Next article in this series: Part 11: AWL's record on Ireland — Part A
- Part 1: Why Northern Ireland Broke Down
- Part 2: The Irish Workers' Group, I S and the "Trotskyist Tendency"
- Part 3: Why Northern Ireland Split on Communal, Not Class, Lines
- Part 4: When militant sloganeering meant promoting communal war
- Part 5: When socialists looked to "Catholic Power"
- Part 6: SWP (IS) and Northern Ireland in 1968-9: Advocating civil war — until it starts!
- Part 7: The end of the old order in Northern Ireland
- Part 8: IS/SWP conference, September 1969
- Part 9: The debacle of demagogy, August 1969
- Part 10: The SLL on Ireland; introduction The "hard Trotskyists" of 1969
- Part 11: AWL's record on Ireland — Part A
- Part 12: The trap of "painting by numbers"— AWL's record, part B
Let us start on 12 October 1968. It was seven days after the RUC had batoned peaceful civil rights demonstrators in Derry. The reverberations were already hitting Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland.
The SLL’s paper, The Newsletter, magisterially dismissed all civil rights and civil rights movements: “The only fight possible is that by the Irish Young Socialists in posing and struggling for a principled working-class leadership. The only force capable of overthrowing the state is the working class. Therefore, a revolution is necessary...”
If internal logic was lacking here, the conclusion was clear:
“This emphasises the importance of the All Trades Union Alliance and its conference in Birmingham on October 26th...”
The ATUA was the SLL’s trade-union auxiliary arm. All analysis had to conclude by exalting the self-declared “alternative leadership”, and frequently that predetermined conclusion shaped the analysis.
Despite its barebones “class” emphasis, the SLL agreed with IS on the “colonial” or at least “semi-colonial” nature of Northern Ireland.
“In such a semi-colonial country the state requires a more repressive machine... In Britain and Northern Ireland the working class is on the move and looking for new leadership...”
19 October, on the back page: “Derry workers strike on civil rights”. And? “The Nationalists, reformists, Stalinists, and revisionists are a cover for Unionism”. “Revisionists” was the SLL’s term for Marxists other than the SLL. So even those who were on the side of Derry’s striking workers were just “a cover for Unionism”. Yes! “They are enemies of the working class”.
26 October: A full page “by our own correspondent” on “Police Repression in Northern Ireland”. A caption to two civil rights pictures uses the key formulae repeated in the text. “Savage breaking-up of civil rights demonstration in Northern Ireland followed by the spontaneous revolt of working-class youth”. All working-class youth, including Protestant working-class youth? Of course!
The Northern Ireland “revolt of working-class youth has to be seen as part of international upheavals as the world working class moves into opposition against imperialism”. The whole of the working class, throughout the world? Yes!
The events of 5 October 1968 are the beginning of turmoil that will destroy the old order in Northern Ireland, and bring it to civil war in ten months’ time. The picture the SLL sees is this: “The Ulster Unionists have shaken their mailed fist at the Irish workers, scattered the middle-class politicians, and given the battle signal to their class allies, the Powellites in the British Tory Party...” (the followers of Enoch Powell, who had been dismissed from the Tory front bench six months earlier for a racist speech).
Nobody living in the real world can fail to see that 5 October was an enormous political blow to the old order, or that the London government was demanding accelerated reforms from the Belfast government.
But for the SLL: “The Unionists are able to destroy reformism and opportunism politically with relative ease. In this one-party state the trappings of bourgeois democracy are reduced to a tinsel covering. Now even this has gone...
“The whole [London] Cabinet backs repressive measures...
“Such is the crisis of liberalism... The criminal role of the liberals [the Civil Rights leadership] has, of course, been that they have actively sought to prevent the development of an alternative working-class leadership in Ireland, giving petty-bourgeois expression to working-class demands, including the call for democratic rights...”
Or, in other words, that they are not SLL-style “Trotskyists”.
The SLL is committed to a view of events in which everything in Britain is moving towards dictatorship and military rule, and, simultaneously, working-class revolution is everywhere on the immediate agenda.
Throughout the following months the Newsletter will carry headlines and make comments that are blatantly transcribed from Trotsky’s amazingly prescient and accurate comments on early 1930s Germany as it moved to the Nazi dictatorship. All that is missing is the prescience and the accuracy. Parody, not Marxist analysis or even responsible commentary, is what the SLL — the main revolutionary organisation in the British state! — deals in.
The Newsletter gets very angry at the Daily Telegraph for describing the demonstration in Derry on 5 October as “a demonstration of Roman Catholics”,. It is a “Tory lie”! It “demonstrates that any purely liberal-humanist attempt to break the cultivated religious divide in Ireland or the racial division in Britain are doomed.
“Only the revolutionary party, uniting Catholic and Protestant, black and white, in struggle against the capitalist state, can achieve final victory — the conquest of political power by the working class”. There can be no reforms. Nothing but working-class revolution, led by the SLL of course, can stop the drive to despotism.
And yet the people who write so dementedly were once Marxists. Elements of a Marxist culture allow them sometimes also to make sharp and penetrating comments.
The Newsletter (Cliff Slaughter, I think) goes on to warn against the Republican movement. Marxist memory-traces from Lenin’s writings against the Russian Socialist-Revolutionary populist equivalents of the IRA are mixed here with self-obsessed nonsense — build the magic tool, “the party”. It is typical of the SLL then, of its best and of its worst.
“The big danger in Ireland is the cul-de-sac retreat into anarchic Republicanism... Spontaneity replaces all other roads, and what is now seen as talk is dissolved into action...
“The anarchist has no answer. Republicanism acts in an anarchist manner in the working class. Without revolutionary theory, religious ideology — the [Republican] idea of blood sacrifice, of victory in defeat, of leaving the future to God, of feeling or faith without thought — rises to the surface in the Irish working class...
“Republicanism is the spontaneous reaction of an oppressed people, the crystallisation into certain organisational forms of reflex action against the oppressor”.
In fact Catholic Ireland is saturated with the ideas and ideals of the Republican movement, which in many of its traits is indeed anarchist. Back in the 1880s, Frederick Engels had already noticed the element of Bakuninist anarchism in the physical-force-on-principle Republicans.
Physical-force Republicanism will revive, and in an astonishingly short time transform the entire situation and dominate events for decades ahead.
What follows from grasping this as a danger? The SLL denounces the rising movement of the long-oppressed Catholics, and demands that everyone line up and take orders from the self-proclaimed “revolutionary leadership”!
“The struggle against religious ideology in Ireland is a struggle for Marxist theory, for...” For what? “For democratic centralism, against defeatism and spontaneity...”
Democratic centralism is a system by which a group of politically like-minded people may choose to organise themselves! To argue for it as the best way to organise a revolutionary Marxist party is one thing.
But this is something else. “Democratic centralism” is now posed as something everyone progressive must fight for — even people who don’t support socialism?
If the use of the slogan “build the revolutionary party” as a peremptory injunction to the public in general testifies to disorientation, this posing of “democratic centralism” as a general objective for secular-minded people is a form of political dementia.
What is really happening in Derry? Is it Protestant-sectarian cops batoning Catholics seeking equality? No!
“The ‘liberal’ faces of [Northern Ireland prime minister] O’Neill and [26 Counties Taoiseach] Lynch began to fall in proportion to the drying-up of foreign capital... under conditions of a growing international trade war”.
“The engineers’ strike in the North is the real target for police batons in Derry. The Unionist regime, if it is to survive, must maintain in a violent way religious apartheid”. (Their emphasis).
Paisleyism, says The Newsletter, is “the backward potentially dictatorial force to supplant the action of police and army”. That is, Paisleyism will play the role of fascism in Italy and Germany in the 20s and 30s.
“Orangeism runs deep in sections of the Six Counties working class... What used to be, or what is, a privileged layer of the working class... now finds itself being attacked by its own Orange bosses. Workers at the Sirocco engineering works in Belfast were locked out by their ‘fellow’ Orange bosses. The [upcoming] engineering strike will involve many Paisleyite workers,. What alternative has Craig therefore, but to brand even a middle class threat to religious apartheid as Catholic, IRA-inspired...?”
Translation: 5 October and its aftermath were really an attempt to divide the workers in order to check the moves of the Protestant engineering workers towards socialist revolution.
This was the supposedly-Marxist “economic analysis” used reductively and pushed as the single explanation for political events.
They write this when it is plain and obvious that the recoil from 5 October was counter-productive, politically, for the Belfast regime; and that it has intensified the pressure from London for reform.
Yet the reader must understand what The Newsletter and the SLL understand! There are no important divisions among the Unionists. Liberals and unashamed bigots are all one.
“There will be no split in the Unionist regime as such — merely a change of composition. O’Neill may very well become a figurehead, while John Brook [a right-wing Unionist Stormont MP], the police, and Paisleyites work together...” In fact Unionism is beginning to shatter.
And what is to be done? “A principled struggle against adventurism, anarchism and Republicanism becomes a priority in the fight to unite Irish workers under a common revolutionary programme heading an alliance with the oppressed petty bourgeoisie...” The “struggle against adventurism” here can refer to nothing other than the civil rights demonstrators’ defiance of the ban and decision to try to demonstrate on 5 October.
“The Irish Young Socialists will be the spearhead of the struggle inside the unions...
“Unionism [in the North] and Fianna Fail dictatorship [in the South] can and will be smashed. The revolution in Britain will go hand in hand with the struggle for power in Ireland”.
On 7 December 1968, The Newsletter denounces the whole civil rights movement. In fact: “The working class has come to the fore”. But Eamonn McCann and others call it a civil rights struggle. “The Irish Young Socialists say this is a criminal diversion from the main question. Civil rights has been used together with Paisleyism to drive a wedge between workers on religious grounds”. The “main question”, comrade, is whatever the SLL arbitrarily defines it to be.
In the pretence that the “real” struggle is a class revolt, the parallels with IS are strong. The definition of the civil rights movement and the Paisleyites as being twins, equally devices to foment working-class disunity, is the SLL’s alone.
Now, it is true that posing things in terms of Catholic grievances has a built-in tendency to antagonise Protestant workers. A healthy socialist working-class movement would fight for equality between Catholic and Protestant workers, but it would not pose things as the civil rights movement does. But things are what they are; and to pretend otherwise is to erect additional barriers to being able to affect, and maybe reshape, developments.
There is a curious identity here between these Third Period “Trotskyists”, on the one hand, and Michael Farrell and his comrades, on the other. Both SLL and Farrell see liberal Unionism as their main enemy. They work to smash it (and PD and IS say openly, for example, that their objective in the February 1969 Northern Ireland general election is to do that). The SLL denounces the civil rights movement which for Farrell is the weapon to destroy the liberal Unionists; but otherwise the conclusions are politically identical.
The SLL calls for a “Council of Action” in Derry. Yet: “It is not a question of ‘Free Derry’, but freeing the working class... This is a political question, involving the building of a democratic-centralist party, a revolutionary party of the working class”.
The implicit message is for Catholic workers to accept, for now, gross inequality.
Newsletter now has four slogans:
• For a Council of Action of Derry workers, youth and unemployed;
• For workers’ defence guards against the police and their allies, the Paisleyite thugs;
• Unity of all workers against the attacks of the monopolists, bankers, and employers [but still nothing about civil rights and equality for Catholics];
• For the socialist revolution in Ireland and Britain.
In contrast to IS, the SLL does not at this stage call for troops out, or for the withdrawal of British subsidies to Northern Ireland (that is, for the expulsion of Northern Ireland from the UK).
But there is a surprisingly large range of things which IS and PD have in common with the SLL — notably, the barebones economic-reductionist quality of the “Marxism” of both of them. It is all really about “the economic crisis”. As well as being inaccurate as a picture of economic reality, this approach substitutes economics for politics.
On 10 December, for example, the Newsletter directs its readers’ attention to the underlying mechanism allegedly behind it all: “We must understand that beneath the crisis of the Unionist Party is the rapidly unfolding crisis of world imperialism”.
Northern Ireland prime minister O’Neill, the Newsletter says, came to power “in 1964” (1963, in fact) at the “behest of monopoly capital”, to smooth the way for foreign investment. “This was necessary to control the increasing dissatisfaction with the Labour government policies”. The Labour government was elected in October 1964! When, in best Third Period style, you deduce reality from your premises, who needs bother with facts? The foolish errors underline the preposterous arrogance on display here.
“Facts” are crude “empiricism”. These Marxists are above all philosophers. “For Marxists it was clear that the demonstrations of the civil rights movement and its growing support was no more than a surface reflection of a much more powerful process within the working class”.
The civil rights movement, says the Newsletter, had been “exposed as a cover for counter-revolution” — as readers have already been told, a cover for Unionism — “which aimed to secure the support of the masses only to dissipate their strength by presenting bourgeois reality as the only true reality and thereby denying the revolutionary potential of the working class”.
To relate to reality by first recognising it as it is (i.e. bourgeois-dominated) — that is to accept it and compromise with it, declares the SLL. The alternative? Invent your own reality and insist that things are not as the eyes and ears of others — and your eyes and ears without benefit of SLL “Marxism” — see them.
When the civil rights leaders appeal for calm, “they create the illusion that it is possible to reform the system by attacking partial aspects of it. They deny the need to build a revolutionary party to lead the working class to destroy capitalism and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat”.
And when those same civil rights leaders act on the streets... they are “adventurists”...
Tragically, bits and pieces of important Marxist insight are mixed in with this repulsive rigmarole, and thereby discredited by it. The PD leaders, and those who opted for the eclectic shilly-shallying of the IS group, are victims here of the fact that “Trotskyism” seems to be SLLism and the foolishness we are depicting. If that is “Bolshevism”, then long live shilly-shallying!
For the Newsletter, what is actually happening in Northern Ireland, or what is likely to happen, is only one expression of a world system caught up in the inexorable, mechanical workings of a hypothetical “crisis” which is itself the principal actor in the unfolding world revolution, now looming very close.
“The acuteness of the crisis now brings on to the agenda the question of the proletarian revolution”.
The SLL incoherently combines its “alternative leadership” talk with arguing as if “the crisis” could by itself bring revolution.
In practice the SLL ignores the division in the Irish working class.
“The Irish working class must now make a leap, a break with its past”. It must reject Republicanism and syndicalism, “which amount to a rejection of theory — the other side of their traditional militancy...”
“The world capitalist class has declared war on the working class. Only a successful socialist revolution can answer this attack. This means the working class taking power under the leadership of the revolutionary party...”
The coruscating non-sequiturs are used to reach the perennial conclusion: build our organisation. “Only the All Trades Union Alliance, guided by the revolutionary party, can succeed”. Join it if you are not a member, work harder if you are. As with the Stalinist parties in the Third Period, the SLL in this period is run by bureaucratic cynics.
The editorial on 14 December 1968 shows the editor (Michael Banda) deliberately appropriating the title of one of Trotsky’s best-known pamphlets warning the German working class about the rise of Nazism: “Northern Ireland: The Only Road”. The echoes from Germany will be picked up by hard-core readers.
Working-class support for “middle class radical campaigns for ‘civil rights’” has forced concessions from O’Neill, says Banda. But hasn’t the SLL repeatedly expressed deep conviction that reform is impossible? That the civil rights mobilisations cannot achieve anything? Aha!
“A ‘moderate’ path of reform along the lines advocated by the civil rights leaders, let alone O’Neill’s proposals, would not satisfy the workers, and yet cannot pass the barriers of right-wing opposition...”
This is an early version of what PD/IS will grope towards later. Civil rights will not satisfy workers as workers. They are not socialism. Notice that for the Newsletter, one minute the British government is all-powerful, the next it cannot face down the Unionist right wing, the Paisleyites.
“The working class has already shown in Derry that it is the only force that can put paid to the Paisleyites...” (This is a reference to the aftermath of 5 October 1968 in Derry, when dockers and clothing workers demonstrated).
No doubt action by the whole working class in Northern Ireland would put paid to the Paisleyites. The SLL does not stop to note that it was only Catholic working-class action in Derry after 5 October. The SLL is too far above it all, strategist of an immediate world-wide revolution, to notice that the Paisleyites’ constituency is mainly Protestant workers. In the pogroms of August 1969, the organised working class in Belfast will act to curb sectarianism. But its grip is limited.
As we have seen, for the SLL Paisleyism in Northern Ireland is playing the role of fascism in Germany in the 30s.
The trouble with defining the vicious anti-Catholic sectarianism of the Paisleyites as fascism is that you blind yourself to the fundamental determinants, using political terms to define what fundamentally is a communal or even “national” social movement. this mis-definition will disorient Michael Farrell and PD for many years.
The SLL’s picture is one of a looming showdown between a revolutionary working class and fascism, or fascist-like forces.
“One man one vote in Ulster can be won only on the basis of smashing the forces mobilised by Paisley, which work under the cover provided by Craig and O’Neill”.
For PD and IS, as we have seen, O’Neill and the liberal Unionists are the main enemy. For the SLL, all the Unionists are one: O’Neill covering for Craig, and Craig for Paisley.
Both, however, have pretty much the same conclusion: the forces of reform are a chimera. The SLL can say that, while also rather too quickly accepting O’Neill’s promises of reform as good coin (but that was forced by working-class action, you see).
Logic and consistency, and connecting what you say out of one side of your mouth with what you say out of another? That is for people who do not understand Marxist “philosophy” as the leaders of the SLL do! If you are deeply, “philosophically” Marxist, like the leaders of the SLL, you see beyond the mere surface to the inner, “real” truth of things, and know that prime minister O’Neill is a mere “cover” for Paisley.
For all the “revolutionary” declamation the SLL is, like IS, effectively Unionist and Partitionist, though everything there too is chopped and mixed into gobbledegook. The SLL advocates: “A workers’ and farmers’ government in Northern Ireland [sic], breaking from Westminster, posing unity of action immediately with the workers of the South and of Britain”.
This proposal accepts — as IS did, at the time — the Six Counties as a viable entity. It ignores the depths of antagonism, and the consequent fact that a Six Counties cut loose from Britain would immediately dissolve into civil war, probably war involving the 26 Counties state.
What will this Northern Ireland workers’ government do? “Nationalise the land and industry; stop all closures and redundancies; all factories to be kept open under workers’ control and their affairs investigated by workers’ commissions; guarantee all democratic rights, without exception, to the Protestant minority in Ireland under a workers’ and farmers’ government”.
The Six Counties “workers’ government”, which seeks unity in action with the workers of the South, will guarantee the Irish Protestants — the majority in the Six Counties state where the workers and farmers supposedly rule — “all rights” as a minority in Ireland? The Six Counties government will rule in all Ireland? “All rights”? The rights of a distinct national minority? Everything here is blurred and unfocused and un-thought-out. Goobledygook!
On 7 January 1969, after the violence against the PD march in Burntollet, and the first barricades in Derry, the Newsletter proclaims that workers’ defence guards are needed “to curb Derry violence”.
“The struggle now being fought out in Northern Ireland requires a revolutionary leadership”.
On 11 February the Newsletter comments on the Northern Ireland general election due to be held on 24 February. “It is not a question here of O’Neill being the ‘lesser evil’ as the Stalinists in the civil rights leadership maintain... O’Neill is unacceptable to the Paisleyites and equally unacceptable to the working class”.
Reform would be acceptable to the Paisleyites from someone other than O’Neill? Or the reforms announced by O’Neill would be unacceptable to “the working class”, Catholic and Protestant alike, under any prime minister?
Words here express posture, attitude, not how things stand and what can be done with things that stand thus. The “only road” is to build the SLL and its trade-union front and let them take power... It is the curse of “Trotskyism” reduced to kitsch.
Harold Wilson’s Labour government in London “have given their full support to Captain O’Neill’s repressions against the working class. But in fact O’Neill’s fate only foreshadows their own by a few weeks or months”.
They are suggesting that O’Neill will lose the election? That the British Labour government will fall within weeks?
What support by London to which repression is the SLL referring to? The British Labour government condemned 5 October, and January in Derry.The SLL’s statement is a flat untruth about both the British government and O’Neill.
It is the Northern Ireland Catholics, including some workers, who have faced repression — not “the working class” in general. Here the SLL uses the same ideological redefinition of reality that IS will use up to August 1969.
Reading the Newsletter, you get the sense, again and again, that you are reading a grim parody, an irresponsible paint-by-numbers parody, of Trotsky. Of a Trotsky in another historical period, on another country, in a radically different situation! Here, the words at the end are taken from Trotsky’s ill-fated comment in 1939 on the prospects before Stalin’s Russia. Earlier, as we noted, the title of an editorial — “The Only Road” — was adapted from a famous pamphlet by Trotsky on the rise of the Nazis towards power.
On 1 March, after the Northern Ireland general election, “the editor” wrote under the headline: “Ulster election — a warning”.
“The political crisis in Northern Ireland spotlights the feverish nature of political events which mirror the growing economic crisis of British capitalism. In essence it is the economic crisis which is now making itself felt in that part of Ireland which is tied hand and foot to the British economy”.
This was a pure piece of Third Period Stalinist ultra-leftism — to the Third Period what an ancient pot dug out of a newly-opened tomb is to a vanished culture. It is nonsensical in its picture of “the economic crisis of British capitalism”; and the Third Period “method” is blatant here: assert a metaphysical scheme and then explain every event according to it.
In practical politics, this method is a means of ignoring what is specific to what you are supposed to be analysing. The Stalinists, obliterating specifics, cried endlessly against “fascism”. They saw fascists everywhere — social-democratic “social-fascists”, “Trotsky-fascists”, etc,; simultaneously, they glossed over the threat of the “fascist-fascists”, the Nazis... Likewise, the SLL sees “the crisis” everywhere, and can’t see the specifics in Northern Ireland, or anywhere.
What, “really”, is the split in the Unionist party? “In reality a split in the Tory party [i.e. of Britain: the Unionist MPs at Westminster take the Tory whip]. Paisley’s triumph strengthens [Enoch] Powell. The break-up of the Tory party in the direction of fascism and racialism in Britain tomorrow is foreshadowed by events in the Six Counties today. The two-party system of capitalist domination is drawing to a close...”
In fact the Tory party backs Wilson’s Northern Ireland policies. It will explicitly back the Government during the crisis in August-October, and send a Tory leader, Lord Hailsham, to Northern Ireland to make sure the Unionists understand that.
The SLL’s wild extrapolation here is in fact not far from IS’s response, when after the dockers’ march in protest at the racist Powell being sacked from the Tory front bench it called for unity of the left to deal with “the urgent threat of fascism”. The difference with IS is that the IS leaders were never trapped by the logic of the ideas they deployed for organisational advantage. It was more nimble and empirical.
On 22 April the Newsletter, under the headline “Ulster Near Civil War”, writes that the “election of Bernadette Devlin is a sure indication that a revolutionary situation is maturing in Northern Ireland”. Indeed! But what sort of revolutionary situation? The SLL means a revolutionary situation pregnant with the possibility of socialism.
Like IS, which headlined “Troops Out” on page one after British soldiers were put guarding power stations in response to small Loyalist sabotage bomb attacks (which at the time were attributed to the IRA), the SLL knows, without any need to ponder on events, what conclusions to draw. The conclusions predate the events!
On 26 April, a “statement by the political committee of the SLL” headlines, like Socialist Worker: “Withdraw troops from Ulster at once”.
IS presented the troops as helping the RUC, playing the role of Orange sectarians. The SLL sees the troops as threatening to “crush” Protestant and Catholic alike.
“The workers of Northern Ireland now stand in the front line of battle for the whole working class of Britain and Ireland. Armed troops and police are being sent by the Labour government in Britain and its Unionist (Tory) partners in Ulster to crush them by force”.
Workers in Britain must “force the immediate withdrawal of all troops and of all support for O’Neill’s government”.
The SLL do not specify “withdraw subsidies”. That is territory already occupied by the Tribune Labour Left and IS.
What is to come after O’Neill’s government? Direct rule (that is, more troops)? No, working-class rule and socialism, of course! The deep and deepening antagonism between Protestant and Catholic workers is only an unimportant detail.
“Their [the British government’s] nightmare is that this [events in Northern Ireland] will unite with the mounting militancy of the workers of Eire and the struggle of trade unionists in Britain against the Labour government”. To bring the government down, they mean. In fact the militancy the SLL invokes is very much trade-unionist militancy, in the 26 Counties and in the UK.
The SLL says that civil rights leaders, Stalinists, and so on are holding back the workers, yet Northern Ireland is “on the verge of a revolutionary situation”.
In fact the workers in Northern Ireland whom the important layer of Stalinist trade union leaders are “holding back” are mostly a section of Protestant workers whom they are helping to “hold back” from Paisleyism.
This SLL is a parody, a gross parody, of the implicitly “spontaneist” approach of James P Cannon and his post-Trotsky Trotskyist comrades after 1945, when they proclaimed immediate revolution in Europe while knowing that there were no revolutionary parties, nor short-term prospects of regrouping large sections of the labour movement into revolutionary parties.
“Build the revolutionary party” is stuck on to the SLL lists of demands as the all-saving and all-changing miracle ingredient. And yet for them a revolutionary crisis can develop without the existence of any such party. In Northern Ireland, the working class can move towards power despite its crippling communal-national divisions.
In fact, though the Paisleyites are a minority, Unionist political concerns — opposition to a united Ireland, and desire to unite with Britain — and Protestant-Unionist bigotry are not at all limited to the Paisleyites.
At bottom, the SLL leaders either do not understand the implications of their central slogan, their supposed raison d’être, “build the revolutionary party” — or do not themselves take it seriously.
The SLL’s slogans are:
• Act now! All support for the workers of Ulster!
• Workers’ defence guards against Paisley and against police and troops!
• Withdraw all troops now!
• Bring down the Wilson government!
On 29 April, the day after O’Neill resigns as Northern Ireland prime minister, John Crawford writes under the headline, “Ulster crisis moves to climax”. “As part of the crisis in Britain, the tension in Ulster escalates towards a head-on clash between the working class and the capitalist state”. The working class, one single unit.
On 17 June, the headline is “Ulster, The Grim Warning”. (This is Trotsky-parody again, from his 1937 article “Spain, The Last Warning”).
“Ulster moves a step nearer to right-wing dictatorship backed by troops sent by Wilson’s Labour government”. This is the SLL’s version of IS’s line that the troops will help the RUC and the B-Specials. In fact, it is the very opposite. The Labour government is using the troops to keep the Paisleyites in check.
According to the Newsletter, the rulers, in Northern Ireland and in Britain, need “a Bonapartist dictatorship” to solve “the crisis”.
19 July: “Ulster veers towards civil war”. “150 specially trained riot troops from the Queen’s Regiment were sent to Londonderry on Monday [14 July] to reinforce police and the hated B Specials...” Indeed. Civil war between Catholic nationalists and Protestant Unionists? No, the SLL sees civil war between “the working class” and the capitalist state.
In mid-August Derry and Belfast erupt. By the time the 16 August issue of The Newsletter appears, the eruptions are subsiding. British troops have assumed the role of “peacekeepers”, effectively replacing the forces of the Northern Ireland state (the troops have control of the RUC and its auxiliaries), and are doing their best to persuade the Catholics behind the barricades that cut off areas of Belfast and Derry to take down those barricades and let the British army substitute for their self-defence.
That is not the Northern Ireland that the Newsletter sees:
“The editor” (Michael Banda) writes: “The situation can only be described as one of civil war in which the ultra-right government of Northern Ireland in alliance with Wilson and the Labour traitors have encouraged provocation that will now allow them to bring in the armed forces”. Since the troops are “in” when he writes, Banda is a propht of no mean ability.
Why is this Northern Ireland government , which is publicly committed now to reform, “ultra-right”? Because that is what it must be in the SLL scenario! Without SLL “Marxism”, one sees delusions!
“The situation” that “can only be described as civil war” turns out in fact not to be civil war at all, but only a “provocation” staged by the Northern Ireland and Wilson governments. The fighting in mid-August is a mere concocted excuse for bringing in British troops.
“The capitalist press has gone out of its way to describe the disturbances as the result of a holy war between Catholics and Protestants”. But that is only the surface appearance of things, how they seem to those who have not got the SLL’s mastery of “Marxist philosophy”. The Newsletter prints the next paragraph in bold type.
“While in some cases it may take this form, it is basically nothing of the sort. The real reason lies in the economic crisis now affecting the Six Counties and stemming from the worsening position of British capitalism as a whole”.
The IS leaders use the same notion of “Marxist analysis”, though slightly less crassly expressed. It presents basic economic underpinnings — falsely assessed, as it happens — as themselves a social and political force; and it does this as a means of denying the nature of the forces which the economic crisis has (allegedly) set in motion. It is the “Marxism” favoured by the most hostile caricatures of Marx’s actual ideas!
In both SLL and IS there is Economism (pretence that workers’ concern for trade-union issues is automatically socialist: in IS, there is also something which the Trotskyist Tendency called “Catholic economism”, a similar pretence applied to Catholic civil rights militancy). In both SLL and IS spontaneism (socialist revolution despite the absence in the working class of socialist ideas and a party, and despite the dominance of a mixture of sectarianism and nationalism) as the basis of hope for a socialist outcome.
There has been a breakdown of the Six Counties system — of a part of the UK state? The British ruling class and the Labour government are hostile to the sectarian character of the Northern Ireland state? No! no! no! The SLL knows better.
“The capitalists are determined to crush the Catholic and Protestant workers alike. To do this they drag out all the old prejudices and lies from the past.”
The SLL’s opposition to the British army is rooted — as IS’s before August had been — on a radically false picture of what the troops are doing.
IS had expected the British army to help the RUC and B-Specials against the Catholics, and has shifted in light of the experience in August. The SLL rests its demand for troops out on the delusion that the troops — the advance-guard of fascist-Bonapartist military rule in the whole UK — have gone to Northern Ireland to crush the working class and its movement, Protestant and Catholic alike.
This vision will lead the SLL soon to side with the Paisleyites when they fight the British army and the RUC.
When the troops fight Protestant ultras in the Shankhill — some of whom, like the leader of the “Shankhill Defence” organisation, John McKeague, are fascists — the SLL will see it as “the workers” being crushed.
Caricatural in everything, on this the SLL will repeat the Third Period French Stalinists’ expressed sympathy with the fascist gangs who invaded the streets of Paris on 6-7 February 1934 during the Stavisky crisis and were “ill-treated” by the “fascistic” French police.
On 19 August the Newsletter’s editorial headline is: “The issue is not only civil rights, but the Irish Socialist Revolution”. It is against the Irish Socialist Revolution that the troops are really being deployed.
Wilson sending in troops is “the most reactionary blow yet struck against the democratic rights of the working class in Ulster”.
Civil rights liberals and the Communist Party cause confusion about the real nature of the troops, complains the Newsletter. The Newsletter quotes the Morning Star: “The root of the present tense situation …is the failure of the Northern Ireland Government to introduce the civil rights and democratic liberties… demanded by the civil rights movement.”
The editorial comments: “This is a deceptive [as distinct from a candid and truthful?] lie. There are certainly civil rights issues involved, but these are only the form the struggle has taken until recently.”
The real issue is unemployment, and the fact that the bosses create division. The SLL ‘s programme:
1. Withdraw British troops immediately
2. Repeal the Special Powers Act — release the political prisoners
3. Disband the B-Specials
4. Workers’ and Farmers Government, posing unity of action between workers in North and South
5. Immediate nationalisation of the banks and building industry, the land, and engineering under workers’ control.
The Newsletter has occasionally attacked the B-Specials, the sectarian Unionist militia. There is something worse than that, however — a UK military dictatorship over society, starting with Northern Ireland.
When General Freeland, commanding officer of the army controlled by the bourgeois-democratic British government, is given overall control of the RUC — it is a first move in dismantling the B-Specials — the SLL sees only... soldiers! It knows what is happening. This is the first step in establishing a military dictatorship in the whole UK!
Against this, the Newsletter will defend the Protestant sectarians; it will stand with the “people of Ulster” against Army occupation and military dictatorship!
23 August: the front page headline is: “Ulster — another Vietnam”. The editor writes: “Harold Wilson’s ‘Labour’ Government has joined hands with Chichester Clark to declare war on the people of Ulster — Catholic and Protestant alike.
“On Tuesday night, 19th August, the General Officer Commanding the 6,000 troops was given full control of all security and police operations in the province. British imperialism and its agents are preparing for Civil War…
“Moved in under the cloak of mediator between warring religious factions, the troops are now to take on their real role — that of an army of occupation.” Harold Wilson has said that the B Specials will be “progressively stood down”, but that is lies.
This SLL lunacy is the stuff which, in IS, the leadership will use to make their own analysis seem the only sensible one and to smear their critics as agreeing with the Newsletter. It is not only self-blinding, by way of deducing comments and policy from flawed abstractions; it is also, I think, an attempt to suck up to Northern Ireland Protestant workers.
“No reforms can be granted. The central question facing all sections of the working class is now — will Ulster be another Vietnam?”
This may seem prescient. It is not. The “method” of the Newsletter was to permute the possibilities, even the most unlikely ones, and “warn” against the worst possibility and the most extreme extrapolation. In fact what happened in Northern Ireland, and what forces and issues were in play in the IRA’s “long war”, had nothing in common with The Newsletter’s scenario for “another Vietnam”.
26 August: the main front-page headline: “Military rule in Northern Ireland”.
The Government has handed “all power for making major security decisions to General Freeland. To all intents and purposes there is now a Bonapartist military dictatorship in the Six Counties”
“This dictatorship can only function on the basis of a complete political sell-out by the liberals of the civil rights movement and the petit bourgeois nationalists of the South...”
This criticism of those who gave political endorsement to the troops counterposes not working-class political independence, but an implicit siding with the Paisleyites, on the basis of political lunacy.
It is, again, the sort of “analysis” that made what IS was saying seem sensible by comparison. It also made it difficult to discuss the attitude to the troops rationally in the framework of independent working-class (or “Third Camp”, though the Trotskyist Tendency would have shunned the term then) politics.
“By making it a Catholic issue”, the Newsletter continued, “the Civil Rights leaders are deepening the split with the Protestant poor and thus playing right into the hands of the military dictatorship”.
It is true that the “justice for Catholics” politics of the civil rights movement — and some of what PD did — cut them off from most Protestant-Unionists. But here the Newsletter is blaming the civil rights movement of the victims of the Six Counties system for the events that led to the deployment of troops on 14-16 August.
“Playing into the hands of” was a standard Stalinist weaselling formula for denouncing things “left” and not under their control.
All the SLL’s fears have come true – but oddly. They feared — or said they feared — military dictatorship in Britain , and lo and behold, they see it in Northern Ireland.
“The Ulster crisis has completely smoked out the opportunists.” The Newsletter offers a long chronicle of the Morning Star’s call for troops — the troops “who shot James Connolly”. And, surely the SLL leaders, who know the history of the movement, can not but be aware of the parallels with the German Stalinists’ attempt to answer every question about unity with the Social Democrats against Hitler fascism by way of emotional declaration that they were the “murderers of Rosa Luxemburg”? This is almost evidence of somebody cynically playing nefarious games…
Yet amidst the welter of nonsense, the Newsletter can sneer tellingly at Socialist Worker’s political collapse: “What has happened to fearless ‘left’ talk today…? The entry of British troops into Ulster forced them out into the open. There could be no in-between position. It is either immediate withdrawal or, whatever the ‘left’ talk of action on the barricades, endorsement of their presence…
“Socialist Worker of August 21 supports the troops being in Ulster… Its front page demands read: ‘The Barricades must stay until: B-Specials disbanded, RUC disarmed, Special Powers Act abolished. Political prisoners released’. No demand for the withdrawal of British troops. Quite the opposite”.
It is either the Newsletter or Socialist Worker: there is “no in-between position”. As the IS leaders also insist.
On 30 August, prominent on page one is an article, “Ulster: Revisionists in Action”, by Cliff Slaughter. The “revisionists” here are IS and other non-SLL Marxists and socialists.
Slaughter is the SLL’s leading academic-intellectual, sharp as a critic, not ignorant or stupid, but sterile because tied to the toy-town juggernaut of the SLL’s “Apparatus Marxism”. The SLL’s line is determined by calculations of what will help the organisation and damage its enemies. People like Slaughter write to those pre-ordered formulae, justifying “the line”. They write the “Marxist” equivalent of Catholic apologetics.
Even so, some of Slaughter’s criticisms of IS are valid.
“In Ulster the Roman Catholic hierarchy is doing everything possible to gain control of the insurgent Catholic workers…” Catholic middle-class politicians.. “stretching right down into the Civil Rights leaders… are at one in accepting the virtues of the British Army presence… The whole thing amounts to a conspiracy to lead the Catholic workers to the slaughter.”
“While British Army units are preparing to break up the remaining barricades and pockets of workers resistance, the International Socialists can write in their weekly Socialist Worker: ‘The deployment of British troops in Ulster provides some sort of security against the lawlessness of the RUC and the B-Specials… But the troops cannot remain forever and when they go the working people of Ulster must be secure enough to move on to meet the social needs of this area. To do so requires an end of state terror’.”
Next article in this series: Part 11: AWL's record on Ireland — Part A