A Dispute with "Revolutionary History" - Reply to John McIlroy

Submitted by martin on 20 September, 2010 - 7:32 Author: Sean Matgamna

[Ed. note, Sept 2010: This is a reply to the short version of JM's article. Both appeared in Solidarity. By a curious oversight, when the longer version of McIlroy's article was put up here, the reply to it was omitted. The Menshevik saboteur responsible for this oversight has now been identified and shot, and the reply is published for the first time on the website. "Revolutionary History" published McIllroy's complaint/polemic, but not the reply; nor did they tell readers that the reply existed and where it could be found: "The following letter was sent to Solidarity, the paper of the Alliance for Workers Liberty, in response to an article in it criticising this journal. John McIlroy requested that it be published in full or not at all. It was, however, published in a truncated version."]

Click here for the article by John McIlroy which this piece replies to.

Oh that God the gift should gie us
To see ourselves as paranoiacs see us.
(apologies to Robert Burns)

Dear, oh dear! I will cut through the caterwauling, disentangle the main facts, and establish who is saying what. Al Richardson can’t give his version, so, as much as I can, I`ll leave him out of it.

1. John McIlroy re-raised an old dispute in his hagiographical obituary-biography of Al Richardson.

To explain his doing this I recalled that back in 1996, McIlroy’s name was inadvertently put on an article to which he had attached a pseudonym, and that this trivial incident had led to the end of all collaboration between him and us. That is the basic story I told; everything else, including my interpretation of the reason for McIlroy’s behaviour, and his counter-explanation, above, is secondary.

John McIlroy agrees that the basic story I told is true.

2. I said that he reacted like that because his pseudonymous article praised something he had written, and thus his real name on it embarrassed him.

No, it wasn’t that at all, says McIlroy. It is only at this point, on exactly what upset him, that his story diverges from mine.

3. He also says that I grossly exaggerated the proportion of his Workers' Liberty article given over to praise of his own work. That, unfortunately, is true.

I wrote that his article had: "devoted much of its space to praising an article by one John McIlroy".

He had never explained exactly what made his name on the article so important to him. The only explanation I could see was the self-praise. I remembered that as McIlroy’s big concern. Over eight and a half years, that idea inflated in my memory the proportion of the article devoted to self-praise. Thus in writing a hurried piece, I inadvertently misrepresented McIlroy’s article.

We publish his response to set the record straight.

I goofed; and McIlroy is entitled to make as much as he can out of that. He does a triumphant, if somewhat arthritic, war dance with it, himself exaggerating what I wrote.

My gaffe is important. But it is not fundamental.

McIlroy’s motive is not the point. The triviality — and in his account now, the paranoia — of it is the point.

4, What happened in 1996 was that while John McIlroy’s pseudonym was attached to the article in the body of the magazine, his real name was used on the contents page. Common sense would suggest that this was a cock-up, as I said it was. No, says McIlroy, Workers’Liberty was messed up deliberately.

5. In Solidarity, I did not say who had blundered.

At the time I wrote McIlroy a note of apology. I accepted responsibility as editor, but said that I was out of the country when the contents page was made up and sent to the printer. No, insists McIlroy, I was "personally" responsible.

6. Why, if not from embarrassment, did McIlroy react as he did to the trivial incident? Because, he says, the late Al Richardson and himself decided that I had done the foul deed deliberately, maliciously, to set them against each other.

7. How might that have been the outcome'? Most of his article, says McIlroy, was "taken up by a criticism of RH and even [!] of its editor, the late Al Richardson!"

In fact, most of his article is a dissertation on proper standards in history-writing. That is, indeed, an implicit criticism of RH. Of RH directly, he says such devastatingly critical things as this: a barrier to expanding the editorial board and extending the readership "may be unstudied [!] use of the polemical machete against those intrepid enough to correspond critically with the journal. There is no necessity for the editor of a journal to respond to every letter". The spectacularly unformidable deputy editor, Ted Crawford, attached a criticism to an article when, McIlroy, taking his life in his hands, suggests, it could have been a letter in the following issue.

There is a lot of praise for RH. "The best ever", "indispensable reading", ‘“a valuable asset to our movement", adding humbly after the foregoing: "and these [critical] comments are offered in the spirit of strengthening its work", and more of the same.

The notion that any of this might make people fall out with McIlroy is as new to me as it seems bizarre.

8. McIlroy’s account of things implies — to make any sense, it has to — that his "critical" article on Revolutionary History was to have been some sort of secret, the pseudonym an impenetrable mask to his colleagues on the Revolutionary History editorial board, which I deliberately and "personally" ripped off. But unless special efforts at secrecy were made —— there was nothing like that — so many people would know who was behind the pseudonym that anyone could find out just by asking.

9. McIlroy’s own account of what happened contradicts the idea that his authorship was a dark secret, maliciously "blown" by me. He had. he explains, taken the precaution of discussing his criticisms with Al Richardson...

10. The crux of it. then, was their conclusion that the naming on the contents page had been deliberately done, by me, and the motives they attributed to me for doing it. So says John McIlroy.

11. McIlroy`s counter-story depends somewhat on the idea that my own critical attitude to Revolutionary History and its editor was a matter of sly, "behind the hand", apolitical, gossipy backbiting stuff. Not at all! I sometimes used the Socialist Platform library, which was housed in Al Richardson’s flat, and, until shortly before he died, I encountered him pretty often. Invariably I found him helpful and willing to put himself out. Of course I was grateful for that, but the relationship was not smooth and polite on either side. Heated rows were common.

He knew perfectly well that I detested his — to my mind, Stalinoid, and then wildly eclectic -— politics, and disapproved of a lot that he published, including most of the "editorial matter" in Revolutionary History, and a lot of what he wrote.

For example, when he published the collection "Trotsky and the Origins of Trotskyism" · a mislabelled tissue of historical and political confusion, with a nonsense-mongering introduction by himself — for a while I stopped greeting him half-affectionately as "The Ghost of Trotskyism Past!“ and substituted "Hello, Charlatan!" Nothing was hidden, to be slyly expressed in sneaky manipulation.

I never heard anything of the story McIlroy tells from Richardson.

12. The image McIlroy's account suggests, of himself and Al Richardson in the course of a convivial evening, their wits well honed on porter and bitter, earnestly puzzling out what my motives were in deliberately "outing" one of them to the other, offers a vivid candid-camera picture of everyday life among the kibitzing folk. [Kibitzer: a Yiddish word meaning "one who watches a game of cards from behind the players; a meddlesome onlooker” (Concise Oxford Dictionary).] It`s a lot less creditable to him than my account of what ailed him over the pseudonym.

There is a sub-species of kibitzer, which might be called the "I’ve Seen It All — I Know All The Manoeuvres — You Can’t Put One Over On Me, Mate", Tendency. Theirs is a world of gambits, game-plans and manoeuvres. Politics and political ideas exist only as artefacts and organisational ciphers. There are no mishaps here. Everything happens for a purpose. Everything is controlled and meaningful.

I wasn’t even in the country when the magazine "went to bed"? If true, just a trick. "Knowing [me] all too well", they were not fooled. They were on guard, prepared for double-dealing and chicanery, even for a plot to disrupt their historic alliance. They knew me! If I couldn’t have done it myself, then plainly I’d put someone else up to it.

And when the terrible deed was done, when I blew the cover of one to the other — they knew how to interpret that: "Both Al and I... found it plausible, knowing him [SM] all too well, to attribute events [?] to [SM], to [my] palpable desire to cause problems between [them] and to make mischief for Revolutionary History."

The idea that I’d deliberately mess up the magazine was intrinsically absurd? Not at all; they knew my priorities, what l thought important — "It’ll cause trouble between the Lenin and Trotsky of kibitzing, Al and John!"

In reality they were naive quasi-politicals, self-importantly projecting their own foolishness on to someone else.

The mental world of the kibitzers is all there in McIlroy’s story, including the sickly self-flattery typical in their mutual admiration societies.

Is the story McIlroy tells now true? I can't know. When you attribute a not entirely discreditable motive to someone — he was embarrassed - and he emphatically calls you a liar and says, in effect, "No, my dead friend, who can’t speak for himself, and I were just paranoid," it does carry some power of conviction. Maybe it’s true.

Sean Matgamna

* McIlroy plays with my name, mistakenly thinking that Matgamna is a pseudonym and my real name is O’Mahony. Neither is a pseudonym. It is the same name in Gaelic and English (properly, it is O'Matgamna). The Gaelic name is the one on my passport, etc.

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