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Friday, 20 April 2007

Tomás Mac Giolla: I ain’t dead yet

Courtesy of WorldbyStorm over on Cedar Lounge, my attention has been drawn to the extensive interview with long-time Workers Party leader Tomás Mac Giolla in the latest Magoo magazine. And very sprightly Tomás seems too – I’m slightly surprised to hear that he’s still alive, but surprised in a good way. Like WbS, I’m rather more sympathetic to Tomás now than I would have been in the past, although probably for different reasons.

Apropos of Tomás’s comments on Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and the discussion on CLR about the Official/Provo split, it strikes me that there is something to WbS’s point about the defence of old old positions. As opposed to the de Rossas or Grizzlys who abandon old positions without putting anything in their place save the pursuit of power within the current system. That’s a charge that can’t be laid against either Mac Giolla or Ó Brádaigh. Certainly, one of Ruairí’s great selling points is that nobody is ever in any doubt about where he stands. And while I can well imagine the WP simply fading away, RSF won’t, simply because the market for traditional republicanism may be small but it’s steady and will always be there this side of unity.

Here’s an interesting point, though, about 1969/70. I’ve written a bit about that split and how it impacted on republicanism North and South, and that’s a theme I’ll be developing further. But I think it’s important to note that the split was not simply a question of Defenderist militarism versus electoral vanguardism, although that was the major dividing line in the Six. Nor was it a question of socialism versus conservatism – to be sure, on the Provo side there were some howling reactionaries, but the ideologues – and I’m thinking primarily of Dáithí Ó Conaill and the Ó Brádaigh brothers – were seriously interested in progressive politics, had no problem describing themselves as socialists (while being suspicious of too close a connection to the Communist Party) and had been key figures in the programme debates of the mid to late 1960s.

The point was that there wasn’t a problem with the adoption of socialism, as long as the basic republican orientation, denying the legitimacy of partitionist assemblies first and foremost, was not compromised. The bitterness of the 1970s, at least on the Provisional side, sprung to a great extent from the belief that the Officials had tried to convert the militant republican movement into something it wasn’t and couldn’t be. As Ruairí often says, much of the bad blood wouldn’t have existed if the Officials had simply left Sinn Féin, as so many others had done, to set up a new constitutional republican party, a sort of more socialist version of Clann na Poblachta.

But again this issue is complicated, and I don’t entirely agree with Ruairí on it. From his point of view, the abandonment of abstentionism and the basic republican beliefs that abstentionism flowed from, of and by itself meant a shift into constitutionalism. I’m not sure about that, not only because I’m not a theological abstentionist, but also because I’m not convinced that the Sticks actually set out to go constitutional, although constitutional they undoubtedly became. I’m willing to be charitable and allow that Mac Giolla, Goulding and Garland (Costello too I suppose, although he was always sui generis) were really serious about converting the republican movement into a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party, and had some success in so doing. The WP then, or at least the SFWP of the 1970s, was probably the best chance the Irish left has ever had of building a revolutionary party with real social weight. It certainly throws into sharp relief the claims of the Anglocentric far-left groupings about their historic advances.

How this potential wasn’t achieved is a fascinating story in itself, and one that other people are probably better placed to tell than me. (Not that I wouldn’t have a go…) The main pitfall I suppose was the WP’s chronic split personality, never having resolved the issue of whether it was a constitutional socialist party or a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party. That’s a contradiction the CPI has learnt to live with by clever application of the dialectic, but of course the WP had yet more complicating factors.

Still, nice to see old Tomás still motoring along, and sticking the boot into de Rossa and Rabbitte with admirable vim.

Finally, I realise that due to workload my blogging hasn’t been as frequent these last lot of weeks as it might have been. I am endeavouring to keep the thing regular, if not daily then a couple of posts a week anyway. Thanks for your patience.


WorldbyStorm said...

I guess I'd argue that yes, OSF and later the WP were deadly serious about being a serious revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party right up to 1988 - amongst certain fractions of the membership - (and they had the armed heft to do it) but that being an M-L party in an advanced democracy tends to lead to a process of attrition whereby electoral concerns and others inhibit and eventually destroy the ability to be revolutionary. Or to put it another way it's impossible to get into a revolutionary situation in an advanced democracy because the conditions for an M-L vanguard party to even pitch into a controlling position never come about, and worse at every point along the way a movement will see members splitting away from it and in the end what's left is a tiny rump.

I think that's a gloomy proscription, and I'd be glad to hear a more optimistic one.

splinteredsunrise said...

It's an interesting problem, in terms of how you sustain some revolutionary group in non-revolutionary times. Unless you're prepared to be a keeper of the fundamentalist flame until better times - RSF are like this and on the hard left you would I suppose have Socialist Democracy's adherence to pre-1947 Trotskyism. But it's hard to see how a fundamentalist group can make serious advances outside of the whole situation changing.

But yes, otherwise you end up with a group that has a chronic split personality, or a revolutionary internal discourse and a less than revolutionary practice. The old WP was like that of course. Today you have the SP, who will get a boost if Clare gets elected alongside Joe. But they have their own tensions, and if they did make a really big breakthrough I think could easily become victims of their own success.

I've been toying for a while with the idea of writing something on the old LSSP of Sri Lanka, and that might be a way of looking at things from a distance. But I don't see any easy way round the problem.

Liam Mac Uaid said...

The Stickies had a super quick evolution from Republicanism through Stalinism to right social democracy. I think the Stalinism is the key factor.
The comparison between what they achieved and the British franchises have achieved is instructive.

WorldbyStorm said...

I used to have the same analysis as you Liam as regards the primacy of the 'Stalinist' element to their thinking. However, in retrospect, that wasn't as central as one might imagine. In reality the party was riven with factions, left Republicans, left Unionists (almost!) left social democrats, Euro-Communists, 'Stalinists', even the occassional Trotskyite who found it a reasonably congenial environment (much like Ken Macleods experiences of the CPGB in the late 1980s).

To be honest I think the greatest limiting factor on the WP was their complete misunderstanding of Republicanism and their misreading of the Irish population. The former made them make glib assumptions that any aspect of nationalism was effectively proto-fascist (they didn't use that language, but that was the implicit line they took). The latter meant that there was a massive disconnect between them and a significant element of the urban working class. So they could expand and expand, but only up to a limit and as time went on the dynamic was one which necessitated more middle class anti-nationalist support. Hence the ultimate evolution into Democratic Left, and ultimate failure because why would anyone choose a very slightly stronger left brand than the Labour party.

The other functional problem of the 'Stalinist' analysis is that the Socialist Party, CWI linked etc, utilises exactly the same structures as the WP used to. Now, granted the SP in it's Militant format never had any truck with Moscow, but...the WP at least has the half-excuse that when it was incarnated as OSF/OIRA it was the 'Moscow' left which was the coming thing in the developing world. And I think it's necessary to also understand that part of their thinking re stopping the Provo's was to block Moscow from suppyling aid and support. So this was an alliance of necessity as much as principle.

And there is an argument that objectively the Soviets, for all their faults, acted inadvertantly or not as a progressive force or check on capitalism.

Now none of this is to excuse of condone the latter excesses of the WP. I remember far too many Ard Fheiseanna where the besuited men (and it was all men) from North Korea (and occassionaly - depending on specific circumstances - Beijing) were seated at the back of the RDS applauding politely.

As for the Stickies, by which I presume you mean the WP winding up in right social democracy, not at all. The WP remains wedded to fairly orthodox Marxism and would shudder at such a description. However, those who left to form DL etc did indeed pursue the path you describe.

splinteredsunrise said...

And a big element of the WP's evolution, I think, is that they tended to see most of the nationalist working class in the North as effectively proto-fascist, due to their support for the Provos, and this cut off the WP from its potential base.

And it's important too to remember the multiple personalities of the old WP. That's where my point about the SP comes in. It's very much smaller than the WP was, but still has all sorts of types in and around it. As well as quite a gap between the cadre and the electoral base.

WorldbyStorm said...

I'd completely agree. The WP did think that there was a proto-fascist aspect to Irish nationalist thinking (although curiously not British nationalist thinking, or at least not in quite the same way) as expressed by support for PIRA or PSF.

I'm intrigued by what you're saying about the SP. I know some of the front end people, but none of those 'behind the scenes' so to speak.Are there really different strands within it? It just seems so relatively small I wouldn't expect that - athough I take your point about the gap between representatives and represented.

splinteredsunrise said...

It's not so much that there are different strands of thinking within the SP (or the SWP) - neither are of a size to have the sort of multiple personality disorder the old WP suffered from. But there are still gaps and potential fault lines.

The obvious one is between the electorate and the representatives. There are loads of people who vote for Joe and Clare because they are decent and useful public representatives. These voters may only have a vague idea of what the SP is. There's a less obvious gap between the trade union militants who are in the SP because they find it a useful place to be, and the layer of middle-class youth you find who are deeply committed to the SP's esoteric ideology.

I can testify that the SWP is nowhere near as monolithic as it seems from the outside.

As far as the SP goes, I'm not stirring here - I'm not hearing any reports of dissension, and the party leadership usually manage to keep a tight lid on things anyway. But I think Scotland shows how a left group can become a victim of its own success. If the SP scored a really big electoral breakthrough, or recruited hundreds of working-class militants, they would at least have to pause for thought.

Ed Hayes said...

The 'Stalinisation' or Eastern Bloc emphasis of the Sticks was not an easy or automatic process. Neither was their gradual endorsement of an ALMOST two-nations position. The organisation had so many differing factions in the early 1970s, several of which overlapped in some instances and differed in others. Mac Giolla for instance was still, I think very much a practicing Catholic, as was his influential, in organisational terms, wife May. Mick Ryan was quite nationalistic as were many of the more rural Sticks, of which there were many. Almost all their elected reps were for small towns. Costello and Garland were allies on the AC until 1973 while Malachy McGurran was regarded by an American Trotskyist as a close friend. Goulding was much more pro-Moscow and close to Mick O'Riordan while personally more friendly with Mac Giolla than with Costello. At local level, especially in the north, the picture was if anything, more diffuse. The influence of the various feuds and of an intellectual poverty; ie needing to find experts from outside the movement and ending up with some right chancers, (guess who) all combined to produce the later Officials/WP. But they were still a serious outfit and deserve more attention from the historians than they have got.

Ed Hayes said...

Just had a look at the WP website and saw an obituary for Alice Corbett. Not a well known person outside the ranks of the movement but I would suggest someone who exemplifed a certain trend. The Corbetts were farmers from Doon, Co.Limerick who became involved in the republican movement in the 1940s. They stayed with the Officials through all the splits up until the present day WP. For those who don't know, Doon is a tiny village in the wilds of County Limerick and not the type of place you'd expect to find WP members. Yet there were others like the Corbetts scattered throughout the country, like the Hickey sisters in Co. Louth and the Donnellys in Co. Derry. There are some veterans in the WP who would not look out of place an RSF event and indeed both groups contain many who would have known each other from the 1950s and 1960s. Of course there are great differences in other ways but there remains a residue of the old Sinn Fein tradition in the WP, both in membership and a certain regression to more traditional ceremony especially after 1992. Ironically some of those like Des O'Hagan who were bitterly dismissive of 'nationalists' during the 1980s are happy to play the old traditions up now, for their own reasons. By the way, if you want a villian in the WP story, to my mind the 'devil' is your man.

AN said...

I don’t have much specific knowledge of the SP and SWP in Ireland, but I can comment on their English cousins.

The SP do seem to have a somewhat relaxed attitude to their trade union militants, a good example of which being Matt Wrack, who was still nominally a member of the SP when elected leader of the Fire Brigades Union.

You get the impression that some of their trade union positions are held by people with more of a historical than active link with the party, or as Splintered sunrise says, because it is useful to them: in which case they might leave if it ceased to be useful to them.

There is also the emerging “socialist discussion” list that on a small scale is networking together many former leading members of the militant in both Britain and Ireland, who are largely independent of either the Taafe or Woods outfits, but I think does (on the quiet) include some members of the Irish SP.

With regard to the monolithic appearance of the SWP, the thing to understand is that the SWP (certainly in Britain) operates as a sort of franchise. So comrades are given a lot of lassitude what they get up to, or what they think, as long as they don’t challenge the authority of the centre. This is particularly true if your area of work is underneath the radar of the full-timers. I would say it is a characteristic of Cliffite organisations that they only really care about enforcing (or even developing) an ideological line if it serves some organisational purpose, particularly the factional interests of the leadership. This means that those comrades implementing the current wheeze of the leadership will all appear to be thinking the same, but there will be other comrades simply abstaining from that activity, and of those active on the present line, they may not agree about other issues.

This is the “star system” whereby those comrades implementing the current line are praise and promoted, but when the line of the centre changes, rather than win over the advocates of the last line, they simply find another layer of stars implementing the new one. Of course anyone delusional enough to want to make a career in the SWP will manage to always support the current line – but there is a significant number of older “middle-cadre” who simply keep on doing what they have always done, whatever the latest get rich quick scheme.

WorldbyStorm said...

I'd agree with all you say Splintered re the SP. What's weird about them is that in some respects they're playing a bit of a WP on the whole thing as regards their approach to the North. of course this is a different age and that issue has less resonance, but I could see big problems if they go over two TDs and achieve a sort of critical mass politically. Then the socialist federation chickens will be home to roost.

And Ed, the point about the old SF tradition is very interesting. There was much of that inside the party in my experience back in the 84 period. It died a lot as the decade lengthened.

an, you make the SWP sound like a pyramid scheme. The SP in Ireland seems like a less centralised operation than it used to be, but, I think - although I may be wrong - that that's an illusion.

It's amazing how many activists from different backgrounds are now talking to each other in a more constructive fashion. I think that's to the good. ejh mentioned fraternity elsewhere. It's a good word and even better in practice.

neprimerimye said...

I'm baffled by what is meant by talking of the Workers Party as orthodox Marxists. having read a bunch of their writings a long time ago I always thought them to be quite clearly influenced by Stalinism. Which world view when stripped of the worst excesses of that current looks like nothing so much as pre-1914 Social Democracy right down to the economic determinism.

I found nothing of the revolutionary will to take power that characterised the marxism of lenin and the Bolsheviks in their writings. Their aim it seemed to me was a more developed ireland run on state capitalist lines something opposed then to the Marxist conception of social revolution as the self emancipation of the working class.

AN said...

I think with that definition of Marxism Mike you will find a lot that baffles you :o)

ejh said...

It's amazing how many activists from different backgrounds are now talking to each other in a more constructive fashion.

Are they?

John said...

ejh. Whats amazing is that beggars cannot be choosers. With hindsight the wp kept a fairly disparate membership together for a long peroiod of time and those of us on the less serious left fed off their sucess by sniding from the background and basing our relevance on whether we could adopt more politically exiting strategies on the issues of the day (particularly the north). I hold my own hands up to this. However forsight is better than hindsight. Yes, people are starting to talk again and this is good but there are not that many successful merges of parties and movements. Too much history and ownership of other peoples hard work.Nonetheless there should at least be an ability to strike a basic agenda that we can all agree on such is the paucity of decency in this country of theirs.

WorldbyStorm said...

Well, I guess I'm an optimist. But here and elsewhere there is at least a forum for some good discussion on these matters.

Neprimerimye, perhaps. But I think if you simply look at the rather grimly sub-Soviet manifestos and suchlike you're missing the actual activity on the ground which was - for all it's faults - entirely rooted in working class areas in a way which many other further left parties (of which I include the WP among) would give their eye teeth for. Partially that was because WP developed from SF and therefore had a perhaps more organic (in the Irish context) linkage into the working class. Partially because they were bloody hard workers. And also because it was a party that had little time for theory (education was minimal at branch level) in place of community activism.