Anti-Imperialism and the trap of "paint by numbers" — Part 2 of "AWL's Record on Ireland"

Submitted by martin on 20 March, 2008 - 12:07 Author: Sean Matgamna

This series: The Northern Ireland crisis of 1968-9 and the left (Part 12)

For part one of this article: click here

    What is the socialist movement?... To a contemporary Socialist the socialist movement does not look anything like it did to a [utopian] Socialist in the [18]30s [for whom] 'future history resolves itself into propaganda and the practical implementation of their social plans...

    What did the [Marxists] see in it? Above all class struggle, the struggle of the exploited with the exploiters, the proletariat with the bourgeoisie. In addition they saw in
    it the inevitability of the impending triumph of the proletariat, the fall of the present bourgeois social order, the socialist organisation of production and the corresponding alteration in the relationships between people, i.e. even the destruction of classes, among other things...

    If, therefore, for the [Marxists] the whole future history of bourgeois society resolves itself in the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie, all their practical tasks are prompted by precisely this class struggle. Standing resolutely on the side of the proletariat, the new Socialists do everything in their power to facilitate and hasten its victory. But what exactly can they do?

    A necessary condition for the victory of the proletariat is its recognition of its own position, its relations with its exploiters, its historic role and its socio-political tasks. For this reason the [Marxists] consider it their principal, perhaps even their only, duty to promote the growth of this consciousness among the proletariat, which for short they call its class consciousness.

    The whole success of the socialist movement is measured for them in terms of the growth in the class consciousness of the proletariat. Everything that helps this growth they see as useful to their cause: everything that slows it down as harmful. Anything that has no effect one way or the other is of no consequence for them, it is politically uninteresting

    G.V. Plekhanov: The Tasks of the Socialists in the Struggle Against the Famine in Russia, 1891

    This is the second part of a critical assessment of the record of the AWL and its predecessors on Ireland. In the last article I argued that "the fundamental approach was correct".

    That should not be taken as a claim that our politics have been completely adequate. Far from that.

    Even in the early '70s, when we put most stress on solidarity with the Catholic revolt, we were publicly critical of the IRA: on the whole, however, we tended to suppress criticism as much as we felt we decently could - and that was far too much.

    The basic principles, viewpoint and assessments were, I believe, broadly correct: but we tended to downplay our own assessments, criticisms and politics in deference to a petty-bourgeois nationalist formation because it fitted the Communist International's category of "revolutionary nationalists" fighting national oppression and imperialism". It was a variant of what we criticised in others as political "painting by numbers", instead of from reality. It became a form of self-debilitating political self-boycott.

    The decisive shift in the approach of the tendency to this and other questions from the late 1970s and early 1980s - and it was a slow and long-drawn-out shift - was fundamentally a shift of political priorities and, in part, of values. We had tried to act in accordance with the belief that militancy was the cardinal virtue and prime value of revolutionaries. So it is, to use Trotsky's words, "when the hour for action arrives".

    But the fundamental role of Marxists is to contribute what we can to raising the consciousness of the working class from what it is now to the point where it is ready to displace bourgeois rule. We cannot do that work except by analysing, understanding, uncovering and breaking illusions, facing reality squarely, drawing out the implications, and explaining, in the first place for ourselves and then for as many as we can reach.

    In relation to Ireland - and not only Ireland - we too often let that imperative be skewered by considerations of "militancy" and "solidarity" and the desire not to seem to side against the oppressed by way of caveats, awkward questions, unwieldy truths, and dwelling on uncongenial facets of reality.

    Though our role had to include militancy, what the working class needed and should have had from Marxists in the 1970s was not mimic or exemplary militancy but... Marxist analysis.

    The beginning of all socialist wisdom is that you side with the oppressed. You grasp the fundamental truth that James Connolly expressed thus: to side with the oppressor against the oppressed is the wisdom of the slave.

    Siding with the oppressed, with the victims,with the defeated, with the weak, is the natural defining response of serious socialists. At the most fundamental, visceral level, it is what separates us from the visceral Right. But it cannot be a self-negating automatic acceptance of the current politics and the political project of the oppressed (which always means: of their present leaders).

    The Marxists have to hold to their own overview. Take, for instance, the most painfully complicated case now, that of the Palestinians. Not to side with them is to be dead to everything that gives life to socialism. But to endorse the programme of their most "militant" and reckless leading organisations - clerical fascists who make their version of the Palestinian cause inseparable from the project of conquering and destroying Israel, and whose tactics very often express that goal and that attitude to their enemies - that, too, is to be dead to socialism — socialism as a rational, liberating world outlook.

    My own experience with "paint-by-numbers" anti-imperialism is, I think, salutary. I would never have "voted" for the Provisional IRA war. It made no sense according to my understanding of things in Northern Ireland and in Ireland as a whole.

    The first time I heard anyone suggest something like it was in a cottage in Dundalk, in October 1969. All the barricaded areas had been reintegrated into the Six Counties state - sort of. At a get-together of people from a number of political backgrounds to discuss the situation, one man, a mild and often sensible man, but a bit of a Maoist, suggested - with Algeria, Cyprus and Aden in mind - that the next thing was to start shooting British soldiers.

    I thought he was a political lunatic. The Catholic-nationalist minority in Northern Ireland, or the Catholic majority in all of Ireland, could not simply conquer, subdue, override the Irish Protestant minority - the majority in the Six Counties. It should not want to. Socialists should not want it to, or want it to try to - still less want the physical-force-on-principle Republican minority to try to. Our job was to educate and to try to unite workers, Protestant and Catholic.

    Yet when the Provisional IRA started their war, in early 1971, the new reality thus called into being demanded responses from socialists that could not and should not start from our socialist and Marxist "first preferences", erected as "sectarian" norms against which to measure evolving political reality.

    Then internment in August 1971 threw much of the Northern Ireland Catholic population behind the Provisional IRA, passively so at least.

    The Provisional IRA "storyline", that their war grew out of defence of the Catholics, is not even remotely true. But the needs of the Catholics for self-defence were real: that was what raised and maintained the barricades of August-September 1969. Physical-force-on-principle Republican politicians with their own "agenda", obsessions, fetishes, and characteristic belief in all-transforming political miracles that could be triggered by violence, inserted themselves into the situation and shaped and reshaped it.

    They themselves, as a political formation, started on the long, slow, desperately bloody evolution that has produced the Sinn Fein of today - and that Sinn Fein is just another in the long line of clusters of unprincipled petty-bourgeois and bourgeois politicians evolving out of physical-force Republican "revolutionism".

    They have trodden a course long ago traced out to its full implications by many others... by the physical-force Republican politicians and the Irish Republican Brotherhood who fought the War of Independence and then founded and ruled the 26 Counties Free State for the decade after 1922; by De Valera's Republicans, who fought a civil war against the "Free Staters" led by Michael Collins, and then went constitutional, forming Fianna Fail, in 1926, and became the government in 1932; by the physical-force Republicans of the 30s and 40s who, led by Sean MacBride, formed a political party, Clann na Poblachta, not electorally successful enough to form its own government but sufficiently so to form a coalition with... the "traitors" of 1922 and the "murderers of Republicans" in the Civil War (1922-3); by the physical-force Republicans of the 40s, 50s, and 60s who, turned Stalinist, became the "Officials" from whom the Provisional IRA split in 1969-70 and then formed "Sinn Fein the Workers' Party" and had some parliamentary and labour movement success until the revelation, when Stalinist Russia collapsed, that they had been in the pay of Russia and taking "Moscow gold"....

    The successive generations of that political spectrum have traveled in the same circular movement - again and again and again! - for 100 years.

    I traced that pattern of Republican politics in Workers' Republic at the beginning of 1967, in an article published (sort of) pseudonymously (under the name of a person who had contributed to it an account of his experiences in the IRA's 1956-7 campaign). It did not take much prescience to predict what the pattern would be with the then generation of republican politicians to go "over the top" into mainstream bourgeois politics, the latest in the long chain — "Sinn Fein the Workers' Party". To see the pattern now, manifested in the Adams-McGuinness "Republicans" - people who in the name of their "Republic", year after year for nearly a quarter of a century, did unspeakable things to Protestants, and Catholics too - all you have to do is register what has happened to them and what is happening now. The role they are playing, even though it is played in the Six Counties sub-state rather than in the 26 Counties, is so well-worn and well-known that it leaves Adams and McGuinness little scope for individuality in it.

    We knew the pattern. Certainly I knew it. But was it possible just to do a calculation in our heads, and dismiss the IRA war that started in 1971? For us, that was not possible.

    What happened in Northern Ireland was a genuine mass revolt, initially for civil rights in general, by people who could not hope to change their conditions of national oppression within a political entity, the Six Counties, that had been deliberately designed to exclude such change (short of a demographic revolution; and the discrimination that forced many Catholics to emigrate worked to check the natural increase of the Catholic minority).

    It was a just revolt. The Provisional IRA, with all their peculiarities and their archaic structures and ideas (rooted in the mid 19th century European revolutionary secret societies) were part of the centuries-long continuing history of the Irish Catholic war of liberation against the hostile British power in whose maw we found ourselves.

    This was not a war we would have chosen or given prior credence to - but it was a war we felt obliged to defend and to explain to the British labour movement. And the Protestant community - the Northern Ireland majority, of which most Northern Ireland workers were part? The Protestants could be subsumed - in our heads, at any rate, and in the heads of most anti-imperialist left-wingers - under "British imperialism". On one level we knew better and tried to take account of what we knew - indeed, what we said in the analytical parts of articles on Northern Ireland events in the papers of the "AWL" tendency - by advocating autonomy for the Protestants within a united Ireland.

    Once the Provo war had - at the end of its first year - brought down the Belfast Protestant Home Rule government and forced the British government to reappraise the whole situation, it lost all the little sense it ever made; and when the Sunningdale "settlement" was reached in 1973 by the major Six Counties nationalist party, the SDLP, sections of the Orange Unionists, and the British and Dublin governments, the continuation of the Provisional IRA war was criminal nonsense. Everything that may be presented as the positive result of the Good Friday Agreement was already there in Sunningdale, and in a more flexible form.

    Taken as a whole, the Provo war, by aborting the evolution "from above" towards a federal united Ireland within the European Union that was the evident trend of events in the mid and late 60s, has set back the prospects of a united Ireland for decades, and Irish working-class unity for as long.

    The IRA was on ceasefire for a year, 1975, during which an elected constitutional assembly tried to find a new constitution for Northern Ireland that would be acceptable to both Protestants and Catholics. It failed. Then the Provisional IRA resumed its war - for another 17 years.

    I found in an old file a detailed analysis of the Northern Ireland situation at the time of the Sunningdale Agreement - an outline of a report to a committee, I think - in which I concluded that the IRA war simply made no sense. And then, against that, I remind myself of what Lenin had written about the Russian Marxist Plekhanov who had first encouraged and supported the uprising of December 1905 in Moscow and afterwards scurried away and denounced it.

    And central for us - and, again, to speak of what I know for certain, for me - there was the Comintern's injunction to support "revolutionary nationalists" against "imperialism". And we were a British political organisation: "the enemy is at home". Our group operated in the country that for the Irish had been the imperialist oppressor, predator, and captor through all the stages of social evolution over nearly a thousand years, back to the age of high feudalism. So I continued to support, and to advocate support for, those fighting a war that I thought made no sense!

    In serious part that attitude drew on the governing "principle" of the post-Trotsky "orthodox Trotskyists" - that in face of expanding Stalinism, doing monstrous things which included destroying labour movements and jailing and shooting "counter-revolutionary Trotskyites" , but also defeating "imperialism and capitalism", one must not be "sectarian" and "normative". (There is a discussion of this in relation to Trotsky on the USSR in the introduction to The Fate of The Russian Revolution).

    In the paper Workers' Fight and its successors I tried honestly to analyse what was going on at each stage. I wouldn't be ashamed to republish some of those articles - except that they all ended in pre-set slogans ("troops out", etc.) that were for practical purposes impervious to the analysis that preceded them.

    As a political tendency we rejected the notion - which came to be shared by the SWP as well as more "orthodox" Trotskyists - that the nationalist revolution would "grow over" into the Irish socialist revolution. I never encountered even a remotely plausible scenario for how this would happen.

    Yet we - and again, for certain, the present writer - half-subscribed to one of its key ideas, that the Catholic-nationalist movement in Northern Ireland could be supplemented by and integrated with a working-class socialist struggle in the rest of Ireland; that Republicanism, which was a genuinely revolutionary-nationalist historical current, could be alchemised into a working-class socialist republicanism. See, for a tortuously unsuccessful attempt to reason that through coherently, the introduction I wrote to Workers' Fight's 1973 pamphlet James Connolly and Ireland's Struggle for Freedom.

    As desperately ill people often fall prey to quack medicine, so situations of prolonged impasse generate the search for, and the belief in, political miracles. The underlying Republican rationale for the Provo war - magic-working violence - is the clearest example of it in Irish affairs. "Permanent revolution" socialists matched them. We formally rejected the full "permanent revolution" fluorescence of nonsense - but we were not entirely free of it, either.

    In the 1970s the Workers' Fight group "defended the IRA", the revolutionary nationalists fighting our government, and did it well enough to merit having our offices, then in Islington, raided by armed police one morning in September 1973. We were the only revolutionary socialist group in Britain to have its headquarters raided in connection with Ireland (or anything else). In those days the Special Branch and the police did not batter your door down with sledges at dawn. They came early in the morning, knocked, I let them in, and everything was eerily polite as they systematically searched through the entire house, leafing carefully through masses of paper, and taking away lists of addresses (including a subscribers list for the IWG magazine, Workers Republic), etc.

    I found myself, as the 70s wore on, increasingly unable to write in defence of the Provisional IRA, though I still considered it a political duty. I managed to write a defence of the killing in 1979 of Lord Mountbatten together with members of his family and a local Sligo lad - something I thought gruesome, stupid, repulsive and pointless. I invoked the obvious parallels: the British state had not let Roger Casement retire from the British civil service; early one morning in July 1916, they dropped him through a trapdoor in Pentonville Jail with a rope round his neck. As if that settled the question... I didn't think it did

    It was easier to write in defense of the hunger strikers in 1981, when ten men were allowed to starve to death by the Thatcher government.

    From then, on, finally, I decided I wouldn't defend the Provo war any more. That led to a protracted series of battles in the organisation, which by then had fused with the group of former SLLers around Alan Thornett (people whose record on Ireland was as I chronicled in a previous instalment of this series). They were as unwilling to think about Irish realities as they have been unwilling since the Provisional IRA ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement to look back critically at what they used to think on Ireland from the late 70s. (Their remnants are part of George Galloway's rump "Respect Renewal").

    From the hunger strikes on, our press slowly became much more critical of and distanced from the IRA. After a long internal discussion in 1987, we decided that "troops out" would not be used by us as a slogan on its own. Troops out was part of a political settlement, or it was civil war and repartition.

    In the discussion on troops out in IS in 1969-70 (that is, before the Provo war that we believed compelled us in principle to back the anti-imperialists), we had written: "To say 'troops out' with any seriousness demands a concrete alternative, which our propaganda and the call to get the troops out will call into being, first of all by political preparation". That idea was far from new to us. But the decision to assert our own judgement against the "liberation fighters" was.

    The lesson from our mistakes - and not only for Ireland, of course - is that the first duty of Marxists is to be... Marxists. Our first function is to understand and explain. The rest, action, militancy, solidarity with the oppressed, follows from that, is regulated by that, and cannot be in contradiction to it.

    Solidarity with the oppressed must be on the basis of independent Marxist analysis and politics, not, even by implication, even by complicit silence, of mimicry of the politics of the nationalist or communalist movements of the oppressed, or of the effacement of our own politics. Agitation on specific aspects of a situation must be governed by the overall picture. We should refrain from easy agitational point-scoring, mechanical "opposition", negative slogans whose actual positive content does not make sense from the point of view of our own programme, at the centre of which is the education of the working class into independent anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist politics.

    The approach that any argument will do that will help promote our immediate concerns is not permissible for socialists. Telling the truth is central - and telling the truth includes not deploying "useful" idiocies.

    The SWP is the great contemporary practitioner in Britain now of the approach that any argument will do; but the approach starts, like so many of the ailments of the kitsch left, with the Stalinist Communist International, which learned to rationalise from the politics of the Russian Stalinist government, whatever they were at a given moment.

    One aspect of this experience is our relations with the rest of the left. At the time of the 1981 hunger strikes and after, the Provisional IRA became popular with the broad Labour left - with people such as Tony Benn, who had remained in the Labour government that, by changing the terms of imprisonment for Republicans in 1976, removing the de facto recognition of them as political prisoners, had triggered the long, long, agonising struggle in the prisons that culminated in the hunger strikers.

    In the early 1970s, whose who "backed the IRA" were much fewer - the Mandelites, a small group called the RCL (whose crestfallen remnant is Briefing), and us.

    I know of only one case of being called a "Catholic nationalist" or "Catholic chauvinist" during that time. Duncan Hallas of the IS/SWP denounced me in those terms at a meeting in Teesside in late 1973.

    We had scheduled a public meeting on Ireland. The local press ran a number of pieces to the effect that "the IRA is coming to town", with the result that we lost the room we had booked in a pub. A local regiment, the Green Howards, was then in Northern Ireland.

    The local IS branch was meeting that same evening, and our comrades prevailed on them to "show solidarity", give us their room and hold a joint meeting. It was an entirely peaceful meeting - no rampaging soldiers or their relatives, not even a larger than expected crowd of curious people! Duncan Hallas, IS's scheduled speaker, was unhappy and, at the meeting, rattled. He denounced me as a "Catholic nationalist".

    There was a marked contrast in the 1980s. I experienced a small deluge of denunciation for my lack of "anti-imperialism" - for, in effect, not being a chauvinist of my own section of the people of Ireland. I don't think chauvinism was ever a part of my politics on Ireland in the 1970s, but it remains a fact that my politics then did go with the grain of my basic political and national identity, which on the personal level was and is of fundamental importance to me.

    We have a decayed and very inadequate left, which now incorporates much that was once the politics of the right, and which on Ireland has a lot of self-accounting to do. As for the public opinion of "the left", Marx, quoting the medieval poet Dante at the end of the preface to the first edition of Capital volume 1, summed up the only possible attitude for reasoning people: Go your way, and let the people talk.

    Trotsky said the same thing, spelled out in more detail:

    "To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives – these are the rules of the Fourth International".


    I tried to sum up the political and personal issues discussed
    in this article in short bits of verse that
    appeared in the weekly paper, Socialist Organiser
    in the first half of the 1990s.

    (After reading Lecky's History of Ireland)

    What is it then, the Irishness
    Fate laid on me in this largess,
    That in me never gave its ground
    Through forty years, core-wound
    Inside me, still to survive,
    Indelible, bone-deep, alive?

    A world I lost I scarcely knew,
    The childhood land I never outgrew,
    My father's life, my mother's tales
    Of hungers, wars, workhouses, jails:
    The memories not quite my own,
    To which my memories are sewn.

    Inextricably in Erin's net,
    I am what I will not forget.

    (Socialist Organiser, January, 1992)


    It happens often: "You? (They mean to cut.)
    "No Irishman!" My politics don't fit:
    The island is the nation: not "them", "it."
    Folk? No — lakes, rock, grass, sand! But you must not
    Arraign these dancers of the communal strut,
    Or wash old blood out of your eyes, or audit
    The soundings from the suppurating pit,
    Or look to Tone — dry bones, stomped underfoot.
    "West Brit: not your identity or birth
    Or inbred love of the Gael tells who you are
    Or names your place: strait politics en-girth
    In-gather: we define, and we debar!"
    The real is cut to fit a false design,
    Grown monstrously unreal, then malign.

    [In the old Greek tale, Procrustes was a crazy
    innkeeper who murdered his lodgers trying
    to fit them exactly to his beds.
    The short he stretched on a rack to elongate them;
    the tall he chopped down to the required
    size, ripping off feet or head.]

    (SO: 11-12-92)



    "They think they have pacified Ireland…
    They think that they have foreseen
    everything, think that they have
    provided against everything;
    but the fools, the fools, the fools!
    they have left us our Fenian dead,
    and while Ireland holds these graves,
    Ireland un-free shall never be at peace"
    — Patrick Pearse

    "Ireland without her people means nothing to me"
    —James Connolly

    Six hundred years of strife behind,
    Of conflict, slaughter, sept and sect;
    And Tone said, we needs must grow blind
    To creed and race, for self-respect.
    But History spawns on rancid need
    Malign sly ghosts who mesmerise
    With hate and hope; who plead, mislead,
    And, pleading, seed in subtle lies:
    Two peoples yet, not citizens, peers,
    Still Talbot's children, William's heirs*.

    Saviours in-bred on poisoned soil,
    Souls shaped to a Fenian shout,
    Minds rough-hewn in turmoil, toil,
    Meeting, ambush, camp, redoubt,
    And civil, fratricidal war,
    Unleashed in Tone's and Emmett's name,
    By ardour tender as a roar,
    And love impervious to blame:
    They wandered blind, by Murder led,
    Calling Tone —Tirconnell came instead!

    To finish what Wolfe Tone began,
    They masked the face in England's blame
    Of Irish folk, and aimed the gun:
    Republican name, communal game!
    Old watchwords changed, old hopes recast,
    "Unity" sunk to sect war cry,
    The Rights of Man defined by blast
    Of bomb and gun — sectarian lie!
    Two peoples fight to hold, regain,
    Two songs with one hate-loud refrain.

    They'd knock down walls, let in the light
    To open eyes, induce clear sight;
    A mystic's war would malice drain,
    Fresh blood and magic would unite
    Hate-scarred tribes mad with disdain!
    The fools, the fools! Demented choices:
    Known history disowned, misread -
    Talk to yourself in pantomime voices
    And think to hear the Fenian dead!
    Can Erin unite, blood-soldered stones,
    Despite her peoples, trampling their bones?

    * The Ancient Order of Hibernians is a catholic
    equivalent of the Orange Order; they controlled
    the Home Rule Part before and during the First
    World War; contemporaries such as Patrick
    Pearse, in the IRB paper, Irish Freedom,
    blamed them as much as — and sometimes
    more than — the Orange Orders for the sectarian
    polarisation that led to the Partition of Ireland; their
    sectarian-ethnic account of Irish history
    dominated thinking and teaching in the
    26 Counties for many decades after independence.

    *Richard Talbot, Duke of Tyrconnell, was
    the Catholic leader in the
    wars at the end of the 17th century, William of
    Orange the victorious Protestant king.
    Both strove for sectional victory.
    When at the time of the French Revolution
    Wolfe Tone, the founder of Irish republicanism,
    proclaimed the goal of uniting the people of Ireland
    "Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter”,
    he tried demonstratively to break with that sectional past.

    (Socialist Organiser, 6 October, 1994)

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