)

So you can see that a genuine popular movement in the West – the Cearta Sibhialta movement in Conamara springs to mind – would find itself open to republican proposals for radical decentralisation. Leaping forward to the present day, and even without talking in terms of socialist revolution, there is a reasonable possibility that a Dáil Chonnacht would have handled the Rossport fiasco better than the Dublin kleptocracy. To make sure of that, of course, you would require a serious overhaul of the Irish social and economic system. I will get onto those aspects of a decentralising programme presently.