The politics of the Che Guevara t-shirt

Submitted by AWL on 30 March, 2005 - 11:10

In his long and cloyingly hagiographical obituary-biography of Al Richardson in Revolutionary History (a journal devoted to the history of the revolutionary Marxist movement: vol 8, no. 4) John McIlroy* in passing revives an old dispute centred on an article I published in Workers’ Liberty 10 years ago.

"... attacks [on Revolutionary History] were easily turned aside.

When one tribal chieftain donned war paint and delivered himself of the rancorous assertion that the business of those around the journal ‘was prattle and word processing not practice’, one of his own braves** retorted:

“It is a shame no one pointed this out to the comrades of Revolutionary History before they supplied bookstalls to our conferences, militants to run courses at our summer ‘Ideas for Freedom’ event on the history of our tradition, archives which a number of Workers’ Liberty supporters have drawn on… and a regular journal which I reviewed in Socialist Organiser with no challenge as ‘performing a great service’… the resources of Revolutionary History are priceless, not some pseudo-revolutionary distraction. (Alan Johnson, ‘Unfair to Revolutionary History’, Workers’ Liberty, May 1998)."

My article cited a number of groups and journals (among them Red Pepper, to which it was unfair, I think) as well as Revolutionary History, of which it said that it was “on the whole, a worthwhile publication”. If I hadn’t thought that I would have proposed that the AWL withdraw its representative — Bruce Robinson and then Paul Hampton — from Revolutionary History’s editorial board.

McIlroy suggests that disputes like the one he quotes from are unusual among AWL members or supporters, and not, as they are, commonplace.

He also, to go by what he quotes, seems to think that the fact that the AWL had had the late Al Richardson do workshops at our summer school disposes of the issues I raised!

What strikes me most about this late disinterring of an old but important dispute is McIlroy’s effortless, axiomatic, assumption that Marxist right lies with the devotees of prattle and word processing, and not with those who believe, with Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and all the rest of them, that it is the unity of theory and practice which divides the revolutionaries from the academics, pseudo academics, dilettantes, professional gossips and “train spotters” of “Marxism”.

People like the AWL? Uncouth, wild, primitive, “tribes”, “tribal chiefs” and “braves”! To whom does the Marxist tradition, the history and experience of the Marxist movement, properly belong? It goes without saying, doesn’t it? At any rate, not to wild “tribes”, “braves” and “chiefs” too stupid to understand that Marxism is now just a matter of fossils in the rock, who cling foolishly to the idea that Marxism is the living seed of the socialist future and its practical implications.

McIlroy thinks that Marxism belongs to the archivists, to the palimpsest makers. To the connoisseurs of political fine distinctions about things which other people once fought about because they thought them important for the working class struggle. To the fantasy footballers, kibbitzers and trainspotters vicariously reliving other people’s old political activities and disputes. To those for whom “history” is only “the higher gossip”. To the platonic “experts” whose expertise will forever remain untried and untested. To those for whom “history” is a surrogate for the political practice they abjure. To the bored academic; to the ex-revolutionary “IRA (I Ran Away) Marxists”. To those who, so to speak, wear the Che Guevara t-shirt and for that reason feel entitled to think of themselves as doughty warriors.

Rereading the old article, reprinted here, I find it understated and over-polite to the kibbitzing “anti-braves” like John McIlroy.

For example, I said nothing there about the wretched quality of so much of what the kibbitzers produce.

McIlroy’s obituary-biography of Al Richardson, where he manages the difficult feat of being substantially apolitical, is a case in point.

By Sean Matgamna


* McIlroy is a retired Manchester University academic. In the 1980s, in fits and starts, he contributed some useful articles to Socialist Organiser, the predecessor of Solidarity.

McIlroy turned hostile to us in late 1996 when, by an embarrassing editorial mishap, his name was put to an article on which he had indicated he wanted a pseudonym — a review of Revolutionary History which devoted much of its space to praising an article by one… John McIlroy. Annoying, indeed.

The lesson is, John, that the writer of such a silly article is at the mercy of the malice, sense of humour or the unruly subconscious — as in this case, as far as I could discover what had happened — of the last person through whose hands the copy passes on its way to the printer.

That such a trivial incident should prove politically all-defining is an example of the petty, personal, subjective, apolitical and laughably unserious mores of the citizens of the milieu which I discussed in the 1995 article.

** In fact, at that time Alan Johnson was not a “brave” of the AWL or any other organisation. He was an “independent” ex-member of the AWL who had gone over to the SWP, soon found its authoritarian regime intolerable and left. He would later join the SWP once again, and again very briefly, inspired by the SWP’s pro-Serbian “anti-war” work during the Balkans war. He recognised himself in the group around Revolutionary History. He has since gone over to the Blairites on Iraq.

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