The debacle of demagogy, section 3

Submitted by martin on 9 February, 2008 - 4:25 Author: Sean Matgamna

This series: The Northern Ireland crisis of 1968-9 and the left

  • Section 1 of this article
  • Section 2 of this article

    Next article in this series: Part 10: The SLL on Ireland; introduction The "hard Trotskyists" of 1969

    The leaders of IS had brought out an issue of Socialist Worker on Thursday 14 August, the same day that the troops were put to work in Derry after two days of fighting there, and just before Belfast exploded.

    Evidently, they did not work up much of a sense of urgency about what was happening in Ireland. The lead story in the 14 August SW was: "Steel Strikers Fight Union-Boss Alliance". IS was probably waiting to see what happened. The report on Ireland was one column on the right hand side of the page.

    What do the minutes of the IS committees show of their thinking as they readjusted?

    Holidays had depleted the IS centre, but the key people on Ireland, Palmer and Cliff, were in London; the phone lines to Derry and Belfast still worked; and in London they managed to convene, on Sunday 17 August, a special meeting of available members of the two leading committees of IS (the National Committee and the Executive Committee) to discuss Northern Ireland.

    The very rudimentary minutes record the vote at the end of that discussion:

    "A vote was taken as to whether we should demand the withdrawal of British troops as a headline. For: Comrades Hallas, Protz and Nagliatti. Against: Comrades Looker, Harman, Cliff, Osborne, Cox, Widgery, Palmer, T[essa] Lindop."

    Troops out, the central slogan of IS since the Irish issue came to centre stage, was not to be raised as a headline. "As a headline" — the decision was not, if the minutes are accurate, to drop "troops out" entirely. The IS leaders believed in "subtlety" and smoothness and, besides, on 17 August they may not have intended to drop it entirely. In fact it would not be raised at all in the upcoming issue of Socialist Worker, four days later, or for months to come.

    The EC met the next evening, on 18 August. Things were beginning to subside in Northern Ireland as the army extended its grip to Belfast. The next day, 19th, the Army would take formal control of "security", and the RUC.

    Ireland was not discussed.

    On 21 August, SW appeared with all of its four pages devoted to Ireland. The key slogans of the preceding nine months were absent. In their place were slogans taken from the Catholics behind the barricades, and focusing heavily on "maintaining the barricades".

    The next EC, on 25 August, did not discuss Ireland at all! Palmer was at that meeting. The barricades were still up, but things had quietened down. Jim Higgins, Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas, Chris Harman and Geoff Carlson, almost all the "great men" of the organisation, were on holiday.

    The EC, however, did receive a resolution from the Swansea branch, and someone formulated an informative reply to it.

    "Swansea IS branch, while appreciating the importance of the Irish events last week, nevertheless does not think that the entire issue of SW, August 22 (sic), should have been devoted to it, especially with the anniversary of the Czechoslovakian invasion that week. If this was an editorial decision [sic] we would move to censure the EB. If not we ask who it was took the decision".

    Reply: "It was reported that an extraordinary meeting had been called on the 17 August to decide what line SW should take. As many NC and EC members as possible were contacted and the decision to make the next SW an Irish issue was taken there. The EC at its next meeting upheld that decision. The EB, because the majority of its members were on holiday, didn’t meet. It was reported that the Irish issue of SW had had to be reprinted because of the demand."

    Roger Protz was to write to Swansea and explain.

    IS Conference met on 6 and 7 September. It was not until 8 September — after the conference! — that the EC had its first substantial discussion on the breakdown a month earlier of one wing of the UK state into communal civil war.

    After the great Sinn Fein election victory in the UK general election of 1918, a Republican priest famously said: "The people have voted Sinn Fein. Now we must explain to them what Sinn Fein stands for".

    The conference, amidst scenes of wild demagogy, had voted for the EC. The EC had sold the idea that their old policy now meant "massacre" and civil war, and that those who refused to join them in scuttling that policy must want "a bloodbath" — while still calling for the Dublin government to open the arsenals to those who wanted to fight an anti-Unionist, or anti-Protestant, civil war. Now they had to work out what they stood for. The minutes read:

    "There was a discussion on the slogans we are putting. Comrade [Fred] Lindop [who represented the "Democratic Centralist" faction on the EC] felt that as well as calling for the disarming and disbandment of the B-Specials and the disarming of the RUC, we should also call for the withdrawal of British troops, to be coupled with calling for the opening of the Southern arsenals and the arming of the Catholics.

    "The other comrades on the EC felt that to use the slogan ‘withdraw British Troops’ now is to misunderstand the difference between an agitational as opposed to a propaganda slogan. An agitational slogan is one which explains in concrete terms a realisable, operational demand. A propaganda slogan need not be immediately realisable and its function is primarily educational.

    "The Catholics of Derry are unarmed and open to attack at any time. It is totally unrealistic to demand the withdrawal of troops whilst the Catholics are in such a vulnerable position and is tantamount to asking for a pogrom against the Bogside and Belfast Catholics. The slogan also begs the question of who is going to get rid of the troops.

    "Obviously not British imperialism: this being the case, the only logical development of the slogan is to demand that the Catholics attack and drive out the troops themselves as in Aden and Malaya. This is obviously nonsensical in the present situation.

    "Comrades agreed that this was an important political point and felt there should be an article in the next SW, which comrade Marks should write. It was agreed that Comrade Marks should be a fraternal delegate to the PD Conference the coming weekend."

    And so IS felt obliged to formulate clearly the guiding approach in its political practice, which it had not formulated clearly before. This declaration about "agitation" and "propaganda" would start an important discussion in IS; and it holds the key to the history of the group after about 1957, when IS’s forerunner, the old Socialist Review group, which had been "orthodox Trotskyist" with a special line on Russia, disintegrated and biodegraded into the labour movement.

    The doctrines elaborated here on the relationship of agitation to propaganda, the "realisability" or otherwise of slogans, and the purpose of slogans and "demands", were not new either to IS or to the socialist movement. They had been central in the disputes amongst the Russian Marxists at the turn of the 20th century.

    And they were central to IS,to what IS was and became. They were central to the approach which Tony Cliff neatly summed up at the National Committee in mid 1971, when a 180 degree turn around on the organisation’s attitude to the European Union was being discussed: "Tactics contradict principles". (See A Tragedy of the Left, Workers’ Liberty, 1991.)

    In September 1969 the "tactics contradict principles" notion came in the form of the idea that propaganda and agitation can be politically at odds. In the course of arguing for their conception, the EC and its champions would themselves, and none too wisely, invoke as their justification the discussion between Lenin and Martynov at the beginning of the century. We will in due course examine that debate.

    But to resume: the IS leadership was in disarray. They had said that the British army’s role was certain to be something other than what it now visibly was. They had been gung ho for civil war, until it got started. Their close comrades in Northern Ireland had called for British intervention (Devlin and McCann on 12 August, and Farrell and PD on the 14th), and had pointedly looked to London for help, while IS had focused on demanding that Dublin’s arsenals be thrown open to the Catholics of the North and those who wanted to go and defend them (or to go on a Catholic-sectarian offensive against Protestants). In the South the Republicans were still calling for the "opening of the arsenals", organising demonstrations outside some of them which sent in messages asking for guns.

    The too-charitable Trotskyist Tendency was at first inclined to account for the IS leaders’ behaviour as motivated by humanitarian concerns. But that was to fail to understand them and their instrumental attitude to political slogans.

    Even where their emotions were heavily involved — as I think John Palmer’s were here — the modus operandi remained the same.

    As I have argued earlier in this series, the whole logic of the "politics in the street" and the "militant come what may" tactics of PD was to foment Catholic-Protestant civil war and then either to bring on British central state intervention or to fight an island-wide civil war: there was no middle ground.

    Now IS, following the Northerners, had tumbled into the political pothole dug by the Labour-left Tribune MPs, who had been demanding direct rule from London all along.

    IS, being "subtle" and capable, unlike more simple-minded folk, of juggling two contradictory slogans at once, did not then entirely drop the politics of calling for island-wide Catholic-Protestant civil war. It still demanded Dublin "open the arsenals", in reality to the IRA.

    And IS had another problem, in the relentless hammering at them of the SLL (the Socialist Labour League, then far the biggest grouping of the revolutionary left in Britain).

    The EC met again on 15 September, a week after the first big discussion on Northern Ireland. Already the underlying conflict between the Northern Ireland Catholics, behind their barricades, and the combination of politicians, Catholic bishops and priests, Stormont ministers, and the British Army, was being resolved in the "voluntary" taking down of the Belfast barricades.

    Derry was still barricaded and would remain so for another three weeks. The pressure now focused on Derry. The left had far more influence and clout there than in Belfast.

    The minutes of that 15 September meeting of the IS EC say in toto: "Ireland: Brief discussion on this". The barricades, the preservation of which IS had presented to central well-being, were coming down, without discernible opposition by PD to the Republican leadership behind the barricades — and the IS EC did not even go through the motions of noticing the fact!

    The reason behind the all-in-all astonishing paucity of discussion on the leading committee of IS is not just that the crisis came inconveniently — but predictably — during the holiday season, when people were tied in to family commitments and bookings. The truth is that policy on Ireland was made all through the period we are surveying by a couple of people, Palmer and Cliff. The other EC members (apart from the "Democratic Centralist" faction representative) gave them pretty automatic backing; or where they disagreed, as Hallas, Protz and Nagliatti did on Ireland, helped by supportive silence and active clique-factional hostility to the EC’s critics.

    Behind the democratic procedures lay the rule of a clique around Cliff, sometimes constrained by the formal structures but never controlled by them.

    The minutes of the EC of 29 September record "… a lengthy discussion on the situation in Ireland and our attitude to British troops.

    "Whilst there seemed to be general agreement on the role of SW editorials in stating the reactionary role of the British troops, of the role of British Government, the argument still raged over the putting of the slogan now: ‘Withdraw British Troops’. Comrades Cliff and Palmer had said we must emphasise working class action in the South, whilst recognising that the workers in the North wanted British troops to remain.

    Comrade Hallas said that it was incompatible to support working class action in the South and yet accept troops in the North to protect Partition, however unpalatable, we have to tell the truth. [But outside of minutes such as these, Hallas himself never told the truth, even to IS members].

    Conrades Harman, Palmer and Cliff pointed out that we have to take the objective situation in Northern Ireland. Catholics are not asking the British troops to withdraw. If they did the troops would go and the Catholics be murdered. The B-Specials had not noticeably responded to the decision to disarm themselves. There were 20,000 licensed guns (how many unlicensed?) and the Catholics hadn’t got them. At the same time, Comrade Palmer pointed out, to protect Paisley, but to consolidate the Stormont regime, and with Paisley calling marches against Unionist traitors, the troops would be forced to act against Paisley and his supporters.

    The meeting, after further discussion, very clearly held three positions.

    1. Comrades Palmer, Cliff, Harman, Harris and Protz — that we continue with our present policies;

    2. Comrades Hallas, Nagliatti — that we should prepare the ground in our editorials to eventually call for the withdrawal of British troops;

    3. Comrade [Fred] Lindop — that we call for the withdrawal of British Troops now."

    The minutes record: "…Catholics are not asking the British troops to withdraw. If they did the troops would go…."

    Even allowing for some distortion in the simplified minutes — though their accuracy was never questioned by any of the participants — that was an astonishing judgment. From people who had so recently campaigned against British troops in Northern Ireland on the grounds that they would only help the RUC and the B-Specials beat down the Catholics, it was something more than astonishing.

    Hadn’t the IS leaders believed what they were saying then? Didn’t they feel an obligation to square what they were saying now with what they said, and, ostensibly, were guided by, then? Not at all! Like the philosopher’s flowing river which you could not cross twice, IS "flowed". That was then and this is now…

    Continuity? Continuity was continuity of persons, or of the IS Person of Persons, "Comrade Cliff", and whomever he was listening to at the time.

    They had corrected their never remotely serious idea that the British government did not want reforms, that in the crunch it would back the old regime, unreformed. But they had swung over to no less one-sided acceptance of the troops and the British Government behind them, mystified and dressed up in Catholic-nationalist demagogy. They swung from one piece of foolish one-sidedness to the other…

    I wrote a letter to Socialist Worker protesting at the dropping of "troops out". Written (I think) before the IS conference discussion on 6-7 September, it was published in SW of 11 September.

    "The troops are there to freeze the status quo.... In certain conditions, if the status quo is seriously threatened by the minority, the troops will be used against the Catholics...

    "Socialist Worker must challenge the partition, and demand the break-up of the Six Counties state, or at least the right of secession of those areas where Catholics form the majority - ultimately leading to a united Ireland with autonomy for the Protestant areas, not after the Workers’ Republic, but as a necessary and unavoidable step towards it".

    The letter argued from a belief in the untenability of the Six Counties state and of partition, or at least of the existing partition.

    Though it raised the question of autonomy for the Protestant-Unionists in a united federal Ireland, and that is important for the history of the disputes, it failed to give due weight to the Protestant community and the rights they could properly claim.

    Though it was not something that could be flatly opposed, I had regarded IS’s previous focus on the British troops, as for example in the SW front page headline on 26 April, as a piece of deranged pseudo-nationalism. Moreover, when combined with acceptance of the Six/26 County division until a socialist Ireland was in being, it amounted to advocacy of an independent Northern Ireland, an entity that could not survive as such and would dissolve into Catholic-Protestant war. But now the letter was disoriented by the raging dispute over IS’s precipitate dropping of the axial slogan that for IS concretely expressed opposition to British imperialism. It confused or conflated the issues raised by IS’s sharp turn, expressed in its juggling with slogans but not limited to that, with the question of whether "troops out" should or should not at that point be an up-front slogan.

    To anticipate, the letter also made it plain that the Trotskyist Tendency did not advocate repartition: when we advocated that the Catholic minority, in the areas where they were the majority, should break away, we believed that would make the Northern Ireland state impossible. That was a false assessment common then, and shared by the IS majority.

    After the collapse of the Northern Ireland state, we thought, the right of the Protestant-Unionist/British-Irish to their own identity could be accommodated by way of autonomy where they were the majority, in North East Ulster.

    None of us envisaged what in fact happened: the "long war" between the IRA and the British; the smothered civil war between Catholics and Protestants; the British army propping up a "failed state" for 38 years; and finally the creation of an intricate bureaucratic political superstructure which cannot but perpetuate Protestant-Catholic sectarianism.

    In that time the "repartition" that would occur — and it exists still — would be the "repartition" of Belfast by way of great walls to separate Catholic and Protestant.

    Next article in this series: Part 10: The SLL on Ireland; introduction The "hard Trotskyists" of 1969

    Section 1 of this article
    Section 2 of this article