Civil Rights and Socialist strategy 5 – New Left Review interview 1969

Two years after the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and after the October demonstration in Derry, O’Neill’s reform package, the Burntollet march, and only a week before Terence O’Neill’s resignation, members of Peoples Democracy were interviewed by New Left Review (NLR) on 20 April 1969.  It is an invaluable record of what left wing leaders were thinking at the time.  As one participant, Cyril Toman, said “coming together for this interview is probably the first time people here have discussed problems in any depth for months.” Apparently, the interview was rather chaotic.

The interview is a contemporary record of the many problems discussed in these posts, expressing the confusion that existed among the participants.  As Bernadette Devlin says “we are totally unorganised and totally without any form of discipline within ourselves.  I’d say that there are hardly two of us who really agree . . .” While Michael Farrell stated near the end of the interview that “we cannot form any high level organisation. As we do not yet have the theoretical basis for any clearly determined policies, in fact we have not even discussed some elementary problems.”

The NLR interview asks some of these basic questions. One of the first is why socialists were raising reformist demands, and we have discussed this question in a previous post.  Eamonn McCann argued that the “transformation of Irish society necessary to implement these reforms is a revolution” and that therefore “we are definitely in a pre-revolutionary situation in the north . . . by supporting these demands in a militant manner, we are supporting class demands . . .“  How does this judgement stand the test of time?

In other posts it has been noted that class demands were viewed as separate from the demands for civil rights and that there was not enough emphasis on the former.  In this interview the participants appear to assume that socialists should attempt to lead the civil rights struggle although this, of course is not in itself an answer.

I have also expressed that, in my view, what existed at that time was not a ‘pre-revolutionary situation’, at least not as would refer to socialist revolution, and at most the grounds existed only for overthrow of the Unionist regime (not of British rule), which of course happened three years later.

While Michael Farrell argued for participation in the broad civil rights movement and the employment of civil rights demands to radicalise the Catholic working class, and to join these with agitation over ‘class’ issues that would have the potential to unite Protestant and Catholic workers; McCann states that “we have failed to get our message across.”  “The consciousness of the people is still most definitely sectarian” he says, and argued that “the reason we have failed to get our position across is that we have failed to fight any sort of political struggle within the Civil Rights movement.”

This proved to be a major difference between McCann and Farrell, who argued that “we have radicalised the Catholic working class to quite a considerable extent and to some degree got across to them the necessity of non-sectarianism and even the fact that their Protestant fellow worker is almost as much exploited as they are.  But we have failed to get across at all to the Protestant working class.”  The rebuttal by Farrell is therefore not an unqualified one.  Bernadette Devlin then argues that the real difficulty was “support from Catholic capitalists and bigots.”

The participants are asked to what extent they have leafleted Protestant areas, to which McCann argues that “all our failures spring from the lack of anything even resembling a revolutionary party.”  This remark seems not to be a statement of the much-repeated non-explanation offered by many small left wing organisations for the lack of success in what they view as revolutionary situations.  This is often a non-explanation, because such a party is the creation of the working class and if it has not been created this reflects not simply, or mainly, on socialists but in the under-developed class consciousness of the mass of workers.

In the case of Northern Ireland, the consciousness of workers was formed by sectarian division and support for nationalism and unionism.  Too often the objective determinants of class consciousness are under-estimated, ironically by Marxists, and lessons drawn from a different set of historical circumstances, often ones where there has obviously been socialist radicalisation of mass sections of the working class.  Lessons are then mechanically applied to circumstances where this is very definitely not the case.

Rather it seems to be a statement that independent intervention by socialists had not been coherent enough, that the civil rights movement would specifically not issue a leaflet and opposed issuing one.  For McCann the lack of organisation stemmed from being dissolved politically into the Civil Rights movement – “a crucial error and a grievous one.”

Cyril Toman argued that the original difference between themselves and “the bourgeois Civil Rights leaders was that we advocated action and they didn’t” but that they have now “begun to advocate action themselves.”  He then warns that such actions would propose “mindlessly militant actions across the province, and that instead of forming any socialist party (we) will have to chase all over the place trying to scrape up some meaningful debris from these actions.”

The interviewer poses the question whether socialists were performing a service for the Civil Rights Movement rather than vice versa, to which Toman replies that “yes, this is broadly true.”

Socialist activists across many struggles and campaigns have often been told that they must be the best builders of any campaign in order to win recruits to their ranks but the example of the Irish civil rights movement is that being the most militant fighter for a cause short of socialism, while good and often necessary, is not sufficient to advance the ultimate aim and does not necessarily entail the development of class consciousness in those participating in the struggle.

The struggle for civil rights did not engender a significant socialist movement and the struggle against imperialism that commenced following it didn’t either.  Asserting the primacy of ‘anti-imperialist’ demands as the first step in approaching struggles, sometimes involving support for purely nationalist demands and movements, has also not proved fruitful for socialists.

Undoubtedly the complexity of the situation facing socialists at this time created much confusion, but this was caused more by the restriction of the struggle to the North of Ireland, which hampered its development in a socialist direction.   The weakness of socialists was reflected in arguments over how sectarian the Catholic population was and how there was no movement in support from within the Protestant working class.

This led Farrell to speculate on dual power in Catholic areas versus pursuit of working class unity around reformist demands.  It might be said that at this time socialists in effect fought for the latter and then later for the former, and both failed.  This is not a question of blame but of recognition that socialists were subject to very unfavourable forces, that constrained them more than they shaped events.

McCann argued against any notion of ‘Catholic power’ which he argued existed in Catholic run councils, which although was a reasonable point, is not quite what Farrell speculated on. His alternative, in so far as he could express it in such an interview, was – giving the important example of housing – that socialists should demand nationalisation of the housing societies.

As expressed many times in this blog, nationalisation is not socialism, and in this case the nationalisation by the Unionist state, that socialists were fighting to destroy, could only mean nationalisation by the British state, whose power and rule they would later explicitly seek to remove.

The particular character of nationalisation in these circumstances makes clear the nature of such a demand: reliance on the capitalist state to do what socialism requires the workers to do themselves.

For McCann “we have failed to give a socialist perspective because we have failed to create any socialist organisation’, although he goes on to argue that “we cannot form a Bolshevik party overnight . . . we must try to set up some sort of radical socialist front between republicans and ourselves.”

As I have argued already, Irish republicanism is a form of militant nationalism and this proposal from McCann appears not to be consistent with drawing a clearer demarcation between socialists and the representatives of purely Catholic rights, which he also advocated.  Nor does it appear consistent with the emphasis on seeking support from Protestant workers.  The point here is not to damn McCann for inconsistency but to look at the arguments than recur again and again among Irish socialists.

So, in 1969 there was to develop a more or less open struggle within Irish republicanism about the way forward, between advocates of a more left-wing direction and more traditional republicans.  The traditionalists opposed dropping the customary policy of abstentionism in the Dial and continued to advocate the overwhelming primacy of armed action.

In this situation McCann could be said to be correct to seek some form of approach to unity with left members of the republican movement in order to advance socialist politics and organisation.  It is more than unfortunate that this leftward move was to take the form of Stalinism, which ironically represented an incomplete break with nationalism (see their descendants’ support for Brexit) and also ended up in a dogmatic adherence to limited reform of the North.

The problem with this approach was not that unity among the working class was to continue to be pursued, but that pursuit of this led more and more to capitulation to the unionist politics of the Protestant working class to which this unity was directed.  When practical political unity seemed only possible through ditching politics that would have made such unity worthwhile and progressive, and in the interest of the working class as a whole, the Official Republicans ditched the politics while failing to achieve any unity around even a mildly reformist programme.  If they have had some consolation, it is the poor one of seeing their Provisional rivals consummate the defeat of their alternative.

In answer to McCann, Farrell emphasised that “we have to explore the radical possibilities of the base that we do have, at this moment, among the working class, and that base is the Catholic section of the working class.” This too might seem to some degree obvious, as in having to start from where you are, but the question raised next in the interview was where that was – “you all seem to agree that the road to socialism in Ireland must pass via the Protestant working class.  Is that so?”

Toman said “I would answer that by saying bluntly, yes”.  Baxter qualifies this by saying “you cannot move in a socialist direction unless you have the support of some sections of the Protestant working class.  Otherwise they will start a sectarian struggle, and all the forces of Catholic reaction will swamp us.”

Farrell answered differently by arguing that “Northern Ireland is completely unviable economically . . . The unification of Ireland into a socialist republic is not only necessary for the creation of a viable economy, it must also be an immediate demand, because only the concept of a socialist republic can ever reconcile Protestant workers, who rightly have a very deep-seated fear of a Roman Catholic republic, to the ending of the border.”

While it is true that there has always appeared little interest for Protestant workers in supporting a capitalist united Ireland, the fact remains that for many, their reactionary sectarian politics means that they are in complete opposition to any concept of socialism as well.

Decades of elections have demonstrated this, and while the more recent defeats of the Catholic Church in the South of Ireland have undoubtedly lessened antipathy of many Protestants to the Irish State, this has revealed Unionism as perhaps the strongest standard-bearer of reactionary social ideas that generations of socialists have claimed was the real cause of Protestant workers opposition to a united Ireland.

How difficult winning Protestant support would be was made clear at the time in a document produced by Eamonn McCann that recounted the experience of taking the civil rights and socialist message to Protestant workers in the Fountain area of Derry.

McCann and Bernadette Devlin went into the Fountain and found themselves talking in front of a small audience in a kitchen, during which McCann explained that the civil rights line was one of “justice for all sections of the Community etc., and put it to them that the minority rule of Derry Corporation was indefensible.  How could they justify it?  A middle-aged woman told me immediately: “But if you Catholics were in control there would be no life for us here.  We would have to leave our homes and get out.”

McCann told them that this was ridiculous and that they had been brain-washed by the Unionist Party, but he gives them an alibi, that the movement had not made it clear what it was for, it had attacked unionism – the political philosophy accepted by most Protestants – but not any form of nationalism or any Catholic, which within the movement would be “howled down.”

As we have seen in the previous post, this was put forward as a real problem but it was not one that could be solved by any organisational change, but reflected the interests of the middle class leadership of the Derry Citizens Action Committee and the mass of Catholic workers unwillingness at that point to challenge it.  Inside or outside the DCAC it would still have to be challenged and it is at least arguable that socialists were in too much of a minority to stand outside making the argument.

Above all, this episode illustrates the central tragedy of the civil rights movement and its anti-sectarian objectives.  Faced with the argument that minority rule in Derry was unjust the Protestant woman explained that it was justified and that Catholics could not possibly be in control.  Equality was not acceptable.  This was the message that led the civil rights struggle to be submerged by sectarian division.

Concluded

Back to part 4

1 thought on “Civil Rights and Socialist strategy 5 – New Left Review interview 1969

  1. I mentioned in my last comment that Marxism in Ireland hardly existed in 1969/69. I am struck by the young age and lack of formed political experience of the activists interviewed by the NLR. Being exposed to street politics and rioting at a young age is no preparation for political understanding. There is a great deal of Master and Apprentice about gaining political understanding, this is especially so with learning Marxist political understanding.

    Here is my problem, some well formed political understanding did exist nearer to hand, in Great Britain, the British Labour Party, the British Communist Party, the British Trade Union movement, the various Trotsky inspired organisations were near to hand.

    Most telling of all, the British labour party, the agent of the British working class was actually in office 1964-1970 and again from 1974-79 and so making the key decisions.. I remember the contribution they made to changing the north of Ireland for the better and for the worse.

    You have not so far covered their essential contribution, I hope you are going to rectify this. One of my objections to Bew/Patterson/Gibbon and their ‘Marxism’ is that they turned the problems in the North into a regional or a local difficulty. The title of their book being The State in Northern Ireland. I don’t see things their way, my method is to try find the universal hidden away in the particular.

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