Next article in this series: Part 9: The debacle of demagogy, August 1969
- 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
On the night of the evening the troops took to the streets in Derry and the fighting there ended, Belfast erupted into the most serious Catholic-Protestant street warfare since 1935 (at least). The British army was then, on 15 August, put on the Falls Road, and on the 16th, in the Crumlin Road area.
On 19 August, the British Army formally took control of the RUC, including its reserve force, the B-Specials. The Specials were instructed to hand in their guns to central depots. There was talk already of the Specials being "phased out". The Hunt Commission was set up to review policing in the Six Counties.
It would report early in October, recommending that the RUC should be disarmed, that they should no longer carry side-arms. The B-Specials, which functioned as a Protestant-sectarian militia, should be abolished and replaced by a British Army part-time regiment, the Ulster Defence Regiment, in which Catholics as well as Protestants would be involved. A commitment was given that the Special Powers Act would be abolished as soon as things quietened enough for that.
This was a deluge of reform, unleashed finally by the proven political bankruptcy and now the breakdown of the Orange state. Northern Ireland Prime Minister James Chichester Clark and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson issued the "Downing Street Declaration" committing both the British and Six-County governments to a thoroughgoing reform of the Northern Ireland body politic.
It was an out and out victory for the Civil Rights Movement, conceding its explicit demands.
The Northern Irish revolutionary left — Michael Farrell, Eamonn McCann, Bernadette Devlin and others — had been trying to redefine "civil rights" as a synonym for the socialist transformation of society — "real" civil rights, it was said, involved housing, jobs, the whole of society. It was something like what the old Social Democrats, long ago in the 19th century, had done with the idea of democracy. Holding to an earlier idea of what democracy would involve —the idea once held by democracy's friends and enemies alike — they defined themselves as democrats for everything in society, including the economy — "social democrats". The left in Northern Ireland presented themselves as, so to speak, "Social Civil-Rights-ists."
This notion was quickly relegated to the political margins (though in Derry in the 1970 General Election, Eamonn McCann would do very well on a general working class socialist platform). In the great crisis of the Northern Ireland sub-state, the left had had nothing distinctive to say, except for Bernadette Devlin's appeals to the Protestant workers, which, well-meaning though they were, in the circumstances, nobody, least of all the Protestant workers, could take seriously.
What had come centre stage during the crisis was Ireland's two-headed "National Question". The issue of the Protestant-Unionist British-Irish people of North East Ulster was wrapped up, as in a nest of Russian dolls, in the broader Irish question. It existed now in the artificial form given to it in 1920-21 by the inclusion of a big Nationalist-Catholic minority, who were the majority in near-half the land area of the 6 County sub-state that had supposedly been set up to resolve the all-Ireland Catholic majority-Protestant minority problem. The breakdown in mid-August proved that Northern Ireland was a failed entity — or as would now be said, a "failed state." It would remain a failed state all through the subsequent "troubles".
It was not the "social civil rights" that the socialists wanted to push forward which had came to the fore, but the "national" civil rights of the 6 County Catholics, their lack of self determination, their imprisonment as an artificially created minority in the Unionist-Protestant sub-state. The conflicting Unionist-Nationalist claims to self-determination came centre stage once again.
The reputation of PD and its leaders had been inflated mightily by IS — and, after its fashion, by the bourgeois press — as the "only meaningful" organisation in Ireland (as John Palmer had put it). But, during the crisis, PD had been eclipsed by the Republicans in Belfast, and also by Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. It was NICRA Chair, Frank Gogarty, not his equivalent in PD, Michael Farrell, who called out the demonstrations throughout Northern Ireland.
In his 1976 book, The Orange State, Michael Farrell presents NICRA and PD acting as equal partners in calling out the solidarity demonstrators, but there is little or no sign of that in the press then — a press that normally carried statements from PD and Farrell, and did carry PD's appeal for British intervention on 14 August. Michael Farrell later told the historian of P.D., Paul Arthur, that only about 10 PD people were active behind the Belfast Barricades (and in such things it is not on the side of underestimation on which people tend to err...). He said very little about that episode in the pamphlet Struggle in the North.
After the crisis, PD (and in its wake for a while, Socialist Worker) would become a political satellite of the Republicans, adopting their ideas, for instance, on economic nationalism — the discarded once-upon-a-time policy of the long-time governing party in the South, Fianna Fail. IS followed PD-following-the-Republicans into utopian-populist economic nationalism, both in SW and in the pamphlet Struggle in the North which it published in December 1969 or January 1970 (through Pluto Press, then starting up as IS's publishers: its first publication was Farrell's pamphlet,.) We will examine the pamphlet in a later article.
In the interregnum between the breakdown of August and the end of the barricades period (Mid-September in Belfast, early October in Derry), the report of the Cameron Commission, on the disturbances at the beginning of the year in Derry, came out. It blamed PD for its "provocative" militancy, but that was to be expected. It did more. It painted a damning, and true, picture of how PD functioned. The organisation, which had no structures, and no defined membership, was manipulated by a small group around Farrell — to use the terms Mick Johnson had used in the IWG (see part three of this series) by those who knew the "full programme" which was the secret guide of the organisation. After that, PD could not go on in the old way.
The general changes in the situation from mid-August, combined with the exposure of the manipulative and undemocratic nature of PD in the Cameron Report, compelled the organisation to either change or cease to exist. After Cameron, the old manipulative methods would not wash. A "new" PD would emerge, a small socialist propaganda and agitation group, operating as a satellite first of the "Official" Stalinist-led Republicans, and then, after 1971, of the Provisional IRA. This redesigned PD would immediately repudiate the ICRSC, which IS had created specifically to be "in solidarity with PD", as too right wing! The ICRSC too, like PD in the North, though perhaps less so, had been marginalised during the August crisis.
Though peace settled in for a while in Northern Ireland with the coming of the British Army, the Catholic areas of Derry and Belfast kept their barricades up. One of the prevalent fears was that those who had fought back against the RUC would be prosecuted, once the RUC and the British army could get at the Catholic politicos in the barricaded areas. They feared the use of the Special Powers Act.
In fact, almost immediately, with the ceasefire, people were being arrested under the Special Powers Act, in operations sometimes involving the British Army in tandem with the RUC. People were prosecuted for what they had done in the crisis: Bernadette Devlin would get a six months sentence in Armagh jail for her part in the defence of the Bogside.
Between August 14 and the second week in October, the barricades, and attempts to get them down by the politicians and the Catholic Church leaders, would be central to Northern Ireland politics.
As we have seen in earlier instalments of this series, IS's leaders suddenly dropped a previously very vocal opposition to British troops in Northern Ireland — at the point where the Army took control of the streets there (14-16 August 1969). A heated discussion about this switch in slogans and other aspects of the NI situation would pre-occupy IS in the following eight or nine months. It reached a sort of crescendo at the September 1969 Conference. To go straight to a plain account of the September Conference would strain the reader's credulity to the breaking point, and beyond. For that reason, the best way to introduce the reader to IS at it then was is first to offer a description of part of the discussion on Ireland, written at the time by John Molyneux, one of those who, having supported Cliff-Palmer at first, came to oppose them on the troops. Molyneux wrote an account of the Easter 70 conference.
Molyneux is one of the few (I guess) present-day members of the SWP who were also members of, politically speaking, its distant ancestor, the International Socialists (IS). He has been a prominent writer for Socialist Worker and other SWP publications. Molyneux recently came out in limited opposition to the present SWP leaders and stood for the Central Committee — a rare event in the authoritarian SWP. All in all, IS was still a democratic organisation during the political turmoil I am describing.
Writing in the IS internal bulletin as a Cliff-IS loyalist, though on this question a critical one, Molyneux analysed the conference discussion on Ireland. He bases himself heavily on the sort of politics which IS had been using before mid-August. Essentially, he argues that the nationalists of all Ireland could deal with the Protestant-Unionists.
"It may be useful for IS members to cast their minds back to exactly what happened at conference...
The one thing the debate didn't achieve was political clarification. In part this was because of insufficient time, in part because those arguing for the 'withdraw the troops' slogan did not put their case very well, but mainly it was because certain leading members of the group resorted to demagogy and histrionics rather than arguing their case.
Should some comrades doubt the validity of this accusation I would remind them of some of the 'arguments' used on this occasion.
Comrade [Paul] Foot wanted to know where all these people calling for troop withdrawal were last September [at the IS conference then] and how come there is all this militancy now? The answer, comrade, for many of us, is simply that then we accepted your arguments, and now we don't. We trust we have the right to change our minds.
Comrade Foot also wanted to know what these people were doing with sophisticated arguments about agitation and propaganda when the matter was really quite simple, i.e. for or against pogroms. If the matter is really that simple perhaps comrade Foot could tell me why when, before the debate, I asked comrade Cliff what our current position on the troops was he said "we are for withdrawal, of course" (meaning at the propaganda level).
No, the agitation/propaganda arguments were raised not by us, but by comrades Harman, Marks, Palmer, etc. In fact on the basis of what he said, comrade Foot's position can only be interpreted as one of support for the troops, while his whole speech was delivered in tones of righteous indignation.
Comrades Harman and Cliff were not much better. Harman's main points were that it is not enough to just repeat the ABCs of Marxism over and over again, and that to call for troop withdrawal is 'petty bourgeois' heroics.
But in fact the opposition were not arguing the formalist case that since we oppose imperialism, and since we are for a workers' republic, we must raise the withdrawal slogan. The opposition was arguing that this slogan could have played a progressive role in the struggle, and that failure to raise it leaves IS in a position of confused and ambiguous tailism.
It is the ABC of Marxism. The 'petty bourgeois heroics' point was highly misleading for no one on the opposition side indulged in any heroics, or in any accusations of cowardice. Comrade Cliff used the 'cups of tea' argument, i.e. the families of Derry and Belfast welcomed the troops so we cannot call for withdrawal. If one applied this argument to such questions as immigration control, the First World War, or in times past to various colonial adventures, it is clear the kind of position one would arrive at.
A large part of comrade Palmer's speech was also conducted at the 'braver than thou' level, though in this case it was mainly 'I know people who are braver than thou'. We were treated to a series of emotional stories about men who had spent years in British gaols [and were not calling for troops out], all of which was quite irrelevant as no one was making any accusations of cowardice...
Going over those arguments like this would be mere pedantry were they simply accidental asides to the main points of these comrades' speeches, but they were not. They were, on this occasion, the mainstays of their case, and, by the atmosphere they generated, hindered rational discussion of the group's position.
Conspicuous by their absence at Conference were some of the arguments used to justify our position, which... were more serious than much of the stuff we were treated to in the debate. Firstly that the Catholics needed a breathing space in which to arm themselves, which was provided by the troops.
This argument was dishonest because it was very obvious that it was extremely unlikely that the Catholics would succeed in arming themselves. It was also obvious that the presence of the troops, far from facilitating this, would make it very difficult.
What is more, as the Trotskyist Tendency [forerunners of the AWL] pointed out, the Catholic workers would only get arms were there an immediate and urgent need for them, i.e. a struggle going on. IS never answered the question of how arms were to be obtained but put forward the slogan 'Open the Southern arsenals', knowing full well that this was merely a propaganda demand which could not be realised.
Secondly, there was the agitation/propaganda argument which was explained at great length... I accept the distinction between agitation and propaganda as an abstract argument but would argue that its concrete application in this case has led to a failure not just to agitate against the troops but to make any propaganda against them.
I am aware that the early articles in Socialist Worker contained escape clauses in the small print as it were, and we have often used such phrases as 'socialists never had any illusions about British imperialism and its objectives in Ireland', but the fact remains that over the months we have completely failed to carry out any systematic propaganda against the troops.
Until the issue of 2 April , Socialist Worker carried no articles analysing the concrete activities of the troops. The Marks/Palmer reply to Workers' Fight [the Trotskyist Tendency] in the Internal Bulletin carried no analysis of the current situation, or of what sort of things the troops have actually been doing, nor did comrade Palmer's report at Conference, which in fact did not even mention the troops.
Thus we have not even at the propaganda level made any preparations for the struggle with the troops which must come sooner or later. In this we have failed not merely our Irish contacts but also those British workers who read our literature. Is this failure accidental, or is it due to a desire to avoid the troops question... Has our fundamental analysis of the situation in Northern Ireland when the troops went in been right or wrong?
I believe that is has been wrong and that the crucial error has been, when dealing with the question of the troops, to argue as though Northern Ireland were a separate isolated country. An analogy used by both Marks and Palmer neatly illustrates this way of thinking.
If a group of our comrades, they say, were set upon by a much stronger force of fascists and the police intervened, we would not call for the police to withdraw. However, to apply this analogy accurately to Ireland, our small group of comrades would have to have a much larger force of friends asleep just round the corner who might well be roused by the sound of battle.
Had the troops not gone in, there was surely the possibility of volunteer forces from the south coming to the aid of the Catholics in the north, thus not only practically raising the question of a United Ireland but also completely undermining the regime in the south. Unless we take the position that Ireland is one country there is no possibility of workers' power there in the foreseeable future. Once we take the position that Ireland is one country in relation to the troops it is clear that there is a third alternative which can be counterposed to the troops or massacre dichotomy.
In the light of this perspective the argument that trusted PD comrades weren't calling for withdrawal of the troops so we shouldn't either is not very impressive precisely because from the outset PD has had a tendency to regard Northern Ireland as a separate unit. This has manifested itself in a number of ways.
There was PD's reluctance to take a position on the border... There is the naming of their newspaper 'Northern Star', and there is the position taken by Mike Farrell in 'Struggle in the North' on Southern Irish troops as an alternative to British troops. Farrell seems to suggest that this extremely unlikely eventuality would be even worse than British troops, which I think is tantamount to recognising the border this side of socialism.
The main disadvantage of our position is that it puts us completely in a tailist position, in particular tailing the IRA [the pre-Provo split IRA, who backed the British troops in August 1969 and then the Stalinist-led "Official" IRA] and makes it impossible for us to play an educative leadership role on the nature of the troops. In addition to this we end up never quite saying what we mean. It is also becoming abundantly clear that regardless of who was right or wrong last August, or even at Conference, that we must change our line soon."
(Molyneux's argument about southern Catholics rallying to defeat the Protestants in of the North was not endorsed by the Trotskyist Tendency. As I have pointed out in an earlier instalment of this series, that implied conquest of the Protestants, and begged the question — then what?)
Erring if at all on the side of restraint and understatement, the picture Molyneux paints is that of an organisation led by confused and unscrupulous demagogues. That impression is not lessened if the reader knows that two months after the Conference, the IS National Committee — the National Committee elected at Conference — voted for the same "troops out" position so vehemently denounced at conference. Only two members did not vote for the motion, proposed by the present writer: memory suggests that the two stalwarts were Nick Howard, a long-time member of the organisation and Roger Protz. (Protz, I think, abstained; maybe they both did).
Nothing had changed much in Ireland between the Easter 1970 conference and the National Committee change of the organisation's position. The political case for withdrawal had been as good at the Conference as it was at that committee meeting
The discussion at conference which Molyneux describes was held at the beginning of April 1970. It was not the first but the second conference discussion on IS's change of line on the troops. There had been two IS Conferences in 1969, and the decisive discussion on Ireland took place at the one held in September, just after the deployment of British troops and IS's hasty dropping of "troops out".
In September 1969 the IS leadership had had a big majority. By the 1970 conference, opinion in IS had shifted massively. The balance of opinion was such that the IS Executive Committee (EC) and its supporters needed to behave as Molyneux describes them behaving in order to avoid defeat, which by the skin of their teeth they did. Even so, they were a lot more restrained than they had been 6 months earlier. They won the April Conference vote by only a dozen votes or so.
The Trotskyist Tendency had published a 50-page pamphlet IS and Ireland at the end of November 1969. There had been debates in branches, some of them open to interested non-members, between, for instance, John Palmer and this writer. We can, I think, justly claim that our efforts shifted the organisation.
But events helped us greatly. By April 1970 the honeymoon period between the British government and its troops and the Six County Catholics was nearly over. People had had time to reflect on issues which most of those at the September 1969 Conference hadn't had a chance to consider. And Socialist Worker, had come to denounce the British Government in ways that pointed straight to a call for troop withdrawal. In this period, SW's coverage of Irish affairs was mostly written by John Palmer, whose attitudes on Ireland were those of a gut-Catholic nationalist, refracted through the opportunist conception of "politics" learned from Tony Cliff and the skills of a mainstream bourgeois journalist.
At the September 1969 Conference, opponents of IS's change of line on Ireland were a small minority. Yet the demagogy of the EC and its supporters was a great deal worse than in 1970 — different, perhaps, not only in degree but also in kind. There are written records of the political points in contention, "Troops out" and "Secession" (the motion of the Trotskyist Tendency), but not of the "debate" at Conference. The atmosphere of the discussion was one of bullying hysteria.
The EC and its supporters had burned their fingers badly on Ireland, and they were in disarray and under severe attack on the issue from the biggest "Trotskyist" group in Britain, the SLL. The I S leaders were un-nerved by events, and probably a lot less sure of themselves than they felt they had to seem to be. They felt a compulsion to get into line with their political friends in Northern Ireland, where PD had called for British troops (that's what its stance was, for practical purposes). So, more explicitly, had Bernadette Devlin and Eamonn McCann.
The switch of line in August from pseudo-Irish-nationalist blustering against Britain and the British Army, to being struck, at first, almost silent on the troops, had been sudden and dramatic. On the eve of Conference, SW had carried a polemical piece by John Palmer against the SLL. They would soon get back to full-voice bluster, explaining why British troops were essential. They still made calls such as "Open the Southern Arsenals" to the northern Catholics and those who would go north to fight with them – in effect advocating all-island civil war!
After the September conference Socialist Worker would, as Molyneux says, become, in effect, an apologist for the British Army and for the immediate policy of the London government. (The conference had not specifically licensed that turn.)
The IS campaign against British troops through the earlier part of 1969 had been grounded in the assertion that British troops could only help the RUC, the B-Specials, and the Paisleyites repress the Catholics. That in turn had rested on the ultra-left belief that reforms were impossible; that the British Labour Government was indistinguishable from the Unionists of all shades (and that the worst Unionists were the ostensible reformists). Now the army had been put on the streets to stop open war between the RUC, B-Specials and Paisleyites, on one side, and the Catholics on the other. The army had relieved the hard-pressed Catholics of Derry and Belfast, and been welcomed by them. IS was disoriented — as were the people in Northern Ireland whose lead the IS leaders followed.
When the 6 -7 September conference met Catholic Derry and Belfast were walled off like medieval Jewish ghettoes — except that the barricade-walls had been self-created — and had effectively seceded from the Six Counties state. Their (temporary) peace from sectarian war had been secured and was guaranteed by the British army, which had undertaken not to attempt to remove the Catholic barricades by force. (That time round, it never would. The barricades were eventually taken down by agreement).
Things had worked out pretty much the opposite of what IS had expected.
The sudden IS shift of "line" was good or bad, right or wrong, valid political calculation and adjustment or panic, but for sure it was an enormous shift — the collapse of the politics of IS over the previous year. IS and its allies in Ireland, PD and Bernadette Devlin (around whom IS had spun its politics and its perspectives for "Irish work" since her election to Parliament in April 1969), had gone over to the policy of the Labour Party Tribune left, and of the 26 Counties Labour Party and its then spokesman on N I, Conor Cruise O'Brien: British government direct rule as the solution, for now at least, of the "Northern Ireland problem".
Going over to the Tribune MPs' policy, IS was suddenly very vulnerable to the relentless pounding of the ultra-left SLL (then seemingly going great guns: its paper, which was much bigger and more impressive than Socialist Worker, was due to become a 4-page broadsheet daily two weeks after the IS conference, and would do so). It had, as we have seen, shared much of the quasi-"Third Period Stalinist" basis analysis of the SLL.
Quite a scattering of SLL drop-outs, in varying states of political dissolution, had by then made their way into the much looser and less demanding IS. In part the SLL campaign was aimed at them. It had the desired affect on some of them. One of the leading industrial militants in IS, Tom Hillier, Convenor of shop stewards at CAV Lucas in west London, would immediately after the September '69 Conference, go back from IS to the SLL as a result of the argument about the troops.
An emergency resolution calling for the restoration of "troops out" as a slogan which came — I think — from the Croydon IS branch was on the agenda. The TT supported that resolution, and for practical political purposes, not least the purposes of the IS leaders, at the conference, it "became" the TT's motion.
IS was very raw and volatile, with a low level of political, if not of conventional, education. The EC's control could not be taken for granted at all.
The EC's solution to their dilemma at the September 1969 Conference was to focus discussion away from its panic-stricken switch of slogans in August on to the Manchester branch resolution (politically, it came from the Trotskyist Tendency). and specifically on "secession". It buried everything else in a flood of demagogy against "secession".
That resolution was written in July or perhaps June (it pre-dated the division of the Manchester IS branch into a "Cliff" branch and a "TT ghetto" branch, which took place in July). It had attempted to sum up the situation in Ireland, the experience of the left in Northern Ireland and of the IS group.
It proposed that in the event of civil war, and as a means of destroying the existing Six Counties state, IS should raise the idea that the Catholic majority areas along the border with the 26 Counties, including Derry, should secede to the "Republic". Thereby, it would, we believed, render what would remain, unviable. That calculation was entirely wrong, but it was an opinion we shared with most other commentators then, including John Palmer. In the International Socialism magazine he had explained the irrationalities of the 6-County Borders in terms of the need to make the 6-County state territorially viable (see part 5, of this series). The proposal on Secession was an attempt to give some sort of political coherence and objective to those in Northern Ireland caught up in the logic of developing events (and, in so far as the IS Executive Committee's policy reflected that logic, to their politics in Socialist Worker).
In a letter submitted, I think, before the Conference but published after it in the 11 Sept Socialist Worker I linked the volte face on troops to the previous disputes between the TT and the EC about the attitude to Partition, which IS, like its political friends in Ireland had said should not be challenged this side of the attainment of an Irish Workers Republic, and summed it up thus:
"A man who goes around in a hot sunny day in a buttoned up overcoat and then deliberately removes it when the rain comes down would legitimately be seen as very strange. And so is a socialist paper which has for 9 months run a campaign including the demand 'withdraw British Troops from Northern Ireland' — which it now removes at the moment when British troops assume an important role in Northern Ireland...
IS fails to draw the logical conclusion of what it has said for so long— withdraw British troops, because the logic of that is to oppose the entire set up of the Orange-imperialist state, and its border, which keep within it a 30% Catholic population as second class citizens.
SW, because it has to date taken that border for granted, finds it impossible to demand the withdrawal of troops who are ultimately there to support it. It must choose — either accept British Troops or deny Britain the right to rule Northern Ireland.
The struggle of the Catholics for Civil Rights is inseparable from their lack of self-determination as a national grouping. The struggle — which SW has supported — poses therefore, objectively, the break-up of the 6-County state whose structure and history is the dynamic in the present situation, because it is the framework for working class division and national oppression.
The break[ing] of this set up is for revolutionaries [from the point of view of the class struggle and of socialists] the most favourable outcome from the present situation, making possible a future working class unification against the Tories, North and South. Otherwise the struggle will subside, having made some gains, but leaving intact the still intolerable situation, exacerbated now by the newly redrawn division in the working class...
[That] is why Socialist Worker must challenge the Partition and demand the breakup of the 6 County state, or at least the right of secession of those areas where Catholics form the majority; ultimately leading to a united Ireland with autonomy for the Protestant areas — not after the Workers Republic, but as a necessary and unavoidable step towards it". [SW 11-9-69. I intend to deal fully with the TT Conference resolution on secession in a later article.]
The IS EC, and Socialist Worker, had been advocating Catholic/Protestant, Nationalist/Unionist, civil war — a war in which the Catholic South and the Unionist north-east would sort things out guns in hand, and in which IS would be for the conquest of Protestant/Unionist by Catholic/Nationalist Ireland. Now they accused us, on "secession", of proposing a "bloodbath" in Northern Ireland!
We wanted a massacre, they insisted! There would be population movements, of course. How did we envisage that happening? In cattle trucks, as in Nazi-controlled Europe? It was a "fascist" idea! Of course it was! And the Trotskyist Tendency? Fascists! Fascists in our midst!
A hysterical atmosphere was built up. Not too far from lynch-mob level. We were heavily outnumbered and oratorically out-gunned. The three members of the EC who had been against dropping "troops out", Duncan Hallas, Andreas Nagliatti and Roger Protz, were eloquently silent at the conference, while the EC majority turned it into something resembling a revivalist rally, with the TT cast in the role of fascist devil. (Protz was the editor of Socialist Worker.)
Is the reader beginning to baulk at this description and ceasing to find what I'm saying plausible? Fascists? Surely that can't be true! Go back and read Molyneux's description of the much lower key demagogy at the conference six months later!
I can't at this stage claim to remember the exact content and sequence of speeches. Possibly only one speaker took it as far as calling us fascists. Certainly, Stephen Marks, an EC member, did. But if so, that idea followed on as the next step from the central theme of the EC speakers: the TT advocated, and therefore wanted, a bloodbath.
The wild instability of IS policy on Northern Ireland, and immediately the latest lurch about the attitude to British troops? That's not the important thing, comrades! The issue is that the Trotskyist Tendency advocates population movements in Northern Ireland — pogroms! massacres! And it wants to move people around –— like fascists! They are fascists!
And all of this, of course, could be assimilated easily to the question of the role of the troops. Such horrors were the alternative to the troops — and the alternative to IS expressing approval of the troops.
Not everybody said all of these things, but all of them were said, and together they amounted to a piece of quasi-political demagogic mobbing.
Now, no reasonable objection could be raised against the leaders of IS and their supporters at conference picking up a mistake, absurdity, or extravagance made or allegedly made by the Trotskyist Tendency and hitting us over the head with it. That's what happens in a serious political fight. It was another matter when hysterical demagogy was used to make impossible any real discussion of IS's politics, and ours, on Ireland, the troops, what we proposed under "secession" — and the underlying realities in the 6 Counties, which, mistakenly or otherwise, we tried with "secession" to lay hold of.
The IS leaders dismissed the question of the artificiality of the Six Counties — though Palmer had raised it earlier — with philistine fear and philistine jeers that rubbished the entire tradition we were invoking — or, if you prefer, trying in vain and foolishly to invoke — that of Lenin and the Communist International on the attitude to national rights.
That tradition preaches indifference to state boundaries. It says we are for the break-up and realignment of existing conglomerates of peoples when the alternative is forced union (and, in Northern Ireland, the creation, or perpetuation, of a hybrid monstrosity).
There was even a preposterous element of Irish Catholic nationalism in the outrage against "repartition" even if it had been what we were proposing. (It wasn't: the resolution said that what we proposed aimed at rendering the northern state unviable.) The implicitly Catholic-nationalist indignation against repartition was preposterous because, as we have seen in earlier articles, for IS it had been and was coupled with de facto Partitionism and Unionism — an implicit assumption that the status quo was the best of all partitions of Ireland into Protestant-Unionist and Catholic-nationalist.
There is no record of the conference, that I know of. The written polemics in the IS internal bulletin later were guarded and, the rapids of the volatile conference having been shot, more sober. The main article, a reply by John Palmer and Stephen Marks to the Trotskyist Tendency pamphlet IS and Ireland appeared much later, in January or February 1970 (the pamphlet had been published at the end of November 1969).
I know of only one case where some elements of the demagogy of September got into print — an internal bulletin article by the then prominent Cliffite Andreas Nagliatti, in October or November 1971 (I deduce: I don't have access to a copy), during the build-up to the special conference of 4 December 1971 at which the Trotskyist Tendency was "de-fused" (expelled). (Nagliatti privately had Maoist leanings, and was in IS — he left in mid-1974, with Roger Rosewell, and Roger Protz — a cynical careerist. Unable to resist showing off how smart he was, he once gave me a short and unsolicited friendly-aggressive little talk on how to and "get on" in IS, by flattering Tony Cliff, manipulating the manipulator...)
What I do remember, vividly, in detail about the accusation of "fascism" is the following incident, which also illustrates the political level of the conference.
At a caucus of the Trotskyist Tendency before I was due to speak — replying, I suppose, on our resolution, or the "troops out" one — Glyn Carver suggested that I reply to the "fascist" charge by recalling at the the Stalinists had called the Trotskyists "fascists". I rejected that — in my head or out loud — as demagogy and "beneath" us. Because Stalin had called Trotskyists "fascist", it did not follow that a specific proposal by Trotskyists was not "fascist".
But I was hard pressed: peaking on the floor of the very hostile conference, I found myself making that point. The response from the Conference surprised me — loud and widespread applause. It must have involved a far wider spectrum of the conference than those who supported the Trotskyist Tendency on the issue.
Certainly — and I think this is what fixed it in my mind — some of those applauding my demagogic point had also been among those providing the thunderous applause for the Executive Committee's demagogy stating or implying that the TT was "fascist". Had to have been.
Every member of IS had a vote at conference then, and a lot of the conference consisted of young and raw people, many of them students, a few months or a year in politics. They had chosen the "Trotskyist" side in the old disputes with the Stalinists; they knew about Nazi mass murder, not quite a quarter-century in the past and still a matter of everyday reference in British life. They knew themselves to be new, and "Ireland" was a complex question. The IS leaders were the IS leaders. They knew... The TT? Pariahs — the same as the crazy SLL, really. And so on.
(Our only stable allies — on secession too: they backed the resolution — were the "Democratic Centralist Faction", led by Constance Lever and Noel Tracy, who would wind up in the TT and in the reconstituted "Workers Fight" after December, 1971. The DC grouping included Ian Birchall, the historian of IS/SWP.)
There may also have been some demagogy-fanciers there, like judges at a sheepdog trial, awarding points judiciously. They thought it was a "good point" for me to make, that the Stalinists had called Trotskyist (and Trotsky himself) fascists!
There was inevitably in such an atmosphere a certain joy in mobbing, baiting, pecking at the political chicks that were different.
And the supporters or members of the Executive Committee were good at what they were doing. Some had had their speaking skills developed and honed in the highest training schools of the bourgeoisie. Two of them at least (Paul Foot and Stephen Marks) had occupied that staging post on the road to conventional political eminence, the presidency of the Oxford Union.
Palmer was in a class of his own as a demagogue. On a good day, given equal time and so on, I could, or I felt I could, "handle" any of the others in a head-bang. Not Palmer!
The political content of their demagogy was not the least foul aspect of that conference. We were discussing a Northern Ireland, where only a couple of weeks earlier the first stage of a sectarian-political civil war had erupted; where the Protestants and Catholics were kept apart only by the Army; where the Catholics of Derry and Belfast had, as one journalist put it, set up their "little free states" — and still maintained them. It was a situation from which, though of course none of us could know it then, there would come an awful slow slaughter of four thousand people in the next quarter-century.
To discuss that in terms where the very suggestion that there might be bloodshed involved in a proposal must automatically rule out the idea, was demagogic pacifism and pretend-humanitarianism — culminating in the practical political conclusion, trust the British State and the British Army, if only for now. That those who had preached communal-national civil war - and without ever spelling out what objectives they favoured in that war, leaving Catholic conquest of the Northern Protestants only as something inferred — that they could get away with such demagogy was a comment on the "political level" of the group, and on how seriously people had been reading Socialist Worker, beyond the headlines.
As I said above, IS was still a very raw organisation and, in some respects a still half-unformed, unconsolidated organisation. Between the Easter and September 1969 Conferences, things had calmed down a bit, there had been a shake-out of some of the "libertarians" enraged by Cliff's moves to "centralise" the group, feeling betrayed. But in September 1969 IS was still an organisation in which the leaders behaved as this description of an incident at the Easter '69 Conference shows them behaving.
"IS conference at the Beaver Hall. Easter 1969. IS has over 1,000 members. Mostly young, politically raw, uneducated kids, full of life and enthusiasm and impatient of political restraint. Ultra-left — in the in-your-guts sense in which young people should instinctively be ultra-left. All they needed was experience, political education, tempering, and the benefit of the political wisdom of the older comrades.
There is a dispute in the group about what we will say in the next general election. Can we really call for a Labour vote? For Wilson's Labour government? Everybody, even those who think we should vote for the labour movement's party, hates the Labour Party. It is only 9 or 10 months since nine million French workers have staged a stupendous general strike and seized the factories. Things are heated and alarmingly confused at conference.
Cliff is called to speak and trots down the gangway to the lecture room-style lowered stage in front. He grabs the microphone militantly, as if he's going to fight with it, body language exuding combativity and positively teenage impatience with political restraints.
"This", he said heatedly, "is an unnecessary discussion. We don't need it. You know why we don't need it? Because we won't take part in the blinking election when they call it. What'll we do? We'll call for a general strike, that's what we'll do! Not a general election, but a general strike!" Thunderous applause.
What happened when the election came, in 1970? IS shouted: vote Labour.
The young people who needed calming down had been fed with amphetamines; those who needed political education, placated with political gibberish! But it 'worked'. Cliff knew how to handle them! [He] could 'put it over'!"
(SM: "A Funny Tale Agreed Upon" — A discussion of Jim Higgins’s "More Years For the Locust" — Workers Liberty)
In fact, IS would never consolidate as a democratic organisation capable of calm, informed, rational discussion. A machine of full-time organisers was quickly built up, at the service of the entrenched leaders, run by people with the attitude to politics displayed by EC members Protz — the first-born element in this machine — Hallas and Nagliatti in the discussions on Ireland.
When a chunk of that machine and of the cadres of the IS group in the period we are exploring — John Palmer would be amongst them, and Stephen Marks — fell out with Cliff in the mid-'70s, they were helpless against the machine they had created. Duncan Hallas, initially amongst the opposition, who were breaking to the right, behaved pretty much as he had in the Irish discussion - he ratted on his co-thinkers, and kept his job.
At the root here is that those who built the group never shed a manipulate conception of what a revolutionary party is. Writing a couple of years after 1969, I tried to explain it like this:
"I agree with the statement that IS has "contempt for [Marxist} theory. Why? Because IS theory is the possession of a handful of mandarins, who function as both a group mandarinate and as a segment of normal academic Britain. What theory there is is their theory: they are quite snobbish about it, it is written in a complex language, making no concessions to any possible members, such as workers, who are less educated than the mandarins... For the non-initiated popularisations will do...This is, of course, inseparable from a manipulative conception of the organisation. The members don't need to know the theories — the leaders can be relied upon, and word-spinning phrasemongers like Cliff and Palmer can bridge the gap.
It is in this sense that IS has "contempt" for theory — contempt for the Marxist conception of theory and its necessary relationship to the organisation as a leaven and tool of the whole group...
The second sense of IS's "contempt for theory" is in their use of theory, the function of theory, The relationship of theory to practice: there is no [necessary] connection between the two for IS. Do you know that in last week's debate at the National Committee [on a proposal to come out against the EEC] Cliff said and repeated that principles and tactics contradict each other in real life?
This is organically connected of course with their mandarinism... It is an esoteric knowledge — for, if principles contradict tactics and [political] practice, if theory is not a practical and necessary tool, if theory and practice are related only in the sense that theory sums up (in one way or another) past practice, perhaps vivified with a coat of impressionistic paint distilled from what's going on around you at the time — but not in the sense that theory is the source of precepts to guide [analysis and] practice, to aid in the practical exploration of reality — why then, where's the incentive to spread theoretical knowledge? What is to prevent the polarisation of the organisation into the mandarins and the subjects of the demagogic manipulation of the mandarins and their lieutenants?...
Do you know what I think [the Trotskyist Tendency's] real problem is regarding [the procedures of Cliff and his comrades] — say on the [EEC]? It will help them to grow... and therefore to continue to be the 'natural' choice for raw leftists just coming on the scene... Opportunists who are capable and have resources, and who are fortunate enough not to have to face principled opponents with a sizeable base and sizeable resources can always do that — in times of normalcy.
The tragedy is that what is being built is not a revolutionary organisation that can stand up under pressure when needed. That's why the sort of moral panic and collapse on Ireland in 1969 is so revealing and so significant for the understanding of IS." — IS and Marxist Theory, in "A Tragedy of the Left — Socialist Worker and Its Splits." (1991)
Some of these issues were discussed in the polemics after the September 1969 Conference.
Next article in this series: Part 9: The debacle of demagogy, August 1969