The Connolly Association and its Work: a Critical Memoir

Submitted by dalcassian on 18 May, 2009 - 3:46 Author: Sean Matgamna

There are striking parallels between the SWP's attitude to Islam over the last period and the way the Communist Party used to relate to Irish Catholic immigrants in Britain. I had some experience of that.

For a while, over forty years ago, I was involved in the work of the Communist Party among Irish people of devout Catholic background in Britain, people from the nearest thing to a theocracy in Europe, where clerics ruled within the glove-puppet institutions of a bourgeois democracy.

Hundreds of thousands of us came to Britain from small towns, backward rural areas, from communities of small commodity-producers very different from conditions we encountered in Britain. Though speaking English and racially indistinguishable from the natives, we brought with us the idea of history as the struggle of the oppressed against oppression and exploitation derived from what we had learned from teachers and priests and read about Ireland's struggle against England. Such ideas had very broad implications. It needed only a small shift - no more than a refocusing of those ideas on the society we were now in, and which at first we saw with the eyes of strangers, not inclined to be approving - for us to see British society for the class-exploitative system it is, to see our place in it, and to reach the socialist political conclusions that followed from that.

Vast numbers of Irish migrants became part of the labour movement. Quite a few of us became socialists of varying hues, a small number revolutionary socialists. Catholicism was the reason why large numbers of Irish immigrants whose mindset I have sketched above did not become communists.

The CPGB ran an Irish front organisation, the Connolly Association. Instead of advocating socialism and secularism and working to organise as communists those being shaken loose from the dogmatic certainties we had learned in a society ruled by Catholic "fundamentalists", the Connolly Association disguised themselves as simple Irish nationalists. They purveyed ideas not seriously different from those of the ruling party in Dublin, Fianna Fail, except for occasional words in favour of Russian foreign policy.

The real history of 20th century Ireland, and the part played by the Catholic Church and the Catholic "Orange Order", the Ancient Order of Hibernians, in creating the conditions that led to Partition, were suppressed by these supposed Marxists. Instead, they told a tale in which only the Orange bigots and the British were villains. The concerns and outlook of narrow Catholic nationalism were given a pseudo-anti-imperialist twist. All that mattered was to be "against British imperialism".

The CPGB thus, for its own manipulative ends, related to the broad mass of Irish Catholic immigrants - who, in the pubs of places like South Manchester, bought the Connolly Association paper Irish Democrat in large numbers - by accommodating to the Catholic nationalist bigotries we had learned from priests and teachers at home and battening on them. We had, those of us who took it seriously, a cultural and religious arrogance that would have startled those who did not see us as we saw ourselves - something that, I guess, is also true of many Muslims now. The CPGB did not challenge it. (If this suggests something purely personal to me, I suggest that the reader takes a look at James P Cannon's review of the novel Moon Gaffney in Notebook of an Agitator.(See:"Catholic Action: a Rift in the Iron Curtain"))

For the CPGB this approach made a gruesome sense entirely absent from the SWP's antics with Islam, because Moscow approved of Dublin's "non-aligned" foreign policy, which refused NATO military bases in Ireland. Russian foreign policy, and the wish to exploit Irish nationalism against the UK - that was the CPGB's first concern.

In this way the Connolly Association and the CPGB cut across the line of development of secularising Irish immigrants: large numbers became lapsed Catholics, but without clearing the debris of religion from their heads. It expelled from its ranks those who wanted to make the Connolly Association socialist and secularist. Instead of helping us move on from middle-class nationalism and the Catholic-chauvinist middle-class interpretation of Irish history, it worked to lock us back into those ideas by telling us in "Marxist" terms that they were the best "anti-imperialism". What mattered was who we were against - Russia's antagonist, Britain.

[Solidarity, 2002]