The Irish Workers' Group, IS and the "Trotskyist Tendency"

Submitted by Anon on 19 October, 2007 - 12:25 Author: Sean Matgamna

This series: The Northern Ireland crisis of 1968-9 and the left (Part 2)

    Next article in series: Part 3: Why Northern Ireland Split on Communal, Not Class, Lines

    In Solidarity 3/118 we began a series of articles about the events in Northern Ireland in 1969 — when the nearly 50 year old Northern Ireland state broke down, and the British Army went on the streets to hold it together — and the debates and disputes which that provoked in the British left.

    [Note: corrections and some expansions are made here to the text in Solidarity.]

    The first article described the situation in Northern Ireland on the eve of the crisis, and the outline of the events there in 1968-72. The series of articles will go on to examine, specifically, the debate at that time in IS (today’s SWP), where at that time there was internal democracy (unlike in the other groups of the left), and an open discussion of the issues did take place.

    It was an important episode in the formation of the modern revolutionary left in Britain. More than that: it took up many of the important issues that still bedevil the left — the relationships between propaganda and agitation, Marxist theory and revolutionary practice, the revolutionary party and the working class.

    The arguments today about the attitude of socialists to the US/UK troops in Iraq parallel to some extent the dispute about the British troops assuming a central role in Northern Ireland in August 1969.

    I no longer think that the side I was on in in the disputes of 1969 — that of the Trotskyist Tendency of IS — was right on everything. We too, descendants of the Trotskyist Tendency, can learn from reviewing the experience.

    Before we examine in detail the first discussion on Ireland in IS, in January 1969, the reader, in order to make sense of the story, needs to know about a number of things:

    1. The interactions that the main participants in the discussion had had, in the previous year or so, in and around the Irish Workers’ Group;

    2. The relations between participants in the discussion within IS, and groups in Ireland;

    3. The origin and political nature of the Trotskyist Tendency;

    4. The transformations that had just recently taken place within IS;

    5. The background of British left attitudes on Ireland before 1968.

    One: the Irish

    Workers’ Group

    The nucleus of the Trotskyist Tendency; the IS leaders most involved in the work around Ireland, Tony Cliff and John Palmer; and their close ally and “client” in Irish work in 1968-9, Gery Lawless (who was not an IS member) had all been involved, in varying ways, in a pretty brutal faction fight in the (mainly émigré) Irish Workers’ Group which had finally split the IWG down the middle in mid-March 1968. Some of the issues in that IWG dispute continued over inot the dispute in IS in 1969-70.

    The question of what exactly a revolutionary Marxist organisation is, how it functions, the relationship of its theory to its practice and of its “propaganda” to its agitation, had been discussed in the IWG, with the future Trotskyist Tendency representing one viewpoint and Lawless, actively backed by the IS leaders, another.

    The IWG is usually referred to in the “histories” as Trotskyist, but it wasn’t. Certainly most of the people in it who called themselves Trotskyists didn’t think it was. It was a conglomerate ranging from left-wing Irish nationalists through Deutscherites (critical, “liberal” Stalinists), soft Maoists or quasi-Maoists, Guevarists, and supporters of the Mandel Fourth International, to “harder” orthodox Trotskyists. Some of the Guevarists who were members or fringe supporters of the IWG became urban guerrillas, part of the Saor Eire Action Group which robbed banks and, in 1970, shot a policeman, Richard Fallon, dead in Dublin . One of them, Sean Morrissey, who had been one of the named editors — with Gery Lawless and myself — of the IWG magazine Workers’ Republic, was jailed for robbery and acquitted of murder in the early 1970s. Peter Graham, who had joined our side as the faction fight in the IWG was drawing would lose his life in October, 1971, in a dispute within the Saor Eire Action Group.

    The biggest sub-grouping in the "Lawless" bloc in the period before the IWG split was made up of supporters of IS — supporters of IS who had been politically shaped and educated in a period when IS was emphatically not “Leninist” or “Trotskyist”.

    At the end of the mauling six-month faction fight, the IWG met for a conference at Moran’s Hotel in Dublin on 17 March 1968, and divided in two. As we shall see, that event coincided almost exactly with Tony Cliff announcing ahis return to "Lenin” and the opening of six months of factional battles around the issue of "the revolutionary party" in IS

    Yet Cliff and Palmer had played an irreplaceable role in lining up their supporters on the side of the Lawless faction — one of whose main political features was opposition to building the sort of “Leninist” organisation that Cliff in mid-1968 decided he wanted IS to become!

    That could be explained by Cliff in the autumn of 1967 (when the IWG fight broke out) not knowing what he would think in the spring of 1968. Another extraordinary aspect of the IWG dispute cannot be so easily be explained away. For one of the precipitating issues in the IWG faction-fight was our attitude to Stalinism; and Cliff, Palmer, and their co-thinkers in the IWG, who defined the Staliinist states as "state capitalist" police states, were on the side of the Deutscherites and similar people who were pro-Stalinist or “soft” on it. Indeed they were the biggest subgroup in that bloc!

    The open break in the IWG started on the evening of the second big Vietnam demonstration in London, 22 October 1967, at the London, "Che Guevara Lynch", branch of the IWG. (To commemorate Che Guevara, killed in Bolivia in early October, and following an Irish custom of naming branches of political parties after species of secular patron saints, the branch had renamed itself the Che Guevara Lynch branch. An 18th century ancestor of Guevara had been Irish and had used the name Lynch).

    The faction fight started there in a dispute, moving from an old private argument in letters and private discussion, into an open verbal row that quickly turned into a shouting match between Gery Lawless, who had been IWG Secretary until the AGM of September 1967, and myself, over the attitude Trotskyists should have taken to the June/July 1953 East German uprising against the Russian-puppet state and the occupying Russian army. That had been a central issue in the 1953 split in the Fourth International. In that, the Cannonites, those led by the vertran US Trotskyist James P Cannon, calling themselves “orthodox Trotskyists”, accused Michel Pablo, Ernest Mandel, and their co-thinkers who ran the FI’s international centre — whom they named “Pabloites” — of not siding unequivocally with the German workers against the Russians, with not demanding the withdrawal of the Russian Army — with subordinating a basic class question to calculations about the balance of forces in Europe as between the Russian bloc and NATO.

    I was a “1953” Cannonite, entirely on the side of the German insurgents. I believed that any siding with the Russian bureaucracy and its army (on grounds of great-power bloc calculations or whatever) against insurgent workers was a “capitulation” to Stalinism, and therefore the opposite of Trotskyism and revolutionary socialism. Lawless grandly dismissed the whole affair as “just a building workers’ demonstration in East Berlin”, and insisted that socialists should not have wanted the "Red Army" tp withdraw, should not have sided with the German workers against the “Red” Army. It was either the “Red” Army or NATO in Germany, and that had to be the prime guide to our attitudes. Yet, of course, a “Red” Army it was not: that was the point. It was the army of the nation-enslaving totalitarian Russian bureaucracy.

    Neither this nor any similar political position determined the dynamic of what happened in the IWG. (I intend to put an appendix on the IWG at the end of these articles). Even so, it was extraordinary to find all the avowed “state capitalists” going along with the Lawless bloc, which included people who thought any criticism at all of the Russian “socialist motherland” impermissable. The “Pabloite” line on East Germany in 1953 was repeated in writing by Lawless in an internal bulletin; and one of the campaigning points of the Lawless bloc (among other similarly odd things) was the accusation that I was a “secret state capitalist” (because, the learned Mr Lawless said, I had been reading Max Shachtman’s The Struggle for the New Course. In fact, though he plainly hadn’t read it himself, he had lent me the book!) Thus he hoped to divide his opponents, all of whom were Trotskyist “workers’ staters” on Russia.

    Cliff and Palmer kept the IS supporters in line behind Lawless, in a bloc one of whose activities was to heresy-hunt an alleged “state capitalist”!

    Palmer had been involved in Irish émigré politics in London from the beginning of the 1960s; Cliff had lived in Ireland from 1947 to 1951. Their calculation (so our side believed) was that their group would control the organisation after we were hived off. In that they were right, though the rump of the IWG lasted only until autumn 1968 before dissolving (when exactly, I don’t know: if the group published an annoucement of its own demise, I never saw it; I don't think it did).

    (Not long after the formal winding up of the IWG, Wiliam Craig, the Belfast Minister for Home Affairs who set the police on the October 1968 demonstrators in Derry, told the Stormont Parliament that the IWG was the organisation "behind" the events in Derry. He cited the statement of aims in the "Preamble" to the Constitution which the IWG had adopted at the September 1967 AGM: "...A revolutionary socialist organisation which aims to mobilise the Irish section of the international working class to overthrow the existing irish bourgeois states, destroy all remaining Imperialist organs of political and economic control, and establish an All-IrelansSocialist Worker's' Republic.")

    If the Workers’ Fight/Trotskyist Tendency had been pursuing political vendettas, we would not have “fused” with IS and tried to work constructively there, as we did for the nine months before the semi-expulsion of the Trotskyist Tendency by way of confining us to “ghetto” branches. But still, the IWG experience did not encourage us to think of Cliff and Palmer as principled or trustworthy people, on Ireland or anything else.

    The IWG events were still very recent in January 1969. They played a poisoning and divisive role among those in Ireland who had been on either side, with the additional complication that those on our side happened to be based in the South, and the others in the North.

    Two: the groups in Ireland

    When the reverberations of 5 October in Derry hit the students at Queens University Belfast, and led to the formation of the curiously named People’s Democracy (“People’s Democracies” was the official self-designation of the East European Stalinist states), the IS-aligned IWG people in Belfast effectively dissolved the “Young Socialist” group they controlled in the new, broad organisation.

    Soon the IS supporters — Michael Farrell, Cyril Toman, and others — were the leaders of PD. It was at first a very big, loose grouping, including anarchists, liberals, and every political shade to the left of official Northern Ireland Unionism, even the odd Unionist. PD would play an important, in some respects a shaping, role in the events that led to the breakdown of the Northern Ireland state in August 1969.

    The PD leaders consulted frequently with the IS leaders. Much of what IS did in 1969 and after was determined by their will to keep in step with PD, whose size impressed them.

    When a PD member, the 22 year old Bernadette Devlin (later McAliskey; she had not been in the IWG) was elected as the Catholic “Unity” Westminster MP in a Mid-Ulster by-election early in 1969, she worked closely with IS, for example, speaking to IS-organised meetings on building sites in London.

    It needs to be said clearly that the IS leaders did not control PD. Whether they might have helped guide them more and better than they did is an important question, but one I won’t attempt to answer now.

    Eamonn McCann, who had been in the IWG and was on the side of the Lawless bloc, while being far more of a Trotskyist than the PD leaders in Belfast, was based in Derry, and started to write, occasionally, for Socialist Worker at the end of 1968.

    The Irish part of the other side of the IWG, our side, became the League for a Workers’ Republic, a small organisation with people in Dublin, Clonmel, Dundalk, and Dun Laoire. The LWR and our group in Britain — Workers’ Fight, which became the Trotskyist Tendency of IS — were linked as separate but “fraternal” groups. That relationship, like the IS leaders’ relationship to PD, impinged on events in IS.

    The variegated “Trotskyists” who found themselves within the LWR had been politically formed under the influence of the different existing British and international Trotskyist groups. The consequence, which I will not enlarge upon here, was that Workers’ Fight/ Trotskyist Tendency and the LWR began to draw apart quite early. The LWR always had more in common with the RSL-Militant (now the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal) and theSLL (later WRP) than with Workers Fight.

    In 1969-70 we still had close political relations, but came into bitter (private) conflict over what Workers’ Fight/ TT called the LWR’s “sectarian passivity” in relation to events in the Northern Ireland.

    WF did not control the LWR any more than IS controlled the PD. Yet, there was a radical differnce in the two sets of relationships: the LWR did not control the Trotskyist Tendency, and to a defining extent PD “controlled” IS by way of the IS leaders’ efforts to keep in step with them no matter what. In IS’s relationship with the IS-sympathising PD leaders, it was a matter, so to speak, of the born-again “Leninist” Cliff dealing delicately with the products in Northern Ireland of his pre-1968 "anti-Leninist period". There is a strange passage in Cliff’s memoirs which shows him still impressed, three decades later, with PD’s initial size. That seems to have shaped what he did at the time.

    Gery Lawless, without being a member of IS, functioned as one of the central organisers of IS’s Irish work until late August 1969.

    Lawless had been Secretary of the IWG and organiser of one of the warring blocs within the IWG in 1967-8.
    A member of the IRA, and then of a splinter group, he was interned for five months before December 1957, securing his release by promising to be of “good conduct” (what in Republican circles was condemned as “signing out”). He had been chosen by Sean McBride in 1957 to bring a pioneering case against the Irish government at the European Court of Human Rights and thereby was quite well known in Irish political circles..

    He had belonged to a clerical-fascistic current within the Republican movement, an ultra-Catholic group called Maria Duce (Maria, the mother of Jesus; Duce, as in Mussolini, leader). Its inspirer, Fr Denis Fahey, a professor at an Irish clerical college, had published a version of the notorious Tsarist police forgery and handbook of 20th century anti-semitism, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, under the title Waters Flowing Eastward.

    A “Trotskyist” in London from the early 60s, Lawless functioned as a professional Irishman in a series of client relationships with the different Trotskyist groups. The Trotskyist Tendency held him responsible for wrecking the IWG and thought him a poisonous Irish chauvinist, and someone who pursued personal and not political goals in politics. His desperate no-holds-barred factionalism was, we said, the sort of thing that gets the double Oedipus complex a bad name.

    Three: the Trotskyist Tendency

    In October/November 1968 IS had united with Workers’ Fight. WF had ten or a dozen people in Manchester, Coventry, and Teesside; it was the political ancestor of the AWL. Inside IS, where “Trotskyist” was still a term of opprobrium, Workers’ Fight took the name “Trotskyist Tendency”.

    On a proportionate basis we had two elected IS National Committee members, Phil Semp and myself. Almost immediately we recruited three other NC members: Geoff Hodgson, Dave Purdy, and Andrew Hornung. Hodgson and Purdy came from a bloc (of which we were part) on the IS National Committee who wanted a more serious “turn to Lenin” than Cliff would venture, and Hornung was a former supporter of a grouping called, jokingly, “the micro-faction”, which had opposed centralisation.

    Over the next two or three years. IS would become “Trotskyist”, sort of, and piece by piece adopt the organisational culture of the worst kitsch-Trotskyist “orthodox” groups, specifically of the Healy organisation in Britain. But in late 1968 and early 1969, “Trotskyism” was still for most IS members a term of condemnation and abuse, and for some vehemently so.

    We defined IS as “centrist” — meaning inconsistent, wavering, eclectic — and ourselves as a “tendency” as distinct from a “faction”. That meant that we saw ourselves as adhering to a different political tradition from that of IS; and that our perspective in IS was not that of organising primarily to dispute particular immediate issues; rather, that of a long-term grouping, loose as regards immediate issues, which would as appropriate do educational work for our tradition.

    When we said our tradition was different from IS’s, in fact we meant the tradition of the “Luxemburgist” IS of the previous decade; we, like most others in IS, had a hazy and seriously inadequate idea of the group’s history and the phases it had passed through in the 1950s and early 60s.

    We were orthodox Trotskyists, adherents of the view that the Stalinist states were “degenerated and deformed workers’ states” which should in war be “defended” against the West. In 1968-71, the period when we were part of IS, the USSR was the second pillar of world reaction, and we saw “defencism” as having no practical meaning. It was, we said, an “orientation issue” (and though we did not say it, an important part of a Trotskyist “tradition” which we felt obliged to take as a whole).

    By “orthodox Trotskyism” we understood the politics of the international grouping around James P Cannon and the Socialist Workers’ Party of the USA, which in 1953 had split the Fourth International in protest at what they said was the pro-Stalinist politics of the Pablo-Mandel international leadership. The “badge of honour” of “1953 orthodox Trotskyism” was unwavering and consistent hostility to Stalinism.

    We were not less anti-Stalinist than those who called the Stalinist states “state capitalist”.

    We were for a “political revolution” — defined as having major social implications, and not as a shallow “merely-political” overturn — in all the Stalinist states, including Cuba (the only one I’ve ever been anything like “soft” on). Theoretically coherent we were not; politically, we were revolutionary socialists against all varieties of Stalinism.

    It would be misleading to understand from this that we did not, with the feelings and emotions inseparable from seriously held political beliefs, argue for the degenerated and deformed workers’ state thesis and for “defencism”. We regarded the “state-capitalist” heretics with contempt, and “Shachtmanite bureaucratic collectivists” with a great deal more contempt: at one of the two IS conferences in 1969, I denounced the organisation for maintaining links with the Independent Socialist Clubs of the USA, a “bureaucratic-collectivist” group initially inspired by Hal Draper.

    Yet the fact tells its own story: in the three years 1968 to 1971 there was no disagreement between the Trotskyist Tendency and the IS leadership on current policy towards any aspect of the Stalinist states. When the prominent IS member Chris Harman denounced the slaughter of Vietnamese Trotskyists by Ho Chi Minh’s Stalinists, at a commemoration meeting for Ho in 1969 organised by the Mandelites, with a North Vietnamese representative on the platform, and was condemned by the “orthodox Trotskyists” with whom we felt most in common, we defended his action. It surely was, as his critics said, “disruption” of the meeting, but it needed to be done.

    Our main difference with IS, so we thought and said, was on the question of the Revolutionary Party, and the whole complex of questions — “Economism”, the relationship of Marxist theory to what Marxists do, democracy within the party, etc. — which that encapsulates. What that difference meant in day-to-day politics will be made abundantly clear in the dispute on Ireland.

    Four: IS’s “Leninist” turn

    IS was making a sharp turn. After a noisy discussion, it had decided at a special conference in November 1968 to redefine itself as Leninist and to adopt a new “democratic centralist” constitution.

    The organisation had previously called itself “Luxemburgist” — since 1958, when, then called Socialist Review after its paper, it had published in a duplicated pamphlet Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism of the Russian Revolution. In a vague but insistent way, some responsibility for Stalinism was attributed to Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

    “One should not draw the conclusion that there was no causal connection at all between Bolshevik centralism based on hierarchy of professional revolutionaries and the Stalinism of the future”, as Cliff put it (Trotsky on substitutionism, International Socialism (first series) no.2, autumn 1960).

    And: “For Marxists, in advanced industrial countries, Lenin’s original position can serve much less as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s, notwithstanding her overstatements on the question of spontaneity” (Rosa Luxemburg, 1959).

    IS had also been what was called “anti-substitutionist”. They held that the Bolsheviks had “substituted” for the working class, and drew the conclusion for themselves and for their criticism of others that since revolutionary socialist groups must at all costs avoid “substituting” themselves for the class, attempts at leadership that could shape and “dominate” working-class struggles were “toy-town Bolshevism” and incipiently Stalinist or “Healyite”.

    The “anti-substitutionist” dogma of the group was understood differently by different individuals in the group, and differently from case to case, but in general it led to an accommodating yet manipulative approach to working-class and other struggles. Specifically, in trade-union affairs it led to “tail-ending” industrial militancy (following after it, in a politically passive way) – a variant of what Plekhanov, Martov, and Lenin had around 1900 called “Economism”.

    In the one factory in which the group had leadership — and had had a base for nearly 20 years — this approach contributed heavily to a great defeat for the workers. So the group itself, in its drive for self-renewal, concluded: see Colin Barker and Joyce Rosser, The ENV story, IS 31, 1967.

    The pre-1968 IS approach was made to seem attractive and proper to many good youngsters by the horrible contemporary counter-example of the main allegedly “orthodox Trotskyist” group in Britain — then and for two decades past — the SLL. IS, growing rapidly, was now big enough to be a serious competitor with the SLL, which by the early or mid 60s was extremely “substitutionist” and organisationally self-promoting, often with destructive consequences for trade union and other struggles. (The SLL would change its name to WRP, become more and more politically aberrant, then fall apart in 1985. Only tiny fragments of it remain today).

    It was a renewed IS and still changing, still self re-defining, organisation that responded to the Northern Ireland crisis in 1968-9. The National Committee that discussed it in January 1969 was a newly-created body. This was only its second or third meeting. It was supposed in theory to replace leadership by a federal committee to which branches sent delegates, and de facto control by a London-based group constructed around the family circle of Cliff, his brother-in-law Michael Kidron, and his wife Chanie Rosenberg (and others at different times). The National Committee could and did challenge Cliff and his close political friends and impose things they didn’t like, at least in words and resolutions. Binding them and their co-thinkers by such resolutions was another question; it became acute in relation to Irish work.

    It should be stressed that, whatever needs to be said about the continuation of the old “first family” leadership, this was, all in all, a democratic organisation. The “first family” had to assert itself through democratic structures. Real discussion did take place.

    The January 1969 National Committee was important as an open discussion of the issues. Yet the EC had already, on 12 December 1968, decided a “line” and published it in the new weekly paper. The January National Committee, by majority vote and against the vote of all but one of the EC members, would impose a fourth slogan in addition to the three the EC had decided, and exactly 50% of those present voted to impose a fifth — but, to repeat, what it would all mean in the practical affairs of the group remained in the hands of the EC.

    Thoughout 1969, one of the shaping factors of what IS did, and what happened inside IS, on Ireland was that the National Committee was rarely presented with accurate accounts of the Northern Ireland left in general and of IS’s close associates in Northern Ireland, the People’s Democracy, in particular.

    A variegated minority bloc existed on the National Committee, eleven out of the forty members, consisting of those who wanted a “harder” and more consistent Leninism, and a more self-critical appreciation of the group’s past, than Cliff and his associates would concede. Cliff, though he’d recently turned political somersaults, insisted that he had never been wrong! This bloc had one representative on the EC, Constance Lever, a member of a subgroup known as the Democratic Centralist Faction. (At present this long-gone grouping is “represented” in the SWP by Ian Birchall, the semi-official apologistic historian of the Cliff group). The Democratic Centralist faction would survive through 1969, when others of the eleven-person bloc had “gone home” to Cliff, and it would back the Trotskyist Tendency on most things, including what would be a contentious resolution on “secession” by Northern Ireland’s Catholic areas.

    A number of other NC members were at an opposite pole — “libertarians” who had resisted and still did not accept the “centralisation”. Quite a few “libertarians” would leave the group in the first months of 1969.

    Five: The British left on Ireland before 1968

    At the start of the Northern Ireland crisis in 1968, the dominant conception of the “Irish question” on the British left was essentially that of middle-class Irish nationalism. The partition of Ireland was a brutal British imperialist imposition on Ireland; it was contrary to democracy and the rights of the Irish majority; and it created Protestant-Catholic division.

    Most of those tenets were true. But not the last one; and the truth contained in the other tenets was only part of the truth. Without understanding that the fundamental root of Partition was the existence of a distinct Irish (Protestant-Unionist) minority, the partial truth could be extremely misleading.

    The autonomous political and social movement of that Protestant minority on the island of Ireland would shape and ultimately determine the outcome so far of the long travail that faced both Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

    The popular labour-movement view of the “Ulster problem” was rooted in the period before World War One, when both Irish middle-class Home Rulers and the early Labour Party had in Parliament been political tails of the Liberal Party. It had for decades been replenished by the Irish middle-class Catholic nationalist “anti-imperialist” propaganda of the Connolly Association, through its monthly paper Irish Democrat, the Communist Party (the CA’s parent group), and the big and wide CP-tinted networks in the Labour left. The people doing that work were by 1968 often indistinguishable from straight Irish nationalists — good people, in my experience of them — but the CP drive on Ireland was shaped by Russia’s wish to exploit the Irish issue against its enemy Britain. It had been so since the 1920s.

    Moreover, Stalinists, some of them trained by the Connolly Association, notably Dr Roy Johnstone, had by 1968 effectively gained control of what there was of the IRA. The most momentous consequence of that fact would be the appearance of the Provisional IRA, as a split from the Stalinist-led movement, in December 1969.

    Both sides in the TT/IS dispute of 1969-70 had, or had had, more or less worked-out views on Ireland. SR/IS had conducted a discussion on Ireland in their paper in the 50s. In the Irish Workers’ Group, I had gone part of the way to making a Marxist analysis of the Irish question, which informed what the TT said. We will later examine both positions.

    IS’s first responses to the Northern Ireland crisis

    We are now in a position to discuss the disputes inside IS. What can be called the “first IS position” emerged between October 1968 and January 1969. There would be a number of other positions.

    The IS paper had on 7 September 1968 changed from a monthly called Labour Worker to a weekly called Socialist Worker. It began to cover Northern Ireland affairs intensively in the first issue after 5 October in Derry. The keynotes were struck very early, in two articles.

    Socialist Worker of 12 October carried a page one account by Eamonn McCann of events in Derry on the Monday after the police attack on the demonstration on Saturday 5 October: “Irish Police Bludgeon Marchers In Siege City”.

    “This is not a riot. It is an uprising. It is an elemental outbreak of rage by a class that has been denied jobs, houses and human rights by a regime that is as near fascist as makes no difference”.

    Northern Ireland was still a strange place, the nuances of such things as names a foreign language in Socialist Worker. “Londonderry is a city under siege”, wrote Socialist Worker, using the Protestant-Unionist name for the city.

    “Barricades have been erected and Molotov cocktails, bricks and other improvised weapons are being used by the people”, wrote McCann. He described the events on 5 October. Water cannon had been used. The police boxed off lines of people and systematically bludgeoned them. Fighting spread to the centre of the city. Catholics were beaten back to the Bogside area.

    McCann explained about the gerrymandered electoral boundaries which gave the Protestants sixty per cent of city corporation seats for 33% of the vote. A businessman, Sir Basil McFarlane, had 26 municipal votes, and McCann himself, “a 28 year old worker” living in his father’s house, none.

    He explained the build-up in Derry to the events of 5 October. In February 1968, socialists, Republicans, and Labour Party people (McCann was in the Derry Labour Party) formed the Derry Housing Action Committee. Landlords’ houses were picketed, and official Derry Corporation meetings broken up. Up to 20 people had been prosecuted for those activities.

    The illegal Derry Republican Club had come out openly on a demonstration, carrying Republican tricolour flags, whose display was banned in Northern Ireland.

    The rule in Derry of “a clique of undemocratic gangsters” had generated a sectarian consciousness in their Catholic working-class victims. McCann reported that Labour Party and Young Socialist speakers at the demonstration denounced “attempts by fringe hooligan elements to use ‘get the Protestants’ as a slogan”.

    Those were the sort of events that, spreading and growing, constituted the ferment that now began to work its way through Northern Ireland Catholic communities, generating a fearful backlash among some Protestants, and then a growing number of them. McCann and others would report these events in Socialist Worker.

    IS’s own, typical, approach to these events was present in Socialist Worker early in an article by Paul Foot. On 26 October Foot reported under the headline: “Do-It-Yourself Politics Threatens Northern Ireland’s Police Rule”.

    Foot too gave Socialist Worker readers, who in the main would know next to nothing of the realities of Northern Ireland, details of the discrimination in housing, jobs, and votes against Catholics. Politically speaking, the important part of the article, defining IS’s approach, was this: “The exploited people of Northern Ireland, denied even the semblance of parliamentary democracy available to the rest of the UK, are beginning to ‘do it themselves’, to act to seize the basic rights and services denied them by the intolerant and reactionary government”.

    Direct action shows the way. The ruling Ulster Unionist Party sets religious sectarianism to divide the workers. Foot approvingly quotes Johnny white, secretary of the Republican Clubs: the Republicans “are socialists” who want a Workers’ Republic. “And we will work with anyone who works in a militant way towards that aim”.

    Foot notes the upsurge of student militancy for civil rights. The “terror of the authorities at the prospect of workers and students acting for themselves can be measured by the readiness of William Craig [Stormont home secretary, who had banned the 5 October march, and then set the RUC on the marchers) known variously as the Papadopoulos [leader of the military regime in Greece after the 1967 coup] and Lardner-Burke [minister of justice in the white-minority UDI government of Ian Smith in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe] of Ulster...”

    All of IS is there. There had been a strong strain of quasi-anarchism in IS’s youth segment. Direct action, “do-it-yourself” reforms, and “militancy” were the central values.

    IS had worked in the Labour Party and the LPYS with the perspective of staying there up to the socialist revolution. Through most of the 50s and into the 60s, it presented its aims in every issue of its paper, Socialist Review, as a programme for a Labour government to carry out. But from the mid-60s the group had drifted from commitment to the Labour Party, political action, and a parliamentary focus, towards incoherent, quasi-anarchist anti-parliamentarism.

    (It was not only anarchist anti-parliamentarism. In his mid-1967 pamphlet The Struggle in the Middle East Cliff made an astonishing judgement on the police states in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq by citing, as an item of agreement between “real socialism” and “Arab socialism”, the fact that the “Arab socialists” “reject bourgeois parliamentary democracy as a fraud”). Socialist criticism of bourgeois democracy — because it is one dimensional democracy and we want a better, working-class democracy — was akin to the attitude of fascistic military dictators like Nasser!

    Alongside the quasi-anarchism in Foot’s article, and of IS’s typical approach then, there was also, right from the start, a lack of awareness of, or a refusal to notice, central features of the reality of Northern Ireland.

    In Foot’s picture the fact that “the people” in revolt are only (a section of) the Catholic minority is resolutely pushed aside. It is a worker and student uprising against the Northern Ireland equivalent of a Greek military dictator or a white supremacist in Africa (he isn’t sure which). A fundamental characteristic of IS in this period would be its failure to make a coherent analysis of the situation in the Northern Ireland, the situation in which their local allies were playing a central and shaping role.

    On 12 December the new IS Executive Committee discussed its political responses and line on Ireland. The muddle and confusion that characterised IS in 1968 was thick and dense at the very beginning of the discussion on Ireland. Paul Foot and Gery Lawless (who, formally, was not a member of IS) were invited to attend, and Lawless — certainly after prior agreement with Cliff and Palmer — gave the “keynote speech”. The minutes record what he said.

    Comrade L felt that the British working class had a racialist, chauvinist attitude towards the Irish question. The British left was not very much better informed. IS should educate its own members, as this attitude was also amongst them.

    If IS is serious, it should not simply organise demonstration on Ireland but try to educate the working class (and IS members) to campaign and organise on the Irish question (remembering there are over a million Irishmen in this country, mostly workers). There was perhaps scope for a campaign on Vietnam Solidarity Campaign lines which should be more fruitful because it could bring workers into contact with the revolutionary left. The campaign should take in questions coming from the south as well, although main emphasis on the North.

    Comrade Palmer felt that as the Irish Question was so complicated the left’s attitude was not so much racialism as ignorance. Comrade Lawless felt that the resources for a revolutionary Trotskyist group in Ireland were very small, and it would need an organiser and a press. He felt there would be very little response to a campaign among Irish exiles unless there is evidence of a large campaign to educate the British workers on Ireland...

    Comrades Harman and Protz felt a seriously analytical piece on Ireland was needed which could set out the complexities of the Irish situation. Reported that Comrade Gillespie is expected to have something ready for the Spring International Socialism [journal]...

    It was agreed several things were needed:

    a) To educate the group (and the British left, especially revolutionary Marxists)

    b) Start an Irish campaign

    c) Assist the re-formation of an Irish group.

    The EC must discuss these and present some proposals to the NC.

    The scene at the EC was very like a once well-known cartoon by Jules Feiffer from about the same time, in which a Black Panther is shown for panel after panel abusing a white upper-class cocktail-party audience until the last one — in which, like a flagellating sex-worker confronting a satisfied customer, he has his hand out for payment.

    The Trotskyist Tendency pamphlet, IS and Ireland, published at the end of November 1969, commented on the exchange:

    The ideas there uttered were to dominate the group’s approach for at least the following five months. The idea that we could only get at Irish workers by campaigning to educate Britain on the Irish question was implemented as meaning a pseudo-anti-imperialist campaign — that is, we could only expect to reach Irish workers by pretending to attune absolutely and unconditionally to their existing level of nationalist consciousness. No question about our duty to bring specifically socialist analysis and comment to those we can reach of the one million strong group of the working class who originated in Ireland.

    The VSC [Vietnam Solidarity Campaign] analogy was to bear fruit in the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign five months later. But at best it is a doubtful comparison. Solidarity with Vietnam, with a revolutionary movement struggling against imperialism in the most advanced way possible (and which we cannot directly influence) is in itself a semi-revolutionary step for those who take it. Solidarity with Civil Rights movement in Ireland — per se — can mean simply liberalism or Irish nationalism.

    The idea that “the resources for a revolutionary Trotskyist group in Ireland” were very small governed everything IS did through 1969. It was, as events would show, utter nonsense, defeatist nonsense. The call for a serious analysis led to an article in IS journal a few months later, by John Palmer and Chris Gray. We will see how serious it was.

    The job of “educating” both British Marxists and British workers was given to... Gery Lawless. On 4 January Socialist Worker carried a “programmatic article” called “Ulster — what the left must do”. It was signed “from Sean Reed”, a pseudonym used by Lawless). Some of the ideas in it were, word for word, carried over from the IWG — but garbled to meanings absent from the originals.

    The Northern ruling class kept its close links with British imperialism. In maintaining those links the Northern capitalists were aided by British terrorists who assisted in holding sufficient people and territory to make the Northern state viable...

    Had the Orange enclave been confined to the environs of Belfast, its popular base might have allowed the development of democracy. But that was never on the cards. The economic base is not big enough; politically; without British aid for the Northern rules, the Southern regime would undoubtedly have swallowed it.

    The necessary inclusion of a Nationalist population amounting to one-third of the total means that opposition to the regime, from whatever political quarter, tends to become opposition to the existence of the Six Counties state as such. Hence the need for the Special Powers Act.

    From this follows the importance of the struggle for democracy in Ireland. This struggle must be based on a programme which rejects Toryism, Green as well as Orange.

    The Northern worker will never be won to a programme which calls for the absorption of the Six Counties into the present Southern regime with its Rome rule in the schools which tends to confirm his ever-present fear that a break with Orange Toryism will open the floodgates and relegate him to the position of a second-class citizen.

    He will only be won for the establishment of a Republic when it is clear in his mind that what is envisaged is a Workers’ Republic in which he as a worker will control his own destiny without fear of Thames or Tiber.

    The complexity of the situation has in the past been used by many in the labour movement in Britain as an excuse for doing nothing, or else indulging in the old British habit of telling the Irish how to run their own affairs.

    This British... attitude to Ireland will come as no surprise to Irish revolutionary socialists, who have long recognised if not accepted the inability of the labour movement in Britain to show an understanding of the Irish problem.

    The result of this attitude in practice is that even the best-informed British left-wing organisations fail to take any part in the struggle against British imperialism in Ireland.

    What is to be done? First and foremost [!] British socialists must refrain from penning long high-flown theoretical articles (which all end up telling Irish socialists what to do) and instead launch a campaign of solidarity with the Irish movement. In this campaign, the best thing British socialists can do is demand:

    (1) The withdrawal of all British troops from Ireland;

    (2) An end to the supply of British military equipment to the Northern Irish Tory Party and para-military Black Hundreds, the B-Specials;

    (3) Stop British subsidies to the Tory police state of Northern Ireland.

    The November 1969 Trotskyist Tendency pamphlet said:

    This third demand is one which no-one in Ireland, North or South, ever agreed with. It implied the very opposite of the real relationship of Northern Ireland and Great Britain — that is, the fact that Britain draws more from Northern Ireland in profits than she pays out in social service subsidies. Much more. This slogan, acceptable to no workers in Northern Ireland, Catholic or Protestant, disguised the real nature of the relationship, and could legitimately be accused of miseducating British workers.

    The first two demands are anti-imperialist demands. But a strange anti-imperialism — which called for certain things and then, surprisingly, avoided the essential and logical conclusion: the call for the right of self-determination for Ireland as a unit.

    To raise the self-determination demand would have been to raise the question of the Border, because to have any meaning in the present state of Irish politics self-determination must mean self-determination for those explicitly denied it: the Catholics of Northern Ireland. It must mean to regard the existing Irish state structures as fluid.

    The absence of this demand was a strange omission from the list which Lawless (obviously with the agreement of the EC and probably with the collaboration of Palmer) was putting.

    But a section of the article made it clear that this was no accidental omission. It read:

    “The northern worker will never be won for a programme which calls for the absorption of the Six Counties into the present southern regime, with its Rome rule in the schools, which tends to confirm his ever-present fear that a break with Orange Toryism will open the floodgates and relegate him to the position of a second-class citizen.

    He will only be won for the establishment of a Republic when it is clear in his mind that what is envisaged is a Workers’ Republic in which he as a worker will control his own destiny without fear of Thames or Tiber”.

    Obviously the demand had been deliberately tailored to take the above into account: only under socialism would self-determination — that is, concretely, the abolition of the Border — become a desirable possibility.

    This might be a defensible position for a group in Northern Ireland to take. But [not for] a campaign in Britain... Marxists in imperialist countries who raise demands for self-determination do so only to defend the right of the oppressed people to take self-determination to the point of seceding if they want to, and even without socialism. The choice is theirs.

    Why, therefore, omit this from the slogans for a campaign in Britain? Because, in the actual case under discussion, it would have meant to implicitly differentiate from those in Northern Ireland who didn’t raise the national question, self-determination, and the Border, and for IS in effect to put a position independent of the PD.

    The problem for Palmer and Lawless was that their Northern Irish co-thinkers (Farrell and co.) had a position which committed them to accepting the given partition this side of socialism. They had a sectarian socialist — a pre-Leninist — position...

    At the January NC meeting there was a long discussion on Ireland, with the EC minutes (above) and “Sean Reed’s” article as the basis of the discussion. The minutes for this NC are inaccurate, in that they miss out one of the central ideas put by the Workers’ Fight members The February NC agreed that the minutes were in fact inaccurate, and the actual Workers’ Fight case is made in a letter by S Matgamna to Socialist Worker no.106.

    We argued that the three demands presented as the basis of the Irish campaign were not “nationalistic” enough for the task of educating the British workers on the Irish question, insofar as they omitted the demand for self-determination with all that it implied. At the same time they were too exclusively nationalistic for the task of educating Irish workers in Britain, the most nationally conscious of whom we would be likely to reach, in a class understanding of Ireland’s problems.

    Two additional slogans were proposed, representing in our opinion the two essential prongs of a serious campaign on the Irish question. (1) The right of the people of Ireland to self-determination; (2) For a united socialist republic of Ireland.

    A number of people objected to the self-determination slogan (interpreted in discussion as above) on the grounds that it was “pre-judging the issue”. Comrades Palmer and Cliff (the group’s “Irish experts”) were among those who took this line initially. At the time their attitude was hard to understand — later it became clear that they were subordinating their duty as socialists in Britain to the need to keep in step with their supporters in Northern Ireland. However, the proposal was carried [against the votes of the EC members] by a big majority.

    But after the NC had decided to carry the fourth slogan on self-determination, its spirit was never adhered to by those running the Irish campaign... John Palmer chose to interpret the self-determination demand like this in IS journal 36:

    “Point 4 above also has the advantage that it allows for a possible decision by the whole people of Ireland to merge the two statelets on the basis of some degree of autonomy for the Protestants...”

    Interpreted thus, it allowed the leadership to relegate the whole thing to a distant future and still treat the imperialist set-up, the Border, etc., as given, as unmitigable. Ultimately this was to be one of the factors leading to the acceptance of British troops after August.

    The Workers’ Republic slogan led to a long discussion. The idea behind it was that IS’s campaign needed to have one prong aimed at Irish workers. It could have been raised as an expression of solidarity with the left in Ireland, and this would have been IS’s specific line with the Irish workers in the campaign.

    Those who had forgotten or opposed the self-determination slogan were not in the least inhibited in this discussion in saying that to raise the Workers’ Republic slogan in Britain would be an intolerable qualification of the self-determination demand, and would be “telling the Irish people what to do”. The proposal to include it in the campaign was rejected by the chairman’s casting (second) vote. [There was nothing out of order in that — that is what the chair, Jim Higgins, had a second vote for, to break ties].

    Cliff and Palmer were also among those opposing the inclusion of the demand...

    Of the many and varied inadequacies of the TT which I can now see though I didn’t then, one glaring gap in our criticism of the position of the IS EC in January 1969 strikes me as, arguably, the worst. It will be discussed in the next instalment.

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