Civil Rights and Socialist strategy 4 – the failure of the Left


In looking back at the civil rights movement Eamonn McCann argued that “the left had a lot of influence in the early days of the civil rights movement. We frittered it away. No question of that. We frittered it away. We have to learn lessons from that and look back.”  In doing this on the fortieth anniversary of 1968 he wrote that “in the long run, we didn’t punch our weight.”

McCann also noted the weakness of republicanism in Derry in the 1960s, which won less than 3,000 votes in a constituency with more than 25,000 Catholics in 1966, while in West Belfast IRA leader Billy McMillen came fourth out of four with just 6.3 per cent of the vote in 1964.

However, McCann also made the point that the radicals of around twenty to thirty in Derry were weak – a “relatively small, raggedy band of socialists”; “no sizeable socialist party was built from the experience, no distinctive socialist current emerged”. “What was needed . . . were clear ideas and coherent organisation, which wasn’t our strong suit.”

He complained that it was difficult to engage in political debate within the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee, with anyone raising class politics denounced as splitting the all-class unity of the Committee.  He remarked on the radicals “blithe disregard for organisation and structure, because we had underestimated the depth of the sectarian division and the hold of nationalism on the Catholic community, because we had not been engaged in building a serious socialist party.”

McCann states that there was no clarification of differences, with “little serious effort to draw a line of demarcation with nationalism.’  This was especially needed in 1969 as the anger of youth flowed “through unimpeded among nationalist channels, eventually, into the IRA.”

He noted the way barricades were thrown across the entrance to Catholic areas, which he saw as confirming sectarian division, and the absence of the organised workers’ movement from the civil rights struggle.  In relation to the latter “we were too far out in front. [We] had lost contact with the main formation of the class and the only institution in the North which organised across the sectarian divide, the union movement, in which we might have grounded ourselves, or cleared ground for a new departure.”

McCann does record that in the 1969 Stormont election Peoples Democracy “was able to address mainly-Protestant workforces, emphasising the class basis of its hostility to unionism . . . but given the spontaneous nature of the socialists’ main organisational expression – the PD – and the absence of clear-cut ideas, the militancy came across as much as a reflection of gut opposition to the Northern state as of conscious adherence to socialist politics.”

He quotes Bernadette Devlin, after she won a by-election to become a Westminster MP –“there may not be 30,000 socialists in this constituency, but it has a socialist MP.”  As he also records, “events had been rushing forward, pell-mell, helter-skelter, at a pace never previously experienced in stultified Northern Ireland, hurtling, as we thought, towards a possibly imminent resolution.  It was vital not to be left behind.  So no time to stop, analyse, synthesise.  In the blur of activity, we missed the moment.”

“This is not to say that if we had all been hardened revolutionaries with clear ideas, working patiently, efficiently to build a revolutionary socialist party, things would have worked out very differently”, acknowledging the historical weight of communal rather than class allegiance and the failure of the official labour movement.  His “realistic possibility” was one of “recruiting relatively rapidly from angry, urgent working class youth” and “entering 1969 not as a hubbub of socialist individuals but as a serious socialist organisation, capable of taking on and competing for popular support. . .” (all quotes from ‘Socialism and 1968’, in ‘Spirit of ’68’ edited Pauline McClenaghan)

If we review this argument, we can see that it isn’t altogether consistent.  It is argued that the left did not punch its weight but began the struggle as a “small, raggedy band”.  Before civil rights agitation took off the group was presented with a perspectives document that acknowledged their poor prospects, with the great mass of people seeing “religion, not class, as the basic divide in our society.”

Elsewhere he notes that although the left played a prominent role in organising marches; putting out leaflets and bulletins; running a radio station and in standing as candidates in  elections, that during their speeches “when the people were applauding [it] was not so much what we said but the way we said it.”  He notes correctly that prominent involvement in mass agitation did not mean that they had real political leadership or, as Bernadette Devlin put it – she was a socialist MP but not elected by socialist constituents.

McCann argues in his book ‘War and an Irish Town’ that mass influence is meaningless “unless one is in the process of forging a political instrument necessary to lead such agitation to victory . . .” and “we have learned that it is impossible to do that if one is not forearmed with a coherent class analysis of the situation and a clear programme based on it.”

Both of these are claims are true but his later assessment that things might not have worked out very differently had this been the case – and it can be argued that socialists at the time did argue vociferously for a socialist approach – nevertheless is also true.  These two requirements posed by McCann were not enough and their absence itself needs explanation, not simply in terms of the failures of individuals involved.

Perhaps they could have done better, as we can all have done better in our political careers, but this does not make our failure to do things as best they could be done the cause of wider failure by the movement or the class.  The point of this series of posts has been to understand what happened in order to do better now, but what happened was the outcome of forces much stronger than the left input into these events.

The left perspective document in 1968 quoted by McCann was not wrong to note the strength of sectarian division and the unionist and nationalist politics that divided workers within the North.  As I have noted a number of times, the short duration of the civil rights struggle, as well as its very uneven development, meant there was little time to challenge the historically developed political consciousness already imbued within Irish workers.

And this partially explains why republicanism, despite its obvious weakness in Belfast and Derry, was able to grow rapidly while the left did not.  Irish republicanism is not an alternative to nationalism but simply a variety of it, its most militant manifestation.  The transformation of consciousness required to move from support for the Nationalist Party to Republicanism is qualitatively different from one required to move from any sort of nationalism to socialism.  It should be recalled that, for many Catholic workers, this move to more militant nationalism was not made until republicans stopped being republican, in the traditional militant sense, and had given up armed struggle.

McCann notes that it was difficult to engage in debate within the Derry Citizens Action Committee (DCAC) because this would be denounced as political and divisive of Catholic unity.  He also argues that not enough was done to distinguish the socialist case from the nationalist one.  But there is ample evidence of socialists arguing the case for class politics through many of their interventions, and while their failure to build a significant socialist organisation was something that might otherwise have been achieved, this outcome was not primarily due to their failure to distinguish themselves as socialists.

Both McCann in Derry, Bernadette Devlin in her election campaign, and Peoples Democracy generally, were all loud in their opposition to green capitalism and their support for working class unity.  They failed because of the strength of its division, and while as Marxists this may be regrettable to have to admit, it is not at all incomprehensible. The difficulty of intervening in the DCAC that McCann noted did not make refusing to enter it an answer, but reflected the consciousness not only of the middle class leadership of the DCAC but of the Catholic workers it led, as McCann himself has noted.  The difficulty also remained outside the DCAC and most leftists joined it (although it would appear with little influence) because they feared isolation outside it.

The forces overwhelming the small and divided socialist movement, as McCann appears to recognise, were the events that “had been rushing forward, pell-mell, helter-skelter, at a pace never previously experienced in stultified Northern Ireland, hurtling, as we thought, towards a possibly imminent resolution.”

A whirlwind of events can sometimes suggest more fundamental changes occurring than actually are, and that requires analysis, which McCann notes was missing.

But this is still true today, with this lesson still unlearned, with the left now bigger but no nearer building a genuine working class party, which requires not just a much bigger mass membership but a class conscious class from which to draw its ranks and a democratic culture that can provide the analysis with which it can take leadership.

Today the left in Ireland, and not not just Ireland by any means, is still too much impressed by action and not by the consciousness that drives it, and is in turn derived from it.  Honest and sober analysis still escapes it, with support for Brexit a particularly egregious example of a mistaken political programme.  Even when criticising what he sees as the failure of the left in the late sixties to build a serious socialist organisation he repeats the idea that what was needed was to recruit “rapidly from angry, urgent working class youth”, themselves the product of the “pell-mell, helter-skelter” of events that the left sought to keep up with.

As these lines are posted mass demonstrations and riots are taking place in the US following another racist killing by the police.  References have been made to this being an American ‘revolution’ when in fact we are a very long way from the American working class posing a socialist revolution,  Presenting the missing ingredient as a revolutionary party begs all the questions about the nature of the working class and its movement from which it alone can be created.

The erection of barricades to separate Catholic areas under attack from the RUC and loyalists, symbolising for McCann the obstacles to unity between Catholic and Protestant workers, is testament to the strength of sectarian division but does not make their erection mistaken.  Hence the tragedy.

His speculation that socialists might have grounded themselves in the trade union movement, but had become separated from it, does indeed argue correctly for an orientation by socialists to the working class as it is, and not to counterpose one’s own sectarian interests, organisation and programme to the workers own movement, but McCann himself notes the passivity of the official movement and its effective abstention from the civil rights campaign.  To reverse this would have required a fight inside the trade unions, against its leadership, and this could only have succeeded in a struggle in which socialists had won the support not only of many Catholic workers (from nationalism) but also Protestant workers (from unionism).

No one can claim that this could have been achieved in a few years; it is the work of many years and involves forces greater than exist within the six counties.  In the meantime it could not have been wrong to orient to those willing to campaign for democratic rights in order that they might be directed to such an orientation.

That there is still no settled view on what socialists should have done in 1968 – 69 is not surprising since this is largely fed by what socialists think we should be doing now.

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

3 thoughts on “Civil Rights and Socialist strategy 4 – the failure of the Left

  1. What would a Marxist explanation of the Troubles be based on? When Bew and Patterson asked the question they made the State the determining factor. This had to be misdirection from the start. One reason why it could be useful to make the State into the primary factor was that if it could be shown that the State was sectarian ie Orange in complexion it could also be argued that it could become non-sectarian or at least try to be non sectarian. The most persuasive form of progressive ideology is always gradual State reform. In fact it was believed by reformers that the Unionist Government was indeed open to reform if it was pushed hard by civil rights campaigns backed up by the labour party in GB. The Irish republican opposition to the reform strategy was based on the idea that the State was absolutely closed to real reform. This of course is the not the current republican perspective.

    Those who criticised the Bew/ Patterson thesis from a ground within Marxism did so in half agreement with them. They argued that the State was indeed the primary vector of explanation though not the Unionist or so called Orange State, it was the British State that was dominant, it was said that Bew /Patterson had occluded the role of the British State, what was then tacked on to the estimation of the British State was the hand of economic Imperialism. The thesis has not really changed very much over time.

    There is a question still to be answered. If you study what Marx had to say over all phases of his intellectual life he consistently maintained that the State is subordinate to the needs of bourgeois society under modern capitalist conditions. This was his major criticism of Hegel’s theory of the State and as far as I can tell he held to it.

    The correct method of Marxist analysis under modern capitalist conditions must therefore place an anatomy of bourgeois society above the State as the vector of explanation. How would one begin to do this when dealing with the Troubles? We might argue that the State was sectarian or defended a sectarian ideology because the bourgeois society was already sectarian. The question then arises as to why bourgeois society was sectarian and why had it been sectarian for decades long. The explanation would then have to become particular or concrete about the economy of capitalism on Ireland north and south. The left republican explanation reverts to partition as the answer, so returns us back to the centrality of the State again, a type of circular reasoning.

    An alternative explanation might be found in the Marxist explanation of the capitalist demand for labour power. One thing that stands out about the economic history of the north of Ireland is the higher than normal shifts and imbalances in the capitalist demand for labour power, when I left school for example in 1979 the general unemployment rate was set at 19%, the sectarian unemployment rate was much higher for ‘Catholics’. What Marx called the reserve army of labour has acted as a much enhanced economic factor in the north of Ireland than for the rest of GB.

    Speaking about the reserve army of Labour Mandel says ‘the fluctuations of the industrial reserve army are determined both by the business cycle and by long-term term trends of capital accumulation. Rapidly increasing accumulation attracts wage labour on a massive scale, including international migration.’ The north of Ireland experienced zero immigration when the rest of GB was drawing in hundreds of thousands every year, there was no shortage of spare labour power.

    Within a couple of paragraphs of summarising what Marx had to say about the reserve army of labour Mandel raises an important controversy ; the one about the iron law of wages.He writes ‘Marx’s theory of surplus-value is therefor closely intertwined with a theory of wages which is far from Malthus’s, Ricordo’s or the early socialist’s like Ferdinand Lasselle’s iron law of wages….Such an iron law of wages is essentially a demographic one, in which birth rates and the frequency of marriages determine the fluctuation of employment and unemployment and thereby the level of wages.’

    If you know anything about the sectarian history of the north of Ireland the last sentence must strike a cord, you could make the argument that orange sectarianism (a demographic one) was not much more than a disguised common belief in the iron law of wages. You could make the argument that the belief in the iron law of wages is internal to most forms of trade union consciousness right up to today in most places, it certainly was to the fore with Brexit. The sort of trade unionism that prevailed in the north of Ireland was certainly dominated by a concern about the iron law of wages, that their was a reserved army of unemployed Catholics ever willing to work for less wages and ever ready to steal away scare Protestant jobs. We should never forget about the fear of economic scarcity to motivate people.

    It might be more Marxist from the methodological point of view to trace the historic essence of the Troubles back to Society rather than to the State and in turn trace the genesis of sectarianism to an economy with a semi permanent reserve army of labour and then work out a sectarian logic of wages and social consciousness that haphazardly followed, leading up to a State that could not reform itself even if it wanted to. We could also explain the logic of the peace process of State reform based on a big change in the labour economy, for about 15 years now migration of labour to the north has been taking place, a striking break with the past. Until the corona virus came along businesses here were heavily lobbying for easier terms of entry for migrant labour because the unemployment rate was only 2 percent.

  2. Here is a real treat for your readers. A list of fashion labels donating to black lives matter

    The corporate world is falling over itself to give money to black lives matter. Picture of the week has got to be Jamie Dimon ceo of JP Morgan Chase taking the knee with some of his staff. You know the bank that conned all of those black home owners with dodgy mortgages. You got a laugh at protest politics these days. Most of those causing bother on the streets of London are of a certain economic class. P.Morgan hardly a proletarian, boasted his own son was doing his thing on the streets. Maybe the reason the media has been so tame about saying anything critical is because they know their own kids are out on the streets too. Along way from the street protests in Belfast and Derry of yesterday when the cops fired rubber and plastic bullets. It must be fun being a street demonstrator these days, shame I am too old for all the craic. I heard today Nike are keen to donate free trainers to those involved, so maybe I will get myself along to the next one and pick up a nice pair.

  3. Another instructive and challenging post. Connecting to the BLM movement in the US and elsewhere is very appropriate, because, as with the Occupy Movement, the question socialists surely have to be posing is what are the objectives, what do we want, and how do we get it?

    Rage is understandable, but unfortunately does not get you too far, and can sometimes put you in a worse place than you started from, if its not channelled and effective.

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