The missing episode of Minder

Wherein Arthur travels to Albania, and so impresses the natives with his wheeler-dealer wiles, and his promise of a varmint in every pot, that they proclaim him dictator. Guest starring Brian Glover as the late Nikita Khrushchev and Robbie Coltrane as Franz-Josef Strauss, with a special appearance by Norman Wisdom as himself.

Monty Johnstone and Trotskyism


I’ve been intending for a while to write a little about Monty Johnstone, due mainly to a guilty conscience. After the CPGB dissolved, Monty fell off my radar, and I would occasionally wonder whatever had happened to him, or if he was still alive. And now he isn’t any longer.

I was in any case unable to write an obituary of Monty, since I barely knew the guy and big chunks of his biography were a mystery to me. I could have written about his gifts as an educator and speaker, but that would be about it. I am therefore obliged to Prof Hobsbawm for this nice obit in the Guardian, and I look forward to the tribute promised by Monty’s colleagues at the Lipman-Miliband Trust.

There is one rather important thing that Eric leaves out, which is that Monty had been a youthful Trotskyist during the war, when he was still a pupil at Rugby. According to Bill Hunter, who had been in the Brum RCP at the time and was in a position to know, Monty managed to combine his affiliation to the RCP with still being a member of the YCL. How that worked, where his loyalties really lay and what lay behind his break with the RCP, are questions I’d love to have answered.

There were a couple of consequences flowing from this. One was that Monty ended up as the CP’s expert on Trotskyism, and, being a genuine expert, his writings – even the slanderous ones – had a depth and subtlety that you wouldn’t often associate with the CPGB’s sectbusters. Monty knew his Trotsky exceedingly well, better than most Trots, and more than one Trot ended up looking like an idiot after trying to debate him.

The other consequence was that, oddly for a prominent member of a Stalinist party, Monty had an abiding concern with questions of socialist democracy. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that he was one of the many CP intellectuals who took a strong anti-Stalinist stance during the Hungarian Revolution. But he stood out among those for his loyalty to the party. Most of the dissidents dropped out of politics altogether or swung over to Cold War Labourism. A few – Cliff Slaughter springs to mind – went over to Trotskyism. Of course, Monty had burned his bridges there, and I somehow doubt that the Trotskyist movement, which at that time meant Gerry Healy, would have had him back.

Thus it was that Monty ended up in the CPGB’s equivalent of Siberia, only being partially rehabilitated by the Gollan leadership after Prague. Even so, his position was a singular one. Although the Euros drew on him for ammo to use against the tankies, as Eric points out he was never really in sympathy with the Marxism Today hard right, and didn’t flip over into liberalism as most of them did. It speaks well of Monty that he remained a communist, at least by his own lights. Whatever dodgy turnings he may have taken, he was still one of us at that fundamental level.

Senator Harris, mar dhea!


There is an old Jewish proverb that, if you live long enough, you’ll see everything. It strikes me that this applies equally well to Irish politics, and was more or less my reaction on hearing the news that former Stickie apparatchik, legendary media pundit and friend of this blog Eoghan Harris has somehow managed to wangle himself a seat in the Seanad, as one of Bertie’s eleven appointees. This appointment has caused consternation across the land, and for those readers with their mouths still hanging open, you can read detailed accounts of Eoghan’s political peregrinations from Donagh and WorldbyStorm.

As for myself, my own initial reaction was one of amusement rather than horror. Remember that this comes not so long after the elevation of Swami Bew to the British peerage – and, if you can find it, Jack Lane’s deconstruction of Bew in the April Irish Political Review is well worth a look – so Senator Eoghan has a recent precedent. And, bearing in mind that the last Phoenix was speculating on the possibility of Eoghan’s appointment to the RTÉ Authority (now that would really have set the cat amongst the pigeons) I’m more than happy to see Eoghan lending tone to the Seanad, where he can hardly do any damage to our body politic.

I should however put Eoghan on notice that this blog expects great things from him in terms of livening up the Seanad. And, truth be told, this is a much better appointment than the party placemen who usually make it into the upper house, and suggests that Bertie has a keen sense of humour not often appreciated by the public. Eoghan has in his time rubbed lots of people up the wrong way, but his intelligence is undoubted and, back in his Marxist-Leninist phase, he was noted as one of the best platform speakers in Ireland – and, what with Joe Higgins’ defeat, the Oireachtas is in dire need of decent oratory.

So the effect of Bertie’s appointments has been to, at a stroke, make the Seanad about ten times as interesting as it’s been in years. Between Harris, national treasure David Norris, and the endearingly eccentric Fiona O’Malley, the new Seanad certainly shouldn’t be lacking in entertainment value.

Jack Barnes’ property ladder


A thousand thanks to the reader who emailed me this New York Observer story about Jack Barnes, Maximum Leader of the US Socialist Workers Party.

Communists Capitalize on Village — Get $1.87 M. for Loft
by Max Abelson

If bow-tied, cigar-mouthed Republicans can have nice seven-digit, six-room co-ops, don’t a few old Manhattan communists deserve multi-million-dollar real estate, too?

A two-bedroom loft at 380 West 12th Street, a 109-year-old building on a cobblestone block by the Hudson River, was sold by American socialist leaders Jack Barnes and Mary-Alice Waters. Their buyers, Sony BMG Music Entertainment vice president Ole Obermann and his fiancée, Stephanie Jakubiak, paid $1,872,500.

“I don’t want to hurt the sellers’ feelings at all, but they definitely had a funky style in terms of how they did the apartment,” said Mr. Obermann. That means there are sliding stained-glass doors, plus a wall of bookshelves. (Ms. Waters is the president of publishing house Pathfinder Press, which publishes Marx and Trotsky, and Mr. Barnes, too.)

“Personally, our tastes are different and we’ll probably do something different,” the buyer said. “It will be open, airy, simple, whereas when it was done 15 years ago there was a lot of light-colored wood shelving.” He’s adding six or so wireless speakers, “a nice music system.”

Edward Ferris of Brown Harris Stevens was the listing broker.

It isn’t clear when Mr. Barnes and Ms. Waters bought the place or how much they paid, but city records date back to 1993, when apartments were massively cheaper.

Unlike most people in six-room lofts, Mr. Barnes once met with Kim Il-sung, the late North Korean president. The leader “conversed with the guests in a cordial and friendly atmosphere and arranged a lunch for them,” a report published by the BBC in 1990 said. “US Socialist Workers’ Party, led by its National Secretary Jack Barnes… presented him with a gift.”

So what is the couple like? “We only met Mary-Alice, and she was incredibly friendly, interesting, had a nice warm way about her, seemed like a very nice woman,” Mr. Obermann said. “She mentioned she really liked to cook, they would have friends over—it’s like a social space.”

Nice one Jack! I should point out that I’m not a hairshirt socialist. If Jack Barnes wants to own a Manhattan apartment, or even make a profit selling one, that’s fine by me.

That’s not to say that there is no issue here. The late Jim Cannon, whom Jack professes to follow, used to be very hot on the idea of communist leaders setting an example for the rank and file. So there is, and let’s be kind here, an itty bitty tension between leading a group that fetishises “footloose revolutionaries” and discourages comrades from owning property, and dabbling in the property market yourself.

Then again, maybe Jack is onto something. After all, this is the guy who was perspicacious enough to dump Trotskyism for Stalinism just as the latter entered its period of terminal decline. Perhaps Jack’s latest wheeze is the Sarah Beeny road to socialism.

 More on this from Louis.

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.

West Belfast candidates address broad masses

This past wee while has been extraordinarily boring as far as the Norn Iron election is concerned, but as polling day is only two days off I feel it is incumbent on the Sunrise to return to the story. I won’t be making any predictions – that’s a mug’s game. Although many of the results are indeed predictable at this point, there are a few constituencies up in the air – South Belfast for one, and North Down is of course a law unto itself. So it makes more sense to wait for the results of the PR count and do an analysis of the small print.

So we shall take a run through the manifestos. I have in front of me most of the election addresses dropped in West Belfast. I am missing the DUP and the South Down and Londonderry Party, which is no great loss – those interested can find the Big Doc’s detailed manifesto here [pdf] and the Stoops’ printed Mogadon here [pdf]. And for some psychedelic fun, check out Rainbow George’s Make Politicians History site.

But on to the literature at hand. One of the things one notices is that “delivery” is the big word amongst the parties. The SDLP want to “deliver real progress”; the Provos claim “others promise, we deliver”. So the Provos’ leaflet – which, by the way, features no less than four pictures of Grizzly (the other candidates, Fra McCann, Paul Maskey, Jennifer McCann and Shell Dockley, are clustered around him like Santa’s little helpers) – is divid up into three sections. Under “Delivering in the Peace Process”, we have bullet points about a “strategy for Irish Unity and Independence” (by administering Stormont), a “new beginning to policing” (well, we’ll see about that) and northern representation in the Free State Assembly, which Bertie has talked about but can hardly be claimed as an accomplishment just yet. Under “Delivering in the Executive”, we do not have any reference to Provo ministers’ addiction to PFI. What we have is their one genuine achievement – Marty’s abolition of the 11+ – alongside claims to bear the entire credit for the peace dividend and various stances the Provos have taken – anti-racism and opposition to water charges – that hardly relate to anything their ministers did. The third part, “Delivering Locally”, is strictly West Belfast parish pump stuff – again, there are worthy causes there, but the actual Provo strategy of “Gissa Grant” would not be apparent to the casual reader.

We turn now to Dan McGuinness of the Alliance Party. Although I am pleased to see Dan going to the trouble of directing messages in Polish and Chinese to the electorate, this is unlikely to help his chances. Aside from introducing the candidate, the substance of the leaflet is given over to the usual Alliance encomia about “partnership” and “sharing” and other apple-pie virtues that Alliance stands for. Dan promises to offer an alternative to tribal politics, although he’s not the only one.

Also claiming to be that alternative is the eternally optimistic John Lowry of the Workers Party. John also witters on about tribal politics, and argues the working class should really stop living in a fool’s paradise and focus on the really important issues of water charges, PFI and the house price bubble. I fully agree with him that these are important issues, though John seems to forget that the sole point of the election is to restore Stormont. Actually he doesn’t – he does call at the end of his address for the restoration of the Assembly and Executive, but how the Assembly is supposed to do all these wonderful progressive things is left unclear. The WP also make a big deal, somewhat incongruously, of opposing imperialism – in Iraq!

Ah dear, what can we say about young Seán Mitchell of the SWP – sorry, People Before Profit? Don’t pay water charges; No to imperialism (in Iraq); Don’t diss the yoof… as usual with the SWP, a liberal sprinkling of exclamation marks and Yos would more accurately capture the tone. Most striking is Seán’s contribution to the policing debate which goes under the rubric of “Poverty is the Issue Not Policing”. The debate around whether or not to endorse the New RUC is hereby reduced to a question of insufficient community development. Bread and youth clubs, one might say. I would love to vote for this, if it wasn’t totally disconnected from what the issues are for the working class, as opposed to what the far left would like the working class to be concerned with.

Next we turn to the address from Geraldine Taylor of Republican Sinn Féin. I am disappointed to see that Geraldine is running on the identikit RSF manifesto adopted by all six of their candidates – as a disciplined party, that is only to be expected, but they could have made some concession to the peculiarities of West Belfast. It appears that RSF are only interested in appealing to people who are already hardline republicans – and even in that constituency, a manifesto based on appeals to the 1916 Proclamation and Éire Nua is only going to have limited purchase. RSF, in many ways the most substantial of the “dissident” formations, seem to have serious trouble behaving as anything other than an introverted sect. I might have expected different from Geraldine, based on the work she has been doing on the issue of anti-social behaviour around Poleglass for many years. To put it bluntly, her appeal would be greatly enhanced if the entirely necessary slogan of “Smash Stormont” was coupled with “Smash the Hoods”.

Finally, for the student of political exotica we have Louis West. Louis is the Official Unionist candidate for West Belfast, in comparison to which Steve McClaren looks like he was born under a lucky star. Strangely, Louis also seems to be rather down on tribal politics, enjoining us to vote for a moderate Assembly on the grounds that “Normal politics will be better than a constant them-and-us battle over ancient squabbles”. If you think this is a rather odd appeal from the representative of Official Unionism, you have hit the target, rung the bell and may collect a cigar or cocoa-nut according to taste. Louis proclaims that the key issues for him are the rates revaluation, water charges and affordable social housing. One is surely entitled to ask, what then divides the OUP from the Stickies and People Before Profit? Or, to put it another way, how are the representatives of the left more radical than those of Trimble Unionism?

The phoenix rises from the ashes, clutching a piece of bread and butter

The other night I was flicking channels and happened to come across the party election broadcast by the Workers Party. I will say this for the WP, after the almost unbearable paddywhackery of the Sinn Féin Nua broadcast, theirs was pleasingly low-key. Mostly it consisted of the WP’s most prominent Northern honcho, John Lowry of Twinbrook, speaking direct to camera about various issues of the day.

What Lowry actually said was an unexceptionable run through of various worthy positions the WP has taken. There was nothing there to frighten the horses (especially since Lowry isn’t what you would call a riveting speaker in the Eoghan Harris mould) and the message might even have been attractive to some naïve person who doesn’t know much about the kind of organisation the WP is. There was some stuff about non-payment of water charges, opposition to privatisation and building an anti-sectarian socialist alternative. Which would all be fair enough, if one had any faith in capacity of the Workers Party to build such an alternative.

Rather jarringly, Lowry dropped into the middle of his oration a call for the restoration of the Assembly and Executive, and pledged the Sticks to building the anti-sectarian left alternative within Stormont, in the vanishingly unlikely event of them getting elected. How they proposed to use the structures of Stormont to do this was opaque to say the least.

And yet – this may have been pie-in-the-sky stuff, but Lowry the unreconstructed Stickie has a slightly firmer grasp of reality than the main representatives of Trotskyism in the North. The SWP’s standard-bearer in West Belfast, Andytown teenager Seán Mitchell, has two posters up. One says, “Vote for me and stop water charges! Yo!” while the other says “Vote for me and stop the Bush/Blair agenda! Yo!” (Of course I’m paraphrasing here, but I have got the essential gist. As always with the SWP, the exclamation marks and Yo should be taken as implicit.) This I suppose is the minimum/maximum programme in action.

Such ambition is not for the SWP’s deadly enemies in the Socialist Party of Northern Ireland, who not only eschew Yo politics but keep their maximum programme strictly for internal consumption and polemics with others on the far left. The SPNI’s literature concentrates on the water issue to the exclusion of virtually all else. SPNI proprietor Peter Hadden, the Oblomov of Northern politics, has divined in water charges the magical talisman that will finally slay the sectarian dragon and unite the proletariat behind the SPNI, and Peter’s trusty serfs have been beavering away in accordance with this perspective.

There is something missing here. The Sticks at least mention it, even if they don’t understand it. The Trots ignore it. I refer of course to the restoration of Stormont.

To a superficial thinker, of whom there are many on the far left, this will not appear as a problem. “Oho,” says our superficial thinker, “but the bourgeois sectarian politicians are trying to mislead the workers by making this election a sectarian headcount. We’re trying to bring working-class issues to the fore.” If the superficial thinker is a pretentious wanker, he might even say this is counter-hegemonic.

It’s a seductive argument on the face of it, and the fact that the left lacks the forces to impose its agenda is no reason for not trying. But our superficial thinker misses the point. The point of the election is to restore Stormont, and ideally to cobble together a Paisleyite-Provo coalition government. That is its function. The fact that the election will be a sectarian headcount is not the fault of Machiavellian politicians – it’s built into the process.

Our scientific materialists might do well to take note of empirical reality once in a while. That is, unless their thinking is, as I suspect, not materialist at all but a deviated spawn of mediaeval scholastic thought. And that might explain a thing or two about the economist mindset.

The swami of unionism

Amidst all the excitement of the Stormont elections, one barely noticed footnote has been the appointment of Professor Paul Bew of Queens to the House of Lords. Lord Bew of Trenchcoat can thus swank about in an ermine robe and sit next to his latter-day patron, Lord Trimble of Garvaghy. He can enjoy the company of great thinkers of our time like, well, I suppose Jeffrey Archer and Conrad Black. And this is a fitting way for Bew to end his political trajectory.

These days Bew is best known as one of Ulster unionism’s small and hardy band of intellectual boosters. He was of course a long-time member of Trimble’s kitchen cabinet. Today he is a bigwig at the neoconservative Henry “Scoop” Jackson Society, a body whose patrons are a motley assortment of Cold War loons and whose journalistic farmhands include towering intellects like the oleaginous Kissingerite Oliver Kamm and the howling Croat nationalist Marko Attila Hoare. This marks him out as an honorary member of Nick Cohen’s Decent Left. But ‘twas not always thus. For most of his career, Bew was an early Althusserian Stalinist, and had some claims to be one of Ireland’s leading Marxist intellectuals.

It has to be said, though, that this was Marxism of a very peculiar kind. Bew was a member of the Workers Party, a group that managed to marry Irish Republicanism with Stalinism and replicate the least attractive features of both. Indeed, Bew adorned the WP’s ard chomhairle for many a year. His Marxism was therefore geared towards the practical needs of his sect. In doing so, it reached a level of sophistry wondrous to behold.

The best example can be found by simply turning to the seminal book The State in Northern Ireland, 1921-72: Political Forces and Social Classes (1979), by Swami Bew and his disciples Gibbon and Patterson. Don’t bother with the book as a whole – what you need to know is in the introduction. Therein Bew, Gibbon and Patterson declare that they have produced the first Marxist analysis of Norn Iron – all that has gone before is not Marxism but “Connollyism”. The three stooges dispense with this unscientific doctrine and restore Marxist orthodoxy by stripping out all that bollocks about imperialism (Leninist or otherwise). Instead, the Orange Bantustan was declared to be a normal bourgeois state, where sectarianism was a mere excrescence. In fact, there was a class struggle between “reactionary” and “progressive” wings of unionism, and the job of socialists was to support the progressive wing in its project of reform. Totally absent was any reference to the nationalist working class, except insofar as this imaginary progressive unionism had to be defended against the “Provo fascists”. Bew simply followed the logic of his ideology by becoming an advisor to David Trimble, the leader of unionism’s progressive wing.

But even before Bew made the break to unionism, this gobbledegook became part of the official theory of the Workers Party, and served to mislead the many thousands of workers influenced by that group down the years. It also influenced whole generations of politics students at Queens, where Bew acted as mentor to leading intellectuals like Austen Morgan (hagiographer of Connolly’s opponent Walker), professional red-baiter Anthony McIntyre and, er, Ian Óg Paisley. And goodness knows how many young socialists had their radicalism knocked out of them by exposure to this provincial variant of Stalinism.

So now Bew, alleged “expert on the Troubles”, scourge of any socialist who claimed imperialism had any relation to modern Ireland, has joined the appointed house of British imperialism’s legislature. In his rightward gallop, he now figures as an analogue to the late Gerry Fitt, only without the working-class background and instincts. And his former disciples must be green with envy that they haven’t been elevated alongside him. Having done just as much damage as Bew, surely they deserve a pleasant little sinecure on the red benches.