Valerie Hayes’ speech at Workers’ Party Bodenstown commemoration

Comrades and friends,

When we gather here to commemorate the life and ideals of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, we also celebrate the entire radical, republican, and socialist tradition from which our party has sprung.

When we look at those who inspire us individually and as a movement they all have certain things in common. From Tone to Cathal Goulding and Tomás Mac Giolla; from Paine to Martin Luther King the people who inspire us as socialists all had fire in their bellies, all had a willingness to step forward and be in the forefront no matter what the danger to themselves; and all shared a deep love of humanity.

But these men and women over the last two centuries shared one other common feature from which we must learn. We must learn from their power to analyse, their power and willingness to identify the guilty in society no matter how great or how powerful. We must learn from their power to propagandise – using every method available in their time. But above all else we must learn that these people offered solutions, practical solutions; solutions that cut through the guff, solutions that made sense to the working man, the peasant, the tenant, the landless labourer. And because they offered solutions which made sense, they offered hope. They provided inspiration and leadership and built their movements from that solid basis.

We must therefore learn that it is not enough to analyse, it is not enough to criticise – we too must provide solutions and offer hope.

Read the rest here.

Comrade Barnes addresses football-loving proletariat, calls on England to adopt socialism

You can forget about your Ken Livingstones and George Galloways. Believe it or not, the left has a new champion, and moreover one who has a plan to sort out England’s footballing woes. Yes, drawing inspiration from the Bolivarian revolutionary process in South America, it’s none other than Liverpool and England legend John Barnes:

“Football is a socialist sport,” he explains. “Financially, some may receive more rewards than others but, from a footballing perspective, for 90 minutes, regardless of whether you are Lionel Messi or the substitute right-back for Argentina, you are all working to the same end.

“The teams which embrace the socialist ideology rather than having superstars, are the teams that are successful. Or if there are superstars they don’t perceive themselves to be that. That’s why I use Messi as an example. As much as he’s a superstar he respects his team-mates and their collective efforts.”…

“Players from other nations when they play for their country are once again a socialist entity, all pulling in the same direction,” he tells me from a dressing room at Supersport’s studios where he is an expert analyst on the World Cup. “The most important thing for every Brazilian player is to play for Brazil.

“It doesn’t matter if he plays for Milan or Manchester United. A Brazilian who puts on that yellow shirt feels the same as the man next to him in that yellow shirt. They have a humility to the shirt. It is not the same for those who wear the Three Lions.”

Barnesy goes on to wax militant about the corporate monster that is the English Premier League, and about the virtues of collective team endeavour against the individualist egotism rampant in the England team.

I like this guy. I wish he was my MP. Or, failing that, England football manager.

Thinking outside the box

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We’re going to take a momentary break from The Lost Revolution, although this post will touch on one or two relevant points. What I want to ponder is a simple matter of political strategy. There are two quite serious strategic conundra that face anyone interested in progressive politics in Ireland. Let me state at the outset that I won’t be putting forward any answers to these issues, because I don’t have any. But, quite honestly, neither does anyone else.

The first of these issues is how to break Fianna Fáil’s grip on the southern working class. I don’t mean weaken it conjuncturally, but break it for the longer term. Sure, FF are undergoing a torrid time in the polls at the minute – currently registering fourth in Dublin, unless I’m mistaken – and Biffo Cowen looks like he’s heading up a dead government walking, but it would be a fool who would predict that this was permanent. FF have very deep social roots, and a couple of years of a useless Fine Gael-Labour government could quite easily see the buggers bouncing back again. What would be needed would be to get FF down, keep them down and for some other formation to capture their base before they could make a comeback. I find it difficult to see that happening any time soon.

The second, and much more tricky, issue is that of how to end partition without armed struggle. One may object that armed struggle hasn’t been very successful in ending partition, but that’s hardly the point, at least if you’re worried about more generations coming along and taking up the physical force tradition. During the Troubles, you used to have these meetings organised by the left where the left speakers would attack the armed struggle as being either morally wrong or tactically counterproductive or both. Inevitably, there would be some Provo sympathisers in the audience who would ask the leftists to produce an alternative strategy. And they could never do it convincingly.

The left, in its approach to the north, has been quite heavy on schemata and has had a whole array of tactics, but a plausible strategy has never really been forthcoming. You found this even – perhaps especially – with people who prided themselves on their theoretical sophistication. The old-time Peoples Democracy used to have a schema, derived basically from Trotsky’s permanent revolution formula, whereby the national struggle in the north would create shock waves in the south which would in turn open up an all-Ireland revolutionary vista. That, self-evidently, did not work out, not least because the southern bourgeoisie was a lot stronger and deeper rooted than PD allowed for. PD’s successor group, when not impersonating Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, seem to have turned that schema on its head and now look to industrial militancy in the south to create shock waves in the north. You’ll notice that this is still a schema, and doesn’t really have much in the way of empirical evidence to support it.

Militant/the SP developed quite an elaborate schema which was, if I interpret Peter Hadden correctly, designed as a counter to the republican and official communist stages approach of resolving the national stage of the revolution and then progressing to the socialist stage. Peter claimed to have broken with that whole approach, but to the sceptical outsider it looked as if he had simply reversed it – by positing the national question as an epiphenomenon of capitalism, what was then required was for the working class to achieve power north and south, with economic militancy as the motor, and thereafter the national question would be easy to sort out. By way of contrast, the SWP (who have long had to negotiate the difficulty of an extremely anti-republican leadership and a membership containing a fair percentage of hardline republicans with an embarrassing tendency to talk like PD members circa 1973) put forward a schema that was quite appealing in its crude clarity – these issues would be solved in the course of the revolutionary process, so the task of the moment was for the revolutionary party to get more bums on seats. This would seem more convincing if the vanguard was a little better at keeping bums on seats for longer than five minutes.

Of course, the foregoing is a massive generalisation, and there is plenty more that could be said – in terms, for example, of how Militant expected a mass left split from the Labour Party, or how PD expected a mass left split from the republican movement, both of which hopes were obviously disappointed. But these are on the level of theoretical schemata. There has never been any shortage of tactics either, but strategies properly speaking have been thin on the ground. I mention this not in an accusatory way, because it’s not as if I have any ready-made strategy either.

The classic socialist strategy for ending partition has been to try and break the Protestant working class, or a substantial section of it anyway, away from unionism. It’s the most obvious alternative to physical force, and it’s not rocket science or any great novelty – the CPNI, probably under Greaves’ influence, wrote this perspective into Ireland’s Path to Socialism in the early 1960s. But then you come up against the question of how exactly to go about doing this. Republican and communist participants in NICRA were very much informed by the Greaves perspective, but it quickly became apparent in the course of the civil rights movement that splitting the Unionist Party and winning over the Protestant working class were not at all the same thing. That the Protestant working class, under the impact of civil rights, turned not to socialism but to Paisleyism demonstrated that.

A lot of this comes down to how you perceive unionism. There’s been an element of traditional republican thinking that has a serious blind spot in respect of unionism, basically seeing it as a function of the British presence rather than an autonomous entity. Recognising unionism as a thing in itself was obviously a conceptual breakthrough, but one that doesn’t answer any questions but simply raises a whole lot of new questions. There’s also been this tendency, not only amongst republicans but also on the Marxist left, to see unionist identity as something quite shallow and easily discarded – as a form of false consciousness which Protestant workers will see through when they enter into class struggle, for instance. No, there’s more to it than that, and seeing unionism as a reactionary ideology doesn’t mean, uncomfortable as this may be, that it isn’t organic.

This is where Henry Patterson scored points in his attack on republican civil rights thought in The Politics of Illusion. (Henry was still a member of the Workers Party when he wrote it, but there are specifics about his background – he’d previously been in the Workers Association, a BICO front group, and was something of an apostle of the late Bill Warren – that are as relevant, and probably more so, than the WP’s positions.) Basically, the Greaves strategy saw that discrimination was the material basis of unionism, and since discrimination against Catholics necessarily meant discrimination in favour of Protestants, it cemented the Protestant working class to the Orange state. Remove discrimination, and you kicked away unionism’s material prop, and therefore (so the thinking went) removed the Protestant worker’s motivation for supporting unionism.

This didn’t work. The schema failed to take into account the stiff resistance the Protestant working class would put up to a movement against discrimination, for precisely that reason. Henry also derides as wishful thinking the idea that, in the absence of discrimination, unionism would fade away – unionist identity was a lot more deeply rooted than that, as he ably pointed out. The trouble with Henry’s critique is that he has an equal and opposite blind spot, which is the assumption that, if discrimination was abolished, northern nationalism would fade away – that there would be no material basis for a separatist project and so northern Catholics would simply retreat into a sort of cultural Irishness. In essence, this following the line of least resistance leads only to Walkerism, and that doesn’t work either. It also leads to the world of endless Barry White columns in the Belfast Telegraph wondering bemusedly why northern nationalists couldn’t be satisfied with a Welsh-style recognition of their cultural identity (actually, unionism even finds that difficult) or why prosperous Catholics on the Malone Road weren’t becoming unionists.

Disappointing as though it may be for the thoroughgoing historical materialist, ethno-national identities do have a life of their own, and are usually very entrenched. And while some purist Marxists may say that the workers have no country, with the wish being father to the thought, in fact it’s elements of the capitalist class that have moved most swiftly into a sort of post-national Europeanism, the charms of which the actually existing working class so far remains resistant to.

Could things change? Hypothetically, yes, but in unexpected ways and not necessarily with the working class at the centre. Here I’m going to do some shameless speculating, but it’s no more off the wall than some of what gets argued as quite serious politics.

Firstly, Newt was mentioning just there about some of the interesting noises Big Ian was making in his fairly brief stint as first minister. That is to say, the Dochtúir Mór seemed to be hinting at an idiosyncratic sort of Ulster nationalism, which might involve close relations with the south but which also embraced Paisley’s very chummy relationship with Alex Salmond. This however proved too heady a brew for the DUP, and Peter Robinson’s mood music is much more conventional. This is not to say that the logic of devolution, and perhaps developments in Scotland particularly, might not work itself out in an unpredictable way.

Secondly, one should not dismiss out of hand the idea that a conservative Catholic movement might find common cause with culturally conservative Protestants – although probably not these guys – in resisting the tide of secularism. Bernie Smyth has actually had some success along these lines on the single issue of abortion. One can only imagine the horror of our bien-pensants at such an appalling vista.

Finally, there’s a class aspect here, and I’m thinking in a sense about something that Malachi mentions every so often, about the middle class’s abdication from politics and whether this might be reversed in a post-Troubles environment. I was struck by Garibaldy’s account of the appearance of Chris McGimpsey at the WP NI conference, where Chris mentioned how his electoral base on the Shankill owed a lot to the old NILP base, which by now is dying out through old age. But, while socialist unionists like Chris McGimpsey or Roy Garland seem like quixotic figures now, there are other possibilities which are more likely to manifest themselves in North Down than in Belfast.

Allow me to explain. The North Down constituency is the wealthiest in the north by some distance, and contains within it a very large concentration of liberal unionists. These people have a liking for quirky independent candidates. They are also prepared to vote in large numbers for Catholic candidates – historically Alliance, but there would be some logic in UCUNF trying its hand with a Catholic candidate. (It’s the Shaun Bailey strategy. There is little evidence that Shaun Bailey appeals much to black Londoners, but he just might appeal to liberal-minded white folks who want to be reassured that the Tories aren’t racist any more.)

This mix of factors has led to some delicious unpredicability in North Down politics. In the latter half of the 1980s the area was the major stomping ground for the Ulster Tories, which makes sense. Then the good burghers elected Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney, who not only surrounded himself with Conor Cruise O’Brien and veterans of the British and Irish Communist Organisation, but on being elected to Westminster promptly declared his hitherto unsuspected leftwing sympathies and proposed to take the Labour whip. (They didn’t let him.) Big Bob was then unseated by Lady Sylvia Hermon, who has been a most assiduous supporter of New Labour. The thinking now is that the UCUNF lash-up, with its appeal to pan-UK unionism, may have a strong appeal in the area.

But there is another, admittedly hypothetical possibility. Up in Derry, PSF have been running a unionist outreach programme for years, but this seems to encompass relatively few Prods from the estates and rather a lot of businessmen and clergy. And in fact, it is the business class who are most open to the all-Ireland context, and just might be willing to look south. One might argue that, if Fianna Fáil were serious about their northern mission, they wouldn’t be farting about in Derry and Downpatrick talking to clapped-out SDLP types, but heading to Bangor and Holywood to make a business case for a united Ireland. Then again, maybe FF isn’t fit for purpose, and you would need it to be a particular sort of candidate to make the right impact there. I believe Declan Ganley is between political projects at the moment…

Notes from the grimpen mire, part 2

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So, let’s continue our exploration of various aspects of Irish politics, with a focus on the bits that Anglocentric Irish leftists don’t get. Firstly, I’ll admit some sympathy with the idea expressed in the comments box that the parent companies also lack an understanding of politics in Britlandia, and have a bizarre fixation with re-enacting the Russian political scene of a century ago. But that’s incidental to the main point.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Callinicos and Rees have a realistic perspective for Britain. Trouble is, once adopted by the burger-flippers in Dublin, Athens and Toronto and applied to their own countries, some distortion is inevitable. A small example is on the abortion question. Way back in the early 1980s the SWM and IWG, as was, were campaigning for abortion on demand. This is a derivation of the British reality where the 1967 Act is a starting point, not the Irish reality where we start from the position of illegality. I would vote for abortion on demand myself, but I don’t think it’s a winnable position in today’s Ireland, and it certainly wasn’t 25 years ago.

But I’ll move onto the characterisation of Irish political parties. It may be all right, in a 500-word article aimed at a British audience, to use the “Tory vs. Labour” analogy to explain, say, the CDU and SPD in Germany, or the PP and PSOE in Spain. Stretch the analogy too far – say, the Linkspartei is the German equivalent of Respect or Ségolène Royal can be sensibly described as “Blairite” – and you get into trouble. You get into even more trouble if you’re in the country in question and trying to apply what’s basically an alien framework instead of describing your country in its own terms.

So Ireland has a Labour Party like Britain (they aren’t all that similar, but let’s leave that for now). And our Anglocentric leftist will assume Fianna Fáil to be analysable as Tories. What then are Fine Gael? Can there be a second Tory party? They were a fascist party 70 years ago, so can we describe them as the far right? And what the hell are the Progressive Democrats? You see the problem.

In trying to work out a method for approaching Irish politics, I’ve previously written that the basic ideological divide in the 26 counties is not between left and right but between (in extremely broad terms) republicanism and Dublin 4. Perhaps a better way of illustrating this is to pose it in terms of state versus nation.

Go back to 1926, and read the speeches at Fianna Fáil’s La Scala launch rally and its First Ard Fheis. What’s striking is that, although the New Departure was a departure indeed from the fundamentalist republicanism of Mary MacSwiney (and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh!) there was no ideological capitulation to the Saorstát, nor an acceptance of its legitimacy. Indeed, the party existed for the purpose of abolishing the Saorstát. The aims laid out at the time, and enshrined in the party Córú, reflected this basic republican orientation: the unity and independence of Ireland as a republic; revival of the national language; building up a national industrial base; reversing rural depopulation, and so on.

Now, you may ask what is the connection between these aims and decades of Fianna Fáil practice in government, and the answer is, a pretty tenuous one. The fact remains, however, that these aims were never formally renounced and remain an important part of FF discourse. This contrasts with those who actually oppose such aims.

The neo-democrats, on the other hand, as the continuation of the historical West British tendency, are extremely loyal to the Irish state (that is, the Saorstát) which is a godlike entity in D4 discourse. However, they are notably hostile to the Irish nation, or at least the unreconstructed majority thereof, what Flann O’Brien used to dub the Plain People of Ireland. There are other things flowing from that: sympathy for unionism, based not on an affinity with the Prods but on a desire to keep the North a thousand miles away; anti-clericalism framed in terms of beating the religious majority over the head; the idea that we ought not to have a distinct language or, if we must, it should be no more than a quaint tourist attraction; a general view that we must aspire to British or Protestant-colonial social norms and take British (or increasingly American) culture as our model, with native resources being backward by virtue of being Irish.

Does this sound familiar? A useful thought experiment is to look at the hostility of the British franchises to lending even tokenistic support to the Irish language, perhaps via a column in their papers. Put that to the average SWP member and he will stare at you like you’re a lunatic. Put it to the average Socialist Party member and he’ll probably call you a left republican and an anti-Protestant bigot.

This will probably seem a little airy-fairy for our rigorous scientific materialists, who demand simple black-and-white definitions based on left versus right and workers versus bosses (in a country with a massive petty bourgeoisie!) and whose heads start to go like that bloke in Scanners if you complicate the picture. The standard response is to berate any ideas of “Irish exceptionalism”. To which I reply, any Irish socialist with a brain in her head is an Irish exceptionalist.

Tomás Mac Giolla: I ain’t dead yet

Courtesy of WorldbyStorm over on Cedar Lounge, my attention has been drawn to the extensive interview with long-time Workers Party leader Tomás Mac Giolla in the latest Magoo magazine. And very sprightly Tomás seems too – I’m slightly surprised to hear that he’s still alive, but surprised in a good way. Like WbS, I’m rather more sympathetic to Tomás now than I would have been in the past, although probably for different reasons.

Apropos of Tomás’s comments on Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and the discussion on CLR about the Official/Provo split, it strikes me that there is something to WbS’s point about the defence of old old positions. As opposed to the de Rossas or Grizzlys who abandon old positions without putting anything in their place save the pursuit of power within the current system. That’s a charge that can’t be laid against either Mac Giolla or Ó Brádaigh. Certainly, one of Ruairí’s great selling points is that nobody is ever in any doubt about where he stands. And while I can well imagine the WP simply fading away, RSF won’t, simply because the market for traditional republicanism may be small but it’s steady and will always be there this side of unity.

Here’s an interesting point, though, about 1969/70. I’ve written a bit about that split and how it impacted on republicanism North and South, and that’s a theme I’ll be developing further. But I think it’s important to note that the split was not simply a question of Defenderist militarism versus electoral vanguardism, although that was the major dividing line in the Six. Nor was it a question of socialism versus conservatism – to be sure, on the Provo side there were some howling reactionaries, but the ideologues – and I’m thinking primarily of Dáithí Ó Conaill and the Ó Brádaigh brothers – were seriously interested in progressive politics, had no problem describing themselves as socialists (while being suspicious of too close a connection to the Communist Party) and had been key figures in the programme debates of the mid to late 1960s.

The point was that there wasn’t a problem with the adoption of socialism, as long as the basic republican orientation, denying the legitimacy of partitionist assemblies first and foremost, was not compromised. The bitterness of the 1970s, at least on the Provisional side, sprung to a great extent from the belief that the Officials had tried to convert the militant republican movement into something it wasn’t and couldn’t be. As Ruairí often says, much of the bad blood wouldn’t have existed if the Officials had simply left Sinn Féin, as so many others had done, to set up a new constitutional republican party, a sort of more socialist version of Clann na Poblachta.

But again this issue is complicated, and I don’t entirely agree with Ruairí on it. From his point of view, the abandonment of abstentionism and the basic republican beliefs that abstentionism flowed from, of and by itself meant a shift into constitutionalism. I’m not sure about that, not only because I’m not a theological abstentionist, but also because I’m not convinced that the Sticks actually set out to go constitutional, although constitutional they undoubtedly became. I’m willing to be charitable and allow that Mac Giolla, Goulding and Garland (Costello too I suppose, although he was always sui generis) were really serious about converting the republican movement into a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party, and had some success in so doing. The WP then, or at least the SFWP of the 1970s, was probably the best chance the Irish left has ever had of building a revolutionary party with real social weight. It certainly throws into sharp relief the claims of the Anglocentric far-left groupings about their historic advances.

How this potential wasn’t achieved is a fascinating story in itself, and one that other people are probably better placed to tell than me. (Not that I wouldn’t have a go…) The main pitfall I suppose was the WP’s chronic split personality, never having resolved the issue of whether it was a constitutional socialist party or a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party. That’s a contradiction the CPI has learnt to live with by clever application of the dialectic, but of course the WP had yet more complicating factors.

Still, nice to see old Tomás still motoring along, and sticking the boot into de Rossa and Rabbitte with admirable vim.

Finally, I realise that due to workload my blogging hasn’t been as frequent these last lot of weeks as it might have been. I am endeavouring to keep the thing regular, if not daily then a couple of posts a week anyway. Thanks for your patience.

Kurt Vonnegut is dead

Just a brief stopgap post today, and I assure you a longer piece will be along shortly as time and energy permit. I just wanted to say I was deeply saddened to hear about the death of Kurt Vonnegut, whose novels I used to devour on a regular basis. He was a standing example of what was good about American culture, and American socialists aren’t so thick on the ground that the loss of an articulate radical is easily missed.

I expect there will now be something of a run on sales of Slaughterhouse Five, and rightly so. But do yourself a favour and dig a little deeper. Check out Mother Night or Cat’s Cradle. Maybe even Bluebeard. But certainly don’t miss Mother Night.

Rud eile: From What Next?, this sterling defence of James Connolly by Rayner Lysaght may be of interest to regular readers.

Stuck inside of Dublin with the Dungiven blues again

Today’s topic was determined on the flip of a coin, either Jean Baudrillard or a trip down Leftist Memory Lane. So any readers hoping for some French philosophy of a Monday have my sincerest apologies – instead, we’re going to put the Scorpions on the stereo, dig out the Rubik’s Cube and the old copies of Power Man & Iron Fist, and party like it’s 1982.

Nearly 25 years ago a major ideological shift took place in the Socialist Workers Movement, one that virtually nobody in today’s SWP will be aware of. This was of course the “neo-colony” debate, although debate may be putting things a little too strongly. It was decided, on the basis of a hefty document from Kieran Allen (The Nature of the Southern State), that the Free State was not in fact a semi-colonial, “imperialised” state but rather an advanced European capitalism much like any other.

The debate was unusual in that, if memory serves, the initiative did not come from Britain. One irritating thing about the SWM was that our conference could decide what it liked, but big shifts in policy would normally arrive with the Pooka, as Cliff would have a brainstorm in the run-up to the British SWP conference in November and this would then be translated into Irish terms. Now, Kieran was always basically a Cliff man – Cliff had elevated him to the leadership, after all – so it can be safely assumed that the Poms were consulted before the change was taken to the Irish membership. I wasn’t in the inner circle, so I can’t be certain of this, but I would lay money on it. Nonetheless, the drive for the change came from Ireland, though Cliff’s methodology was much in evidence.

Cliff used to have a rationale for arriving at new theoretical positions, which was based on working back from a bad position to its supposed theoretical roots, and then formulating a new theory which would safeguard his organisation against the bad position. A lot of the supporting argumentation for the state capitalist theory of Russia took the form of arguing that the Healy movement’s pro-Stalinist position during the Korean War derived from their holding a degenerated workers state position, and the adoption of state capitalism would allegedly protect us from this terrible deviation. (See also the Harman-Mandel debate in the 1980s, when Chris Harman, a very intelligent man, was forced to systematically falsify the history of the Fourth International.) Kieran’s document on the Southern state was really an application of the same method.

What exercised Kieran was the Provos’ embrace of electoral politics and a (largely rhetorical) leftism, and the magnetic pull that was having on the far left. Already we had seen Peoples Democracy, a much stronger organisation, go into a state of virtual collapse as the majority of its militants went over to Sinn Féin. We were also leaking members, albeit on a smaller scale – partly because we had fewer people to lose, mainly because PD’s concentration in the North and much more intimate links to the Provo base rendered them more vulnerable. The dominant view in the SWM was that we had to guard ourselves against the danger of defections to the Shinners, and it was that pragmatic view that informed the ideological shift.

Kieran’s basic argument was that PD had got what was coming to them because they had “tailed” republicanism – a pretty tendentious view given their and our comparative records over H-Block. But then, for reasons best known to himself, he chose to aim his fire at our theory of the Southern state, which had been pretty well established since the SWM’s formation in 1971. Of course, the preceding SWM position was not dealt with directly, as Kieran’s polemics were mostly aimed towards the extravagances of republican politics, such as the Provos’ argument that the Southern ruling class were direct puppets of Britain, or some of the absurdities developed by the Sticks under the baleful influence of Eoghan Harris. The positive argument for the new position was simply a few tables showing that various characteristics of capitalism applied to Ireland, while failing to hide the fact that this was a very peculiar sort of capitalism.

But, as you might expect, the debate centred not on the empirical evidence or lack thereof, but on the supposed consequences of neo-colonial theory. It was argued that, if we accepted the South as a neo-colonial state, we would inevitably be driven towards Stalinist-style popular front politics, towards unity with Irish capital and specifically with Fianna Fáil. This ignored the fact that in the previous eleven years we had never felt the urge to unite with Irish capital – nor for that matter had Peoples Democracy, the IWG or the LWR, all of which had substantially similar positions.

At the time I didn’t challenge this, nor did I seriously question the new position until after the SWM had dispensed with my services some years later. I was much more concerned with our line on the North, and the general view was that not only would this not weaken our position on the North, it would actually strengthen it, as we would have no illusions in the possibility of there being a “patriotic bourgeoisie”. Actually, as it happens, there were consequences flowing from the new line that we weren’t really aware of at the time, and that did serve to weaken our politics in the longer term.

The basic consequence was that the national question was confined to the North. Without really noticing it, we moved away from a perspective of a nationwide struggle for national liberation and socialism, and towards a view that in the South there was a class struggle pure and simple, with only a platonic connection to the North. That became the consistent line. It also strengthened economistic tendencies in the Northern SWM, although less consistently as reality had a tendency to impose itself. Opposition to imperialism, which was the outcome of an all-Ireland perspective, came to be reframed simply as opposition to sectarianism, which I think is the logical outcome of a perspective confined to the North. Not that we ever went over to the West British Marxism of Militant – even the most strident economists balked at Militant’s conclusions – but we gradually developed premises that weren’t a million miles from theirs.

And the moral of this story? I suppose that you have to try and base your politics on empirical reality, and think through your conclusions before you jump. And if you believe that adopting a particular dogma can ward off political sin like a cross repels a vampire, you’re likely to find the unintended consequences of that hastily adopted dogma turning round and biting you in the ass.

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.