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Friday, 16 February 2007

The swami of unionism

Amidst all the excitement of the Stormont elections, one barely noticed footnote has been the appointment of Professor Paul Bew of Queens to the House of Lords. Lord Bew of Trenchcoat can thus swank about in an ermine robe and sit next to his latter-day patron, Lord Trimble of Garvaghy. He can enjoy the company of great thinkers of our time like, well, I suppose Jeffrey Archer and Conrad Black. And this is a fitting way for Bew to end his political trajectory.

These days Bew is best known as one of Ulster unionism’s small and hardy band of intellectual boosters. He was of course a long-time member of Trimble’s kitchen cabinet. Today he is a bigwig at the neoconservative Henry “Scoop” Jackson Society, a body whose patrons are a motley assortment of Cold War loons and whose journalistic farmhands include towering intellects like the oleaginous Kissingerite Oliver Kamm and the howling Croat nationalist Marko Attila Hoare. This marks him out as an honorary member of Nick Cohen’s Decent Left. But ‘twas not always thus. For most of his career, Bew was an early Althusserian Stalinist, and had some claims to be one of Ireland’s leading Marxist intellectuals.

It has to be said, though, that this was Marxism of a very peculiar kind. Bew was a member of the Workers Party, a group that managed to marry Irish Republicanism with Stalinism and replicate the least attractive features of both. Indeed, Bew adorned the WP’s ard chomhairle for many a year. His Marxism was therefore geared towards the practical needs of his sect. In doing so, it reached a level of sophistry wondrous to behold.

The best example can be found by simply turning to the seminal book The State in Northern Ireland, 1921-72: Political Forces and Social Classes (1979), by Swami Bew and his disciples Gibbon and Patterson. Don’t bother with the book as a whole – what you need to know is in the introduction. Therein Bew, Gibbon and Patterson declare that they have produced the first Marxist analysis of Norn Iron – all that has gone before is not Marxism but “Connollyism”. The three stooges dispense with this unscientific doctrine and restore Marxist orthodoxy by stripping out all that bollocks about imperialism (Leninist or otherwise). Instead, the Orange Bantustan was declared to be a normal bourgeois state, where sectarianism was a mere excrescence. In fact, there was a class struggle between “reactionary” and “progressive” wings of unionism, and the job of socialists was to support the progressive wing in its project of reform. Totally absent was any reference to the nationalist working class, except insofar as this imaginary progressive unionism had to be defended against the “Provo fascists”. Bew simply followed the logic of his ideology by becoming an advisor to David Trimble, the leader of unionism’s progressive wing.

But even before Bew made the break to unionism, this gobbledegook became part of the official theory of the Workers Party, and served to mislead the many thousands of workers influenced by that group down the years. It also influenced whole generations of politics students at Queens, where Bew acted as mentor to leading intellectuals like Austen Morgan (hagiographer of Connolly’s opponent Walker), professional red-baiter Anthony McIntyre and, er, Ian Óg Paisley. And goodness knows how many young socialists had their radicalism knocked out of them by exposure to this provincial variant of Stalinism.

So now Bew, alleged “expert on the Troubles”, scourge of any socialist who claimed imperialism had any relation to modern Ireland, has joined the appointed house of British imperialism’s legislature. In his rightward gallop, he now figures as an analogue to the late Gerry Fitt, only without the working-class background and instincts. And his former disciples must be green with envy that they haven’t been elevated alongside him. Having done just as much damage as Bew, surely they deserve a pleasant little sinecure on the red benches.


ejh said...

It's hard to believe the Workers' Party really replicated the worst features of Stalinism as they weren't really in a position to do so. Mind you Bew could always write an apologia for Trevelyan, who did to the Irish roughly what Stalin did to the Ukranians....

scribbled said...

I don't share your total hostility to the earlier Marxian writings of Bew, Patterson, Gibbon, Hazelkorn et al. You don't have to agree at all with books like the "Politics of Illusion", "The Dynamics of Irish Politics" or "The State in Northern Ireland" to get a lot out of them. By emphasising the existence of a Protestant working class, as something other than mere dupes of British imperialism they did actually add something to Marxist thought.

However, they had a myopic aversion to dealing as seriously with the role of British imperialism in Northern Ireland as they did with the role of the Protestant population. And as you point out, in their narrative the Catholic population tended to disappear. In a sense their writing was the inverse of the left nationalism so prevalent on the left, and just as one sided.

There was always a tendency in the writings of Bew and his associates to look towards a desectarianised unionism, first on a working class basis and later, as they shifted to the right, on a "liberal" or "civic" basis. It was a surprise to see Bew appearing as an adviser to David Trimble, but it was in retrospect a logical move. After the split in the Workers Party, Democratic Left in Northern Ireland just didn't have a role - a Northern appendage to a Southern party not just uninterested in but militantly hostile to Northern issues.

I wonder what has happened to Patterson, Gibbon and Hazelkorn? All are academics still I suppose, but were Patterson and Gibbon supporters of the Workers Party? Did any or all of them go with DL? And from there to where?

splinteredsunrise said...

Well, the classic Provo view was that the Protestant working class were simply dupes of imperialism. It would be more accurate to say that they aligned with imperialism on the basis that imperialism was prepared to support sectarian privilege. But the Officials were a long way from having the first or most extensive Marxist appreciation of the Prods.

Ask me some time about the Farrell-Patterson debate...

WorldbyStorm said...

I liked Bew et al once. And in fairness they made a fair go of a sort of marxist analysis of NI. But, even in the old days I thought they, and he, protested too much. I mean, sure I'm all for recognising the progressive potential of the British state, but the crucial word is 'potential'. Anyhow, more recently his time with the Cadogan Group has led to all manner of fun and frolics as the great work of melding together at least half a front for 'progressive' unionism falls apart as they find it impossible to accept that nationalists, might actually, be like you know 'Republican'. A point of view that leads to all manner of craziness where these self-described Unionist progressives wind up de facto anti the GFA because they can't work out how to deal with PSF. The logical contradictions of such a stance for individuals like our friend who made no bones about running with (if not actually being a member of) the WP are remarkable.