Desmond Greaves

Submitted by dalcassian on 28 December, 2015 - 8:36 Author: Sean Matgamna

Desmond Greaves was for half
a century a very important
figure in Irish left wing politics.
He ran the Communist Party's Irish
organisation in Britain, the Connolly Associa-
tion, and edited its monthly paper, The Irish
Democrat. For decades that paper was sold
on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings in
cities like Manchester, Liverpool and London
in the many Irish pubs where the uprooted
Irish gathered to meet their own kind and
drown their sorrows.
It is still sold, much diminished in con-
fidence and influence, and probably in sales.
In Manchester, around 1960, we'd think
badly of ourselves if half a dozen of us sold
fewer than a thousand Democrats on a Satur-
day night tour with a new issue through the
teeming pubs of Rusholme and Moss Side.
Young Irish people coming to England
were warned in Catholic Truth Society pam-
phlets and in speeches from Irish pulpits to
beware the lure of 'the Connolly clubs, whose
zealots would meet them off the boats and
seek to ensnare them in the politics of
'godless Communism'.
Meeting them off the boats was a myth,
but for sure we met them in the pubs. Unfor-
tunately the idea that we were preaching com-
munism to them was a myth, too.
If you hadn't been told otherwise, you
would have mistaken the Irish Democrat for
a mainstream Irish nationalist paper, a Fian-
na Fail paper maybe, complete with one of
its 12 pages given over entirely to nationalist
songs. If you knew your way around politics,
you'd be tipped off that it was some sort of
Stalinist paper by words like "progressive”,
and by such foreign policy angles as praise
for the 26 Counties' refusal to join NATO.
People did find their way to the Com-
munist Party by way of the Connolly
Association, though the traffic often went the
other way too (me, for instance). One of our
perpetual complaints was that we couldn't
mobilise the CP's Irish members, except for
occasional resolution-mongering at trade
union branches. They integrated too easily in-
to the labour movement, and were lost to
Irish concerns through absorption and
Great chances were thrown away to create
an Irish communist cadre out of malleable
people caught up in the flux of forced
emigration from an underdeveloped to an in-
dustrialised society which confronted them
freshly and starkly with the realities of class
slavery. Instead of educating them, the CP
and the Connolly Association were merely
parasitic on the existing nationalist sentiments
of those Irish they reached — rather like the
far-left groups today, though with rather
more excuse.
Yet Greaves did influence Irish politics,
and help shape what has happened in the last
20 years. In his books and pamphlets he
preached a sort of left-slanted populist
Republicanism, stiffened with Stalinist dogma
about a two-stage Irish revolution — first the
'completion of the bourgeois revolution'
through unification, then a struggle for
socialism. The message was that only the
working class and small farmers could be
consistent Irish nationalists, and therefore
Republicans had to turn to the men and
women of no property.
This fusion of Stalinist dogma and
Catholic-Irish radical nationalism was first
made in the 1930s, when the Irish CP
counted for something, and the Republican
movement too. It was championed by a
Stalinist-influenced segment of the
Republican movement, the 1934 'Republican
Congress9, which soon declined.
The Stalinist-led London branch of the
Republican Congress started Greaves's paper,
first called Irish Freedom, in the late '30s.
Such politics all but disappeared in the '40s
and '50s, when Republicanism was smashed
in the South, and what hadn't been smashed
was very right-wing. You would find it only
in odd memoirs and pamphlets by Paedar
O'Donnell and George Gilmore, and, much
diluted, in Greaves's publications.
But in the 1960s Greaves's work played a
big role in convincing the then Republican
movement to try to repair its fortunes by mak-
ing a fresh populist appeal to the 'people of
no property'. That turn helped generate the
Provo split in 1969-70; today, twenty years
later, the Provo leaders have come round full
circle to similar ideas.
And not just the Provo leaders — the idea
of populist nationalism as authentic Irish
working-class revolutionary politics is domi-
nant also in the far left groups, who thus owe
a debt to Greaves, the Buonarrotti, the link
man between them and the '30s.
For the Stalinist-populist '30s is, though
they don't know it, where much of the
politics of the would-be Trotskyist groups on
Ireland originates. All they add is a bit of in-
coherent verbiage about 'permanent revolu-
tion' and the assertion (for which no evidence
is or can be cited) that it will all lead to
socialism, somehow.
Greaves's books testify that he was a man
of immense learning in things Irish. He was
the author of the first full-scale biography of
James Connolly (1961), and of books and
pamphlets on Liam Mellowes, Wolfe Tone,
Sean O'Casey and others. They stand out in
a field of left-wing literature characterised
above all by the crassest ignorance. Contrast
them, for example, with Paul Foot's recent
pamphlet, whose author doesn't know that
there was a second Home Rule Bill in 1893
and indeed, crams his text with so many er-
rors that you can't be sure that it is a typeset-
ting mistake when be writes of Ireland's 36
But Greaves's career proved that, necessary
though it is, knowledge is not enough.
He remained all his life within the
framework of ideas he picked up in the
Stalinist movement of the '30s. He never ad-
vanced, despite his learning. That was
Greaves's tragedy. Insofar as he helped shape
radical Republican politics, Greaves's
political tragedy is also a part of Ireland's
unfolding tragedy.