When “militant” sloganeering meant promoting communal war

Submitted by Anon on 19 November, 2007 - 7:54 Author: Sean Matgamna

This series: The Northern Ireland crisis of 1968-9 and the left (Part 4)

    Next article in series: Part 5: When socialists looked to "Catholic Power" ; and Part 5 Section 2

    The last three issues of Solidarity have carried Sean Matgamna’s series about the British left and the events in Northern Ireland in 1968-9 — arguably the biggest internal crisis the British state has seen since the early 1920s. The last article (Solidarity 3/120) summed up the turning-point debate at the National Committee of IS (forerunner of the SWP) in January 1969, and the initial positions mapped out by the IS/SWP majority and by the Trotskyist Tendency within IS (forerunner of Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty).

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    "Swept by the wind and gripped by a serious danger, demagogy easily dissolves into panic" - Leon Trotsky, 1923.

    The beginning of IS’s turn to “Irish work” was characterised by the confusion and instability which we examined in the last article. It would not improve. Through all the shifts and turns that were to follow, IS continued to flounder.

    The political collapse of August 1969 was prepared for by eight months of thrashing about.

    In December 1968 and January 1969, as we have seen, IS adopted three demands on Ireland: troops out, no British military equipment to the B-Specials, end British subsidies to Northern Ireland. One of the oddest things, which no-one seems to have commented on at the time, was that there was no plank or slogan in favour of civil rights in Northern Ireland! But what were IS’s politics on Northern Ireland, and on Ireland, at the beginning of 1969?

    It wanted British “withdrawal” — withdrawal of troops, subsidies, and involvement with the Six Counties sub-state: that was the strongest thing in the programme IS put forward.

    It wanted a united Ireland? That was anybody’s guess! The resolution on Irish self-determination carried against IS’s Executive Committee at the January 1969 National Committee meant a united Ireland to the NC majority, and was so understood and argued for at the NC by its mover (the present writer).

    But, while “self-determination” appeared on lists of demands, it was interpreted and construed in their own way by those who had argued and voted against it at the NC. Self-determination for Ireland as a whole? That, you see, argued John Palmer (in International Socialism journal), allowed for the possibility of a future coming together of the two Irish states.

    Point 4... 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...

    The idea did not disappear that only under socialism, only in a socialist workers’ republic, would a united Ireland be desirable or even (given Northern Protestant opposition to it) possible.

    How did it all fit together? Britain was told to withdraw — subsidies, troops, arms. As I showed in the last article, the demand for withdrawal of subsidies was a proposal to expel Northern Ireland workers, Catholic and Protestant, from the British welfare state. Taken as a whole, as serious proposals and not just as noisy inconsequential agitation, the three demands were a call for the expulsion of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. The expulsion not only of the Catholics, who had not wanted to be in the Six Counties state in the first place — though in 1969 not many would have said they didn’t want the advantages of the British welfare state — but also of the Protestant two-thirds of the Northern Ireland population, who said they were British and emphatically did not want to be pushed out of the UK.

    But did IS want an independent Six Counties (this side of socialism)? An independent bourgeois Six Counties?

    The EC policy as expressed in the “Sean Reed” article, which simultaneously in its “demands” wanted the cutting off of all British connections, while in its text it argued that there could be no united Ireland short of socialism, meant exactly that — if it is taken that they said what they meant and meant what they said.

    Did IS advocate an independent Six Counties explicitly? No, and the EC would have denounced anyone who said that their demands meant that in substance as “a slanderer”.

    They themselves did not cogently sum up what they were saying, and chose to operate with discrete slogans and demands whose implications were never faced; but the slogans as a whole drew a definite picture. It would be characteristic of the IS EC’s political operation throughout 1969 that they raised and played with “demands” and “slogans” which implied things they did not want and may not have understood.

    Analysis and slogans

    The simple truth is that though the EC and the organisation it controlled operated in politics and used ideas as political “tools”, it did not pursue political objectives. It neither pursued the political education of the organisation and its periphery, including its sympathisers and quasi-members in Ireland, nor concerned itself with practical political objectives such as, for instance, promoting working-class unity in Northern Ireland, or at least avoiding sharpened polarisation.

    Instead of political objectives, the IS EC had appetites and desires. They wanted their own organisation to thrive and grow, and believed it could do that best by ingratiating itself with certain “constituencies” — Irish workers in Britain and the militant civil-rights youth in Northern Ireland (in the first place, the Belfast leaders of People’s Democracy). They chose their politics with that crude criterion primarily in view.

    They operated shallowly, on the surface of events — not centrally concerned to analyse the situation in Northern Ireland and understand its forces and logic.

    In the first eight months of 1969 IS’s leaders didn’t have politics of their own — an independent analysis and responsible slogans and proposals based on it. They adopted other people’s politics according to their calculations about what would serve their organisational purposes best. That is what they did in the discussions before and at the EC discussion in December 1968, and at the January 1969 National Committee.

    Irrespective of who was right at particular turning points, that was the difference between the EC and the Trotskyist Tendency. We tried to understand the overall situation and the way things were going, and the overall interests of the working class in the situation. That is what we were trying to do, and it was from that position that we interacted with and criticised the EC and commented on its political activities (some of which, at the time, I found simply incomprehensible: for example, the early opposition to making the Workers’ Republic a plank in IS’s political work among Irish workers in Britain).

    writing off the chances for a marxist group

    To the pseudo-sophisticates and half-wise people running Irish work and the EC, the Trotskyist Tendency were obstreperous doctrinaires clumsily fumbling with slogans and getting under the EC’s nimble small-p-political feet as they worked to expand IS’s influence and membership.

    Tony Cliff, throughout most of his life, was a political kleptomaniac. That is probably how the group came to be saddled with the mid-1950s Connolly Association Stalinist aberration of calling for an end to subsidies, for the expulsion of the Northern Ireland working class from the British welfare state.

    Expecting that the eruption of Northern Ireland, and the unprecedentedly sympathetic and intense media coverage in Britain of the Catholic movement, would rouse a lot of Irish workers settled in Britain, the IS EC put together, with the help of Gery Lawless, a platform designed to appeal to the almost universal Catholic nationalism of those workers. At the same time they tried to keep the door open to those in Northern Ireland who would recoil from a united Ireland involving the Catholic-priest-heavy 26 Counties — to keep in step with the layer of militants around People’s Democracy.

    At first — it would soon change — IS was wary of limiting its catchment area with the Irish in Britain by brandishing a commitment to a socialist workers’ republic at them.

    The IS EC were initially both too nationalist and not nationalist enough. They were “sectarian socialists” in making a socialist Ireland the precondition for Irish unity, but that didn’t stop them denouncing us for “telling the Irish what to do” when we advocated IS propaganda for a workers’ republic. They denounced us too, at first, for “pre-empting” the future when we rejected the existing Six/ 26 Counties division and talked of self-determination.

    One of the keynotes of the IS EC discussion in December 1968 and of IS’s subsequent Irish work was Gery Lawless’s statement that “the resources for a revolutionary Trotskyist group in Ireland were very small”. That, in 1968! It was an astonishing judgement. Perverse. An alluvial flood of student radicalism was replenishing the left everywhere. In Ireland the student radicalism was already connected, on the streets and against the police, to the explosive issue of Northern Ireland Catholics’ second-class citizenship.

    The first of what would be a succession of clashes between Catholic Derry’s working-class youth and the police, due to culminate in the fierce fighting of August 1969, had already occurred when the IS EC met to decide the group “line”.

    Perhaps most astonishing of all was that no-one on the EC disagreed with Lawless’s prostrate pessimism. No one did.

    Events would soon show how stupid this view was; and how senseless was the fear of alienating Irish workers in Britain by talking about James Connolly and the workers’ republic. In a few months the young MP for mid-Ulster, Bernadette Devlin (later McAliskey: elected in April 1969) would win wild applause at meetings of Irish workers in London — organised by IS and reported in Socialist Worker — at the mere mention of the Workers’ Republic and Connolly.

    Nonetheless, the initial pessimistic judgement shaped IS’s campaign. Here certain aspect from the background of the Irish Workers’ Group is important, and we need to look briefly at that.

    “first recruit — then the programme”

    At the Annual General Meeting of the Irish Workers’ Group in mid-September 1967, a document called “Preamble to the Constitution” and entitled “Towards an Irish October” was moved by its author, me, and seconded by Gery Lawless.

    It had caused controversy between the Trotskyists in the IWG and some of the IWG people who were in broad agreement with Tony Cliff and IS, because it defined the IWG as the nucleus of a revolutionary party in the Bolshevik and Fourth Internationalist tradition, and committed us to building such a party. One of the IS people, Tony McFarlane, who seems to have soon faded out of politics, wrote a last-minute critique of the preamble’s account of what the IWG should build, just before the AGM, and I wrote a last-quarter-minute reply which was distributed only at the AGM. More or less everybody at the AGM, where the sizeable IS segment of the IWG was badly under-represented (every member was entitled to participate) voted for the preamble. I no longer remember if the IS people voted against, abstained, or (it is not impossible), with reassurances perhaps, voted for it.

    I won’t here try to untangle the whys and wherefors, but to the great surprise of our side in the IWG, the question of the “party”, on which there had been “agreement” in September, emerged as an issue in the faction fight of October and afterwards.

    It took the odd form of an insistence in writing by Gery Lawless that since, according to the theorising of the Mandel-Pablo International, of which Lawless was a platonic supporter, a “revolutionary party” had not been required in the making of the Yugoslav, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cuban revolutions, a revolutionary party was not always necessary. (He was responding to a criticism I had made of his “operational” politics, which I thought were at odds with the decision of the AGM).

    Sometimes, Lawless wrote, a “blunted instrument” — for example, in the Chinese case, a peasant-based Stalinist party — would be enough to ensure the victory of the revolution. The “blunted instrument” formula was that of the 1963 congress of the Fourth International.

    Posing it that way was, of course, a mystified and mystifying attempt to deal with the fact that in these alleged “working-class revolutions”, in China and so on, the working class played no part. As I insisted when replying to Lawless in the Internal Bulletin, the working class immediately felt under the repression of the totalitarian Stalinist state, and found itself in something “closer to the Orwellian nightmare” than socialism. (I will deal with that argument in an appendix on the IWG).

    The only sense, in terms of our work, of Lawless insisting that a revolutionary party is not always necessary, was that that idea applied to our situation in Ireland too. A revolutionary party wasn’t necessary. Lawless had gone over to the side of those who had objected to the definitions and objectives set out in the preamble, which he had seconded at the AGM.

    At the root of that was the pessimistic assessment of the prospects for a revolutionary party in Ireland which he expressed at the December 1968 IS EC. In the IWG discussion, the most explicit and clear-cut exposition of the view on the party question that was emerging in what we called “the anti-Trotskyist coalition” was presented in writing by Mick Johnson, a Dundalk man of eclectic and vaguely Maoist (but honestly held and expounded) politics, who would soon become, and remain, a member of PD.

    He defined and defended the approach to organisation-building that at that time was Tony Cliff’s and, in substance, that of the IWG faction organised by Gery Lawless. The approach to building a revolutionary organisation advocated by Mick Johnson, theorising from Lawless’s practices and probably from what Cliff had done with IS up to that point — that was the approach of the socialist leaders of PD in Belfast and of IS’s Irish work in Britain.

    I quoted Johnson and commented in an article for the IWG Internal Bulletin.

    Johnson considers it impossible to build a Party on the Trotskyist programme “from the ground up”. “So long as we”(?) “know where we are headed, surely the principled, i.e. realistic, tactic that holds out a prospect of early success, is to draft a programme which will appeal to the people we hope to recruit.”

    Comrade Johnson: “It is time enough to talk about and insist on membership being conditional upon Marxist political principles when we have several hundred or better still several thousand members — when the time comes when we are politically effective”. How can the programme have an effective organisation built on ignorance of the programme?

    To begin with, the overt programme must be about the level of the people to be recruited. “The new members are educated and the struggle — day to day — is conducted not so much along the lines of the programme but along the lines of the ‘mental’ programme of the communists who form the nucleus — and educating the members step by step in this direction.”

    It can be arranged that the programme be revised at intervals to suit the development of the consciousness of the Group members — but not so much as to alienate the prospective recruits. “To talk about building a party (out of Fianna Failers, Republicans, Catholics) on a programme based on a set of ideas which goes directly contrary to and contradicts everything they believe in — against their prejudices, experience is unrealistic”. “It is well known that a qualitative change in effectiveness takes place in a group when a certain numerical level is reached.” “First the large group — then the programme.”

    Mick Johnson mixes up the programme, derived from a strict Marxist analysis of objective reality and working class objective interests, and propaganda and agitation, which is necessarily partial, necessarily slanted and angled, and on the level of those they are aimed at. (Though with the single prohibition: that propaganda and agitation can never violate the programme, meaning that there is a strict limit to actual concessions of substance that we can make for the sake of being intelligible to our audience. It means that we recognize that a whole range of people — Republicans, Fianna Fail-ers, Catholics [en masse] — are outside our range on their own terms).

    If we find ourselves fighting side by side with them, then in particular we must make no concessions to their ideas... We slant our material, agitation, and propaganda, towards the audience as a means of making more effective our war on their conceptions — not of accommodating to them...

    The cornerstone of the Leninist conception of the party — and of the proletarian revolution — is the fact that the class struggle takes place on the ideological front, to maintain and develop the scientific working class ,world view, as well as on the political and industrial fronts...

    Johnson’s (and Lawless’s, and Cliff’s) idea, that is, when it came down to it, manipulative politics, was the approach adopted by the IS people in Northern Ireland who led the early PD. Or, they might argue, the approach imposed on them by circumstances.

    They dissolved their “Young Socialists”, itself a loose and politically ill-defined group, into the very amorphous PD, which at first did not even have any formal membership: casual droppers-in to meetings had voting rights.

    The IS/ Lawless side of the IWG split had survived only a few months and then dissolved, but the people on that side of the faction fight were all involved in the activity in Northern Ireland and in IS’s work in Britain. They were by no means always at one. In the political nature of the “current” — or whatever one wants to name it — it would have been surprising if they were. Eamonn McCann was seriously at odds throughout 1969 with the approaches both of IS and of the PD leading group around Michael Farrell and Cyril Toman. Nevertheless, deliberately or otherwise, the attitude to the party question of their IWG faction dominated until after August 1969.

    In 1969 in Britain, the picture was complicated by the fact that Cliff and IS had in the meantime, between the IWG split and the explosion in Northern Ireland in October, become “Leninist”. One reason for the conflict in IS on Ireland before August 1969 was that Cliff and Palmer, and their client and ally Lawless, operated in Irish politics according to their politics of the time before their “return to Lenin”.

    an incoherent policy

    In their calculations of what, politically, would best serve them organisationally, Cliff and Palmer put themselves politically in the hands of Lawless. It was Lawless’s politics that dominated IS’s campaign — right down to an unmistakable advocacy, in Socialist Worker, of civil war in the lead-up to August 1969.

    Lawless didn’t control anything, as he would discover when — responding to events as the gut-Catholic-chauvinist he was — he disagreed with Cliff about the deployment of British troops in August 1969. But for the time being it suited IS to go with him.

    To return to IS’s policy as it was in January 1969 — taken as a whole, it meant advocacy of the expulsion of the Six Counties from the UK (though they didn’t call for that in so many words), and at the same time maintaining the Six Counties as an entity until a socialist Ireland might make unification desirable to the Protestant workers. It was “partitionist” this side of a socialist Ireland, and, simultaneously, “Unionist” in the Northern Ireland meaning of the term, for there would be a pro-Unionist majority in the Six Counties entity.

    In fact, of course, no independent Six Counties state was remotely possible. Even supposing it was created, against the strong wish of its majority to remain tied to Britain, it would dissolve into Catholic-Protestant civil war. IS’s “policy” was an incoherent mish-mash.

    We will now trace it in the pages of Socialist Worker and in the activities of IS through 1969.

    mcCann: a lurch to the left

    The 25 January 1969 Socialist Worker carried a report “from Eamonn McCann in Derry” under the strapline: “The civil rights movement in Ulster has reached the parting of the ways”, and the headline: “The way forward for Irish socialists — unity of all workers against Orange and Green Tories” (their emphasis).

    What exactly the headline had to do with Northern Ireland realities and with the civil rights movement was not obvious. In fact McCann was consistently on the left and working-class-oriented wavelength, and at odd with both People’s Democracy in Belfast and IS. He criticised the “withdraw subsidies” idea in New Left Review.

    “Two weeks ago”, McCann reported, at Newry, there had been an attempt to occupy public buildings and clashes with police. Youth had burned police tenders, ignoring the advance of the moderate leaders to back off when met by a police barricade.

    “Newry was a classic case of a moderate leadership vainly attempting to siphon off and channel the militancy of the rank and file in a ‘safe’ direction.. The moderates’ line is that the Government, in allowing this to happen, has successfully discredited the civil rights movement”. There was talk of purging the movement of “entrists” and “revolutionaries”.

    The left must now: “define the political differences with the moderates. A more militant-than-thou stance is meaningless unless we communicate to the rank and file what it is we are being militant about.

    “The problem is that, given the history of religious sectarianism, it is difficult to get across the point that the struggle is an issue of class, not creed. (And articles such as Paul Foot’s [Socialist Worker, 21 December] in which he examined the unemployment problem in terms of ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ towns do not help”.

    The fact is that most of the grievances of the Catholics — many of which they shared to some degree with Protestant workers — could have been expressed in terms of class. The mobilisation could have taken the form of a socialist working-class campaign. The precondition for that would have been an effective socialist movement.

    McCann was writing when the issues were, and had long been, expressed as Catholic grievances. Socialists had to explain the class question and the socialist, working-class viewpoint. But the situation had already been defined in terms of creed, and the underlying conflict of national identity expressed as creed shaped everything.

    “The left”, continued McCann, “should make demands that demonstrate the line of class division and direct a considerably greater proportion of its energy and activity towards the Protestant workers”.

    It should therefore “deliberately shatter the facade of ‘unity’ within the civil rights movement. The Catholic middle class leadership cannot support socialist demands, which pose as great a threat to themselves as to the open enemies of civil rights”.

    Their civil rights “unity” is itself sectarian. “They relegate or ignore class demands and therefore rule out the achievement of the unity socialists should be interested in at this point — unity of our class against its enemies, Green and Orange.

    “Unless the link is made we will continue like the Grand Old Duke of York: moving towards battle, realising as we approach the front line that the ‘enemy’ is largely working-class Protestants, deciding that strife between workers as a bad thing and pulling back in confusion.

    “Those leading our side cannot and will not tolerate appeals to the ‘enemy’ on the only basis that holds any hope of success — on the basis that as workers, they have to suffer unemployment, low wages, bad housing, high rents, and disenfranchisement in local government elections”.

    The truth was that posing those things first as issues of civil rights for Catholics had cut off the left Catholic activists from the Protestant workers with similar problems. In any case, this was utterly economistic.

    Its core idea is that “material interest” questions — housing, jobs — were the “real” issues. They were major issues, surely, but the “constitutional question”, the conflicting identities (British/ Irish, Protestant/ Catholic), were “real” too.

    In relation to the civil rights movement, McCann’s approach came down to attempting to redefine what was against its own nature. There was a seeking for a sort of “transitional demand” focused on the civil rights movement. It was the approach which would be developed by the Militant tendency (forerunner of the Socialist Party).

    “The instinctive militancy of real socialists will, in the nature of Northern Ireland society, achieve its greatest immediate response among the Catholic working class. We cannot wipe out the last trace of religious bitterness from working-class consciousness overnight.

    “The voices of ‘moderation’ will cry to the heavens about the danger of bloodshed and civil war. Our answer must be that it is ‘moderation’ and ‘liberalism’ which, down through the years, prevented any assault on the system that provokes the possibility of civil war”.

    Here McCann slipped from one thing to another. What he wrote was perfectly true and very important. But that did not change the consequences of what he described, or make the danger of civil war any less. Redefining Catholic civil rights agitation as a start-point for socialist propaganda and agitation did not make it any more palatable to Protestant workers. And to succeed the middle-class “moderate” leaders of the civil rights movement, other leaders “representing” the Catholics (the future Provisionals) were in the wings.

    “The ‘moderates’ and ‘liberals’ are desperately struggling to keep control of a movement that, under their leadership, has done nothing to lessen sectarianism. And it is they who wish to expel the only people and ideas that might successfully realise struggle along a non-religious basis”.

    That issue of Socialist Worker was a major lurch to the “left” — and, all in all, towards greater incoherence. In fact it was a “one-off”. McCann’s article was a sort of political high point. McCann would disappear as a writer from the pages of Socialist Worker for many months, with, as we shall see, one exceptional “appearance”. The main Socialist Worker writer on Ireland in the next few months would be “Sean Reed” (Gery Lawless).

    from civil rights to... where?

    It should be emphasised that the Trotskyist Tendency felt itself closer to Eamonn McCann that to anybody else in the Northern Ireland movement. We said so, in IS and Ireland for instance.

    But we were also conscious, from early in 1969, that things were heading towards an explosion, and we would try to relate to it and anticipate it.

    The “problem” for the Northern Ireland left with civil rights was a bit like the “Irish” joke in which a man asks for directions and is met with the response: “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here”.

    As McCann said, civil rights per se by definition tended to be a “sectarian” issue. It is clear — if only looking back — that a civil rights mobilisation of Catholics could not be other than sectionalist. That is not at all to blame the Catholics, any more than pointing to the negative consequences for unity between black and white workers of the mid-1960s “ghetto uprisings” one would blame the US blacks, or conclude that socialists should not have taken their side.

    We did side with the US “ghetto uprisings”; we were right in that, and right in siding with the Catholics in Northern Ireland. But by 1969 a “sectarian” framework was already defined by all the things implied in the demand for civil rights. The issue could not be “redefined” by “class” propaganda, or by an attempt to use “civil rights” as a code for broader things that also involved the interests of Protestant workers, as a sort of algebraic “transitional demand” which in the unfolding of a movement would open up more advanced possibilities than minimal civil rights.

    The PD militants for civil rights could not “seize” the civil rights movement from its natural leaders and redefine it. By their extra militancy they could and did only introduce elements which in the circumstances polarised Catholic-Protestant, Nationalist-Unionist antagonisms even more.

    The ultimate “militant civil rights movement” would be the Provisional IRA, addressing itself to the core civil right the Catholics lacked, national self-determination, that is, to the question of partition. The Trotskyist Tendency tried to address that issue too, as we will see when we get to mid 1969 in the narrative.

    Things could in life have been “defined” differently if, for instance, over the previous two or three decades, a comparatively strong Northern Ireland Labour Party had taken the lead with the general class approach which Eamonn McCann denounced the civil-rights “moderates” for not giving and for, in their nature, being incapable of giving. They could not be “defined” differently in the heat of the civil rights mobilisations after 1968, and especially not by small groups of socialists.

    revolution by redefinition?

    In SW on 1 February 1969, “Sean Reed” (Gery Lawless) wrote under the headline “Northern Ireland Tories Split Wide Open”.

    Brian Faulkner and Billy Morgan had resigned from the cabinet of Northern Ireland Unionist prime minister Terence O’Neill. The article was would-be fly-on-the-wall insider stuff.

    British prime minister Harold Wilson had vetoed moves against O’Neill and insisted on civil rights or “British intervention”.

    “If the civil rights campaign is not brought to heel soon”, wrote “Sean Reed”, “there is every danger that it will rapidly go beyond the limits laid down for it by the present middle-class leadership and transform itself into a movement capable of threatening the very existence of Ulster Unionism”.

    The focus on the “middle-class” nature of the civil rights leadership, and the use of “Tories” as a synonym for the Unionists, was an ideological lie that would be central to Socialist Worker’s coverage of Northern Ireland. But the argument was nonsense.

    The Catholic civil rights movement was going to threaten the existence of Unionism? It might, and the IRA would, shatter the existing Unionist structures. It could not threaten the existence of Unionism as such, rooted in the hard fact of Northern Ireland’s Protestant majority. That sort of confused “half-thought” would dominate Socialist Worker.

    “Sean Reed” continued: “The irresponsible ‘moderate’ leaders of the civil rights movement will use O’Neill’s troubles [in his own party] as yet another excuse to call a truce with the Tories...”

    He knew what must be done. “This danger must be countered by a programme to keep the civil rights movement on the streets. The class content of the civil rights demands must be made clear, and the movement must acquire its own means of publicity to end the need for relying on the Tory press, whether Green or Orange”.

    The “programme” is militancy, demonstrations! The civil rights demands have a class content? In fact the “class content” was, even for Catholics, buried in the civil rights focus and formulation of the issues.

    On 8 February “Sean Reed” wrote under the headline: “Northern Ireland: No Electoral Truce!” O’Neill had called a Northern Ireland general election (to be held on 24 February). “It is common knowledge that a majority of the rank and file members of the local Unionist constituency associations are in support of William-Craig-style fundamental Unionism”.

    The Northern Ireland General Election would indeed mark a turning point for Northern Ireland — and for the left.

    When maximising militancy is a snare

    IS’s approach through 1969, up to August, and with the exception of McCann’s article, was based on maximising, applauding, and wooing “militancy”.

    Militancy surely is one of the proper central values of socialists. It means anger and resistance to oppression, people rousing themselves out of apathy and fatalistic acceptance.

    The Communist International in 1920 established a fundamental distinction between different sets of nationalists in oppressed countries; among those subscribing to the same basic ideas and goals, it valued the revolutionary nationalists — that is, the militant, combative, active ones, who fought imperialism — and the others, the compromisers, the patient bearers of burdens, the “reformists”.

    And yet there is more to it. In certain situations, such as those of delicate population balance and the interlacing of peoples and fragments of peoples, the militants will be the most narrow-minded and the most heedlessly chauvinistic, or simply the most thoughtless and most ignorant.

    A case in point is the discussion among South Slav socialists on the attitude to take to the first Yugoslav state (between the two World Wars). It had been set up as a federation of nations dominated by Serbia, which had been with the victors in World War One, but also including Croatia, which had been part of Austro- Hungary. Should socialists work to modify the federation, towards real national equality within it, or seek to disrupt it by developing the revolutionary nationalism of, say, Croatia?

    The leadership of the Yugoslav Communists in the early 1920s wanted the first approach. The Comintern was concerned to disrupt Yugoslavia, militarily the strongest state in the region, the ally of France, and therefore a threat to the Soviet Union in the event of war.

    The Croatian nationalists which the Communist Party allied with, calling them “a national-revolutionary peasant movement”, were the Ustashe, would would organised a murderous Nazi-puppet Croatian state in World War Two.

    The fate of Yugoslavia in the 1990s shows that “reform”, if it could have been arranged, would have been better than that sort of “revolutionism”. Militancy is a central value for socialists, but not the only one; and in certain situations, some types of militancy threaten the fundamental interests of the working class. It is a matter of judgement, and of the possibilities in a given situation. In 1969 IS made fantastic misjudgements or, more to the point, had no use for overall judgements.

    Next article in series: Part 5: When socialists looked to "Catholic Power"

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