Liam Daltun: Stocking up on theory

Submitted by martin on 28 March, 2017 - 9:38 Author: Liam Daltun

Introduction by Sean Matgamna

Another day

The document we reprint here, Liam Daltun's account in a letter to Sean Matgamna of events in the Irish Communist Group, deals with an important episode in the history of the Irish left.

The ICG, set up in 1964, was a foredoomed experiment in building an organisation involving both Trotskyists and Chinese-oriented "revolutionary" Stalinists.

Stalinist Beijing and Moscow had fallen out. The Chinese criticised Moscow from the "left" - for instance, questioning the dogma of the Stalinist parties controlled by Moscow that there could be a peaceful parliamentary road to socialism. If you didn't know, or let yourself forget, what and who Mao and his comrades were, it was good Marxist critique of Moscow and West European Stalinism.

The Maoists traced what they called Moscow's "modern revisionism" to the 20th congress of the CPSU, at the beginning of 1956, the one in which Stalin's heir Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin as a mass murderer. Groups of pro-Chinese "Marxist-Leninists", as they called themselves, formed in and then outside some Communist Parties.

They were pre-1956 revolutionary Stalinists, cherishing the memory and implicitly the deeds and politics of Stalin. Maoists in and after the Cultural Revolution (1966) would usually be political quasi-lunatics. Before the Cultural Revolution they included some more sober old-time Stalinists critical of the Western CPs.

Naturally the Orthodox Trotskyists paid attention, wrote analyses of the Moscow-Beijing "debate", etc. When, around 1963, independent "Marxist-Leninist" groups were formed, the Trotskyists approached them for discussion, common work, etc.

For instance, in Belgium the group led by Ernest Mandel approached the small Maoist party there. It was all in vain. There could be no rapprochement between Mao-Stalinists and Trotskyists, even Trotskyists gone seriously soft on Maoism.

The Mandel side of a Fourth International that had reunified in 1963 after a ten-year split with the supporters of James P Cannon and the American SWP thought of China as a deformed workers' state. A working-class revolution against the state, what in relation to Stalinist Russia the Orthodox Trotskyists called a political revolution, was not necessary. In fact they were critical supporters of the Maoist regime.

They argued that the "great revolutionary" Mao was, unconsciously, the political heir of Trotsky (for instance, in an introduction by Pierre Frank to a French-language collection of Trotsky's writings in 1955). They could come out for a new revolution in China - a "political revolution" - in 1969.

In the first half of the 1960s, when the Orthodox Trotskyists made approaches to Maoists, they were relating to people with whom they had much in common and whose criticism of "Moscow" they thought valid (with the exception of the Maoists' attitude to a Third World War, that it was nothing to be afraid of).

In Irish emigre politics the Orthodox Trotskyists had a rare success - sort of. A small Irish emigre Trotskyist group, the Socialist Republican League, which published a paper in London, Irish Worker, edited by Liam Daltun, had collapsed. I don't know why exactly: the details are lost in the historical fog.

In September 1963, a small group of Maoists split from the Communist Party and set up a "Committee to Defeat Revisionism (Marxist-Leninist)", which published a bi-monthly paper, Vanguard.

The impulse for an Irish "Marxist" organisation to rival the Communist Party's front organisation among Irish workers in Britain, the Connolly Association, seems initially to have come from the CDRML. As it turned out, the CDRML would not be involved in the Irish Communist Group, which brought together some Trotskyists, including Gery Lawless, a supporter of the Mandelites, and some Maoists who were persona non grata with the CDRML.

An early supporter of the ICG was Noel Jenkinson. Later, as a member of the Official IRA - the Stalinist side - he would be jailed for the explosion at the Aldershot barracks in retaliation for Bloody Sunday in Derry, 30 January 1972. He would die in jail.

The precondition for setting up such a group was an agreement, tacit or otherwise, to shun discussion of the history that divided its components. That, of course, was an impossibility for more than a short time.

From late 1964 the ICG published a small duplicated weekly, Irish Workers' News, and from February 1965 a monthly journal, An Solas.

Liam Daltun, who had been involved in the preliminary moves to set up a group, was not involved when the ICG was set up.

Gery Lawless became editor of An Solas. In fact the Maoists dominated both the organisation and its publications. For instance, Lawless docilely let them supply a quotation from Stalin in response to something someone had written in. The quotation was presented in good faith, as if Stalin wasn't... Stalin.

After some months, Daltun came back into activity, joined the ICG, and tried, at the regular Sunday night meetings of the group, to start a discussion about Stalinism in response to an article in An Solas by one of the Maoists. That brought the Maoist-Trotskyist house of cards tumbling down.

Lawless had been politically hegemonised by the Maoists for a year. Daltun's criticism of Stalinism triggered him to deliver an abusive tirade at the meeting. The Maoists removed him as editor of An Solas. The group began to divide, and would split in September 1965.

That is the background to Daltun's letter. The ICG Trotskyists enlisted the political help of Ted Grant. The Grant organisation, the Revolutionary Socialist League, was still the British section of the reunited Fourth International; it had been the British section of the Mandel-Pablo international (of which Lawless had also been a supporter) since late 1956 or early 1957. As a member of the RSL at the time, I joined the ICG to help the Trotskyists fight the Maoists.

The political battle in the ICG was a battle to win over or neutralise people in the middle between the hard Maoists and the Trotskyists. Most of them were on the Stalinist side in terms of their ideas, but didn't like the "hard" Maoists.

Liam Daltun produced the document which is published in the volume The Unbroken Thread of Ted Grant's writings, Reply to Comrade Clifford. Gery Lawless persuaded his comrades that the best tactic was to present the Daltun-Grant document as a reason why the Stalinists' political document should not be voted on, rather than as something that itself should be voted for.

It "worked": when the parting of the ways with the Maoists came, most of them stayed with the Trotskyists. The Irish Communist Group was renamed the Irish Workers' Group soon afterwards.

The hard-core Mao-Stalinists formed the Irish Communist Organisation, later the British and Irish Communist Organisation.

The IWG would pay a large price for fudging the political issues in the 1965 dispute. The accumulated contradictions would shatter the IWG in 1967-8. Liam Daltun killed himself on the evening of the day, 30 January 1972, that the British army killed 13 young people in Derry (a 14th would die later from his injuries).

Above: Liam Daltun


The letter from Liam Daltun

258 Liverpool Road, Islington, London N1. 19 August 1965.

Dear Sean,

Sorry I didn't get around to writing to you earlier. I've been very busy since I last saw you. Today is the first day I've been able to take off work. Until next Sunday week at least I'll be devoting myself to reading and swotting up on the ideas, history, etc., of the Marxist and Stalinist movements. It's not a lot of time, but it's about all I'll be able to afford.

Philip Flynn, Gerry Lawless, and myself met Ted Grant last Sunday and we had a discussion in the course of this week. Ted is preparing some material, quotations, etc., for a reply to the Theses on Trotskyism. We'll meet again next Saturday morning at WIR and have a discussion which we'll tape-record. (I bought two tapes for Arthur Deane's recorder today. They give over six hours playing time for £2-5-0). From this and other material we'll prepare our statement on Stalinism.

I went to Clapham Common today and brought a lot of stuff from G Healy's New Park Publications - mainly pamphlets. I also got Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain by Felix Morrow. I gave Peter Taaffe the money for Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution. This is possibly the most important - have you got it? - since the Appendix to Volume 3 contains just about all that is required in the matter of quotations from the Bolshevik leaders on the central question in dispute.

I'm re-reading The Revolution Betrayed at the moment. It's seven years since I last read it, I'm ashamed to say: at that time I wouldn't have absorbed this kind of thing at all as well as I would now. Peter Taaffe's lent me The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, by Harold Isaacs. When I've got through all this stuff, plus anything else of relevance I can get round to, I should feel a bit more stoked up on the theoretical ideas and history.

You'll probably be wondering what's happened since you returned to Manchester. Here's what. As I said, we met Ted Grant. With him and later among ourselves we worked out our attitude and tactics for the weekly meeting. We insisted on Gerry making a conscious effort to control himself, even if Brendan Clifford attempted to provoke him to raise a shout. ("Count ten before speaking, etc.")

On membership: Mick Murphy moved that Philip Flynn be removed from full membership and placed on the list of Associate Members (expulsion of a sort). Flynn defended himself in a very good speech and remained a full member by 8 votes to six with a few abstentions (against were P Murphy, Brendan and Angela Clifford, M Murphy, and two others).

Nan, my wife, who was formerly a full member but went on the associate list because she couldn't always attend meetings, applied for full membership again. This was opposed by the four above-named. They said she would have to do a probationary six weeks again. Of course she's been doing a hell of a lot of typing, stencil-cutting, etc., all the time - for example, she did half of last month's Solas. She became a full member by ten votes to six.

There was consternation of a kind as you can imagine at this kind of thing. Then two probationary members' names were presented for acceptance - Pat Mallin and William Glenn. The latter is English, from the North of England, and a pro-Chinese Stalinist. He joined the ICG because it was "the only functioning Marxist-Leninist group in London".

He was taken aback slightly to find unanimity on his own and P Mallin's acceptance. (These were, I think, the only two unanimous votes of the night!)

P Mallin you'll meet later, no doubt. Politically he's a bit Stone Age. Became disenchanted with Stalinism when it rejected Joe [Stalin]; suspects any revolutionary organisation that doesn't pay its respects to his memory. To say he abhors Trotsky is to put it mildly.

I enclose a copy of a motion which was dealt with. (I don't think you've seen this?) We had decided to oppose it, seeing in it an attempt to take the coming discussion on vital questions out of the group - or to raise it over the headers of the members.

Apart from B Clifford's slighting references to "this little Trotsky matter which has to be cleared up", it is clear that he and his immediate supporters do not want Stalinism demolished in front of the members. It will become all to clear to them (the members) that standing as he does (like Desmond Greaves) on Stalinist "theoretical" positions, it is only to be expected that he should say that socialism, socialist propaganda, etc., are inopportune at the present stage in Ireland (as Greaves does). Thus making himself an anti-revisionist revisionist!

Unfortunately, this motion was carried after a discussion that was interrupted by comings and going - these latter, delaying as they did the vote, and causing a new, somewhat neutral, member to withdraw an amendment (which would have been voted on first, and more than likely carried), helped get the motion through. I intend putting a motion next Sunday which will I hope get the support of the majority and destroy this manoeuvre.

By the way, I'd like to know what you think of the motion.

If you've got anything already on paper relevant to our reply to the Theses on Trotskyism, would you post it on to me? After Saturday's meeting with Ted we'll draft our reply, stencil it and run it off. All this will have to be done by next Wednesday at the latest, as the vote comes up on the fifth (5th) of September.

Just one more thing. Some people (including Pat Murphy, believe it or not) are asking where the Trotskyists get their funds from. ("The State Department spends a lot of money on anti-communist organisations", etc. etc.) This is now the level. Myths die slowly, eh?

Keep in touch, Sean. I hope this is legible, not too difficult to read.

Yours, Liam Daltun

Glossary

Brendan Clifford: leader of the Maoist group in the ICG, and later of the ICO and BICO.

Arthur Deane: a leading figure, with his brother Jimmy Deane, in Ted Grant's group. Also, by this time, a trade union official.

Phil Flynn: ICG Trotskyist who later became a leading figure in the IRA and Sinn Fein, then president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, then a prominent businessman in the 26 Counties.

Ted Grant: leading writer for the group which later became the Militant and then divided into the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal, Grant himself going with Socialist Appeal.

Desmond Greaves: chief figure in the Connolly Association, the Communist Party's front organisation for activity among Irish people in Britain.

Gerry Healy: leader of what was in 1965 the most active Trotskyist group in Britain, the Socialist Labour League. The SLL, later called WRP, became increasingly sectarian and then, after 1976, a propagandist for Gaddafi's regime in Libya, from which it took money. It collapsed into fragments in 1985.

Gery Lawless: former Republican who became a prominent figure in Irish Trotskyist circles in London, working at different times with the SWP (then called IS) and the Mandelite IMG. Later became a Labour councillor.

Peter Taaffe: then a young organiser for Ted Grant's group, today the leader of the Socialist Party.