Too obvious for his own good

In March 2006 Kevin Higgins was profoundly unimpressed by the memoirs of Labour politician Ruairí Quinn, in Issue 24.

Ruairí Quinn, Straight Left—A Journey Into Politics (Hodder Headline Ireland)

Once upon a time, in a land of dole queues, moving statues and rotten coffee, when he was Minister for Labour and I was a duffle-coated member of Galway West Labour Youth, hating Ruairí Quinn was one of my favourite pastimes. During the miserable years of the 1982-7 Fine Gael-Labour coalition, he seemed to epitomise every­thing that was wrong with the Irish Labour Party. He was the ‘socialist’ who could (and did) quote Marx out of one side of his mouth, while out of the other justifying the use of the army to break the 1986 Dublin Corporation refuse workers’ strike. If the revolution the teenage me believed was on its way had come to pass, it would have been very bad news indeed for Ruairí Quinn. A friend of mine, also then a member of Galway West Labour Youth, once told me that he thought that, come the revolution, we should start Ruairí Quinn’s re-education by making him clean the late lamented Eyre Square public toilets without the aid of a mop, bucket or pair of rubber gloves. I remember thinking that this was perhaps a bit soft. All that said, it’s been years now since I’ve given Ruairí Quinn much thought. The therapy is working nicely. And with Pat ‘work permit’ Rabbitte opening his mouth as he has been lately, there are clearly other more immediately deserving cases crying out to be dealt with.

I opened this book determined to give Ruairí Quinn a chance, to let him state his case. I was determined that, however difficult it might be, I would listen to what he had to say. Also, it is absolutely possible to profoundly disagree with what someone is saying and at the same time admire the way they say it. To pretend otherwise is to take the first step down the sad path of literary Stalinism. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Adolf Hitler (to name just three) all sometimes had an undeniable way with words. It was one of the things that made each of them, in their different ways, so disas­trously effective. This is definitely not the case with Ruairí Quinn. As a writer, he is dull beyond belief. The entire book is written in a passionless, pedantic style. The chapter on the aforementioned 1982‑7 coalition government limps to a conclusion with the sentence: “We were out of government and a general election was not far away.” In terms of literary style, that’s about as thrilling as it gets. Gore Vidal he is definitely not.

The practical achievement Quinn gets most excited about is the creation of the FÁS Community Employment scheme in January 1993 when he was Minister for Enterprise and Employment in the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition: “Since its launch 250,000 people have participated in the scheme.” There is no doubt that CE schemes are the backbone of many important social and community services around the country; but the only people who actually get full-time (and well-paid) jobs from these schemes are the managers. There are no real trade union rights, because if scheme participants complain, they won’t be kept on for the second year. Surely those who do essential work in Community Resource Centres and Citizen’s Infor­mation Centres (to name just two) deserve better than this? As it is, CE schemes are often the place where failed trade union bureaucrats and retired party hatchetwomen go to administrate. But then, it’s hardly surprising that Ruairí Quinn would be proud of a scheme whose ultimate beneficiaries are a few hundred professional form-fillers. It’s the sort of thing every podgy social democrat’s dreams are made of.

The worst thing about this book, though, is its shaky relation­ship with the basic facts of Quinn’s own political career. In his account of the 1982-7 period, the 1986 divorce referendum is not mentioned. This omission is striking because Quinn was a member of the coalition which proposed it. And the introduction of divorce was meant to be the sort of progressive reform which justified Labour’s participation in what turned out to be an extremely un­popular government. It was a crucial part of their strategy. Presumably, it isn’t mentioned because its huge defeat (by 65 to 35 per cent) makes it an unpleasant fact, and Ruairí Quinn doesn’t like unpleasant facts. He far prefers to spend page after page waxing unlyrical about what a great thing FÁS is. Also not mentioned is the same government’s decision in August 1984 to half the subsidies on essential food items such as milk and bread. This was announced on the August bank holiday weekend, at the height of the holiday season, and the coalition hoped no-one would notice. In reality, there was uproar, and from that day they faced certain electoral doom, though they managed to cling to office for another ghastly two and a half years.     

Such obfuscation aside, even when it comes to basic retellings of events he was involved in, Quinn often gets it wrong. On page 181 he says that, when Michael O’Leary resigned as Labour leader and joined Fine Gael in late 1982, the voting in the leadership contest which followed was “two for Barry [Desmond] and thirteen for Dick [Spring]”. This isn’t true. The candidate opposing Dick Spring wasn’t Barry Desmond but Michael D Higgins, and the result was twelve for Spring and two for Michael D. On page 175 he has the 1982 Dublin West by-election (a disaster for Labour) take place on the same day as the Galway East by-election in which they did reasonably well. This isn’t true either. The said Dublin West by-election took place on 11 May 1982, while the Galway East by-election took place two months later in July. I remember this because the Sunday before the Galway East by-election, the Connaught football final took place in Tuam. I was there with my dad, and all the three main political leaders—Haughey, Fitzgerald and O’Leary —turned up to canvas the crowd afterwards. It was a beautiful day spoiled only by the sight of a small plane dragging a ‘Vote Fine Gael’ banner across the sky.

Ruairí Quinn is so in love with being able to say whatever he wants, his relationship with fact has been distorted to such an extent that he is probably incapable of telling you the time without factoring in some sort of lie. The more ‘successful’ Labour leaders, such as Dick Spring, Tony Blair and (perhaps) Pat Rabbitte, are usually part con-man, part believer in their own propaganda. Ruairí Quinn’s ultimate weakness was that, when it came to it, even he couldn’t believe a word he said. As a political charlatan, he was just a little too obvious for his own good.

Theory and class

In Issue 23 (November 2005) Colm Breathnach examined Marx’s theory of class.

The concept of class is of fundamental importance to revolutionary socialists. It is, or at least should be, central to our understanding and analysis of how social systems work, and to our efforts to transform society. Since the opening salvoes fired by Marx and Engels, the significance and meaning of class has generated a huge debate amongst socialists and their opponents. It would be impossible to do justice to the whole gamut of debate, even within the confines of the Marxist tradition, so this article will be confined to a limited discussion of the Marxist theory of class.

The best way of approaching class is by looking at it in a dialectical manner, starting with the abstract class structure viewed in a relational manner, then looking at how this is experienced in the lives of real people, returning to modify the abstract model if necessary. At the risk of oversimplifying, Marxists start with the premise that class is a social relation that arises out of the appropriation of surplus labour from the exploited by the exploiter, who sells the product of this labour to make a profit. It is important to state at the outset that Marx did not see class as an isolated statistical category. Classes only make sense in two relational contexts: the initially determining preconditions in social relations arising out of the mode of production and the subsequent relations between classes, or as H J Sherman put it in his book Reinventing Marxism, “A class is not defined by more or less of some set of characteristics, but by its relation to another class in the mode of production”. It may be useful to identify abstract classes (bundles of occupations) as an analytical tool that can lead to the identification of real classes, but Marx (though not all his successors) clearly saw class as a relational, qualitative and historical concept which cannot be reduced to the quantitative, ahistorical or gradational.

Though class is central to all of Marx’s work, he never dealt with it in a systematic manner, probably because his whole work was infused with class, in the sense that he was describing the workings of a system that is based on the exploitation of one class by another. In the absence of a major theoretical statement, we must glean his under­standing of class from his various works. If we start with the famous phrase from the Communist Manifesto that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”, we note immediately that class is understood as a social and historical dynamic, not a static category. The subsequent description of the rise of the two major classes in nineteenth century European capitalist societies continues in this vein of class having true existence only in the interaction of real humans. Even within the confines of what was, after all, an agitational pamphlet, not a book of high theory, the key point here is that an attempt was being made “to express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes”. The identification of the great struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is the beginning of a Marxist analysis, not its end. Marx never claimed to be a prophet; he tried to outline how society works, not what the exact outcome of these workings would be. Those who claim to derive inspiration from Marx should be able to ask the right questions, not automatically provide the correct answers!

Classes may sometimes appear as living organisms with collective wills in Marx, but he was keenly aware of the fact that class is about relations between human beings. In a passage in The German Ideology, he locates the individual in the material reality of historical development: “The social structure and the State are continually evolving out of the life process of definite individuals, but of individuals, not as they may appear in their own or others people’s imagination, but as they really are, i.e. as they operate, produce materially, and hence as they work under material limits, presuppositions, and conditions independent of their will”. Social structures are seen, not as huge anonymous scaffolding, but as arising out of the action of individuals, constrained or enabled by material conditions, specifically their role in production. The emphasis, it should be noted, is on actions of individuals, not static, abstract constructions: “As soon as this active life-process is described, history ceases to be a collection of dead facts as with the empiricists (themselves still abstract), or an imagined activity of imagined subjects, as with the idealists”.

Some critics accuse Marx of reducing class in capitalist society to a simple deterministic binary structure, ignoring the nuanced, complex analysis to be found in his journalistic and historical writings such as The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. In a famous passage he states: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past”, firmly countering theories of history based on the supremacy of individual will, but equally refusing to see people as powerless puppets of the laws of economics.

In a description of the French peasantry Marx gives as concise a definition of class as a real historical phenomenon as can be found anywhere in his works: “In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter they form a class”, but this is then built on with the notion that a class does not exist in any real sense unless embodied in the collective thought and actions of the individuals who constitute that class: “In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these smallholding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond, and no political organisation among them, they do not form a class”.A ‘class-in-itself’ becomes a ‘class-for-itself’, not solely by uniting behind a common organisation, but also by recognising a common identity that transcends spatial and social boundaries. Class is seen as the outcome of the commonality of material circumstances of individuals. So when it comes to analysing the specific historical events covered by The Eighteenth Brumaire (the seizure of power by Louis Napoleon, later Emperor Napoleon III, in 1851), we are not treated to a simplistic two-class reading of these events; in fact we find reference to multiple classes/class fragments, and also a sophisticated analysis of the relationship between political developments and social base.

Even when discussing the classic industrial capitalist society of England, Marx noted the complexity of class structure, acknowledging that “even here the stratification of classes does not appear in its pure form. Middle and intermediate strata even here obliterate lines of demarcation everywhere”, though he denies that this has any implications for the general model of wage-labour versus capital. Elsewhere, Marx explicitly states that he has disregarded “the real constitution of society, which by no means consists only of the class of workers and the class of industrial capitalists” when constructing a preliminary analysis of economic crises, and his description of British political parties portrays a much more complex view than critics credit him with of the class system and political superstructure, as does his criticism of Ricardo for overlooking the growth of the middle class (in a modern sense of the word). In effect Marx presents us with a theoretical model of how a capitalist society operates that works out in practice in a very complex way. This neither invalidates the overall applicability of the model, nor does the centrality of capital versus labour imply a reduction of the class structure of a given society to that central nexus alone.

A useful take on class is provided by the Marxist historian E P Thompson, whose groundbreaking work The Making of the English Working Class proved to be a classic in the genre of historical descriptions of class formation. He defined class, like Marx, as an active historical phenomenon, a relationship not a category. He set class firmly in its historical setting:

If we stop history at a given point, then there are no classes but simply a multitude of individuals with a multitude of experiences. But if we watch these men over an adequate period of social change, we observe patterns in their relationships, their ideas, and their institutions. Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition.

He did not, however dismiss the usefulness of class as an “analytical category to organise historical evidence”, though he sometimes downplayed it in response to the deterministic excesses of more orthodox Marxists, and later those of the arch-structuralist Althusser and his followers (many of whom, ironically, went on as ‘post-modernists’ to reject the notion of class altogether). The key point here is that while it is useful and necessary to study class in an abstract, statistical way, you can’t stop there. The next step is to see how this works out in real life. This is not a matter of divorcing class fromproductive relations, or reducing class to the status of caste: a group defined by cultural characteristics not economic functions. What Thompson does is to stress the social dynamic, and reject static, over-theorised, understandings of class. His typically colourful ‘time machine’ metaphor aptly illustrates this critique:

Sociologists who have stopped the time-machine and, with a good deal of huffing and puffing, have gone down to the engine-room to look, tell us that nowhere at all have they been able to locate and classify a class.… Of course they are right, since class is not this or that part of the machine, but the way the machine works once it is set in motion—not this and that interest, but the friction of interests—the movement itself, the heat, the thundering noise.

On the other hand, in practice, if not clearly in theory, Thompson does not disallow the notion of pausing occasionally to describe class as a structure, so we are presented with a dialectic based on the interaction of class as structure and class as experience.

Building on these foundations, Thompson put great emphasis on the active real experiences of working people. There can be no class, or at least no class that has an empirical existence, without class struggle understood in the broader sense. Class, in the real historical sense, arises out of class struggle, or more precisely class experience, not vice versa. The process unfolds as “people find themselves in a society structured in determined ways… they experience exploitation… they identify points of antagonistic interest, they commence to struggle around these issues and in the process of struggling they discover themselves as classes”, so that the end result is a class consciousness arising out of, to use Thompson’s own term, both individual and collective class experience. The nature of class consciousness and how people arrive at full consciousness of their class position is a huge area of controversy that has fomented debate and polemic amongst Marxists, including famously Lenin and Luxemburg, to this day. The purpose of this article is not to tackle the question of class consciousness, so suffice to say that there is a huge space between structure and consciousness that we would do well to study before we start prescribing how consciousness should be ‘brought’ to the working class.

The manner in which the various components of the left deal with class today is quite problematic. First of all, many on the left engage in what could be called ‘slippery’ applications of the term ‘working class’. Sometimes the term is used in the current popular sense of the word, meaning manual workers living in ‘working class’ areas. This can quickly degenerate to a ‘Joe Duffy’ definition: if you have a strong Dublin (Cork, Belfast etc.) accent and you were brought up in a council house, then you are working class; if you weren’t, you’re not! This is essentially a culturalist reading of class, which has its place in understanding how class works out in cultural terms, but is certainly contrary to a Marxist analysis that firmly grounds class in the social relations that arise out of the mode of production.

The irony is that many who use the term in this sense when it comes to propaganda and practical activity abandon it in theoretical discussions, in favour of a much broader meaning that includes all those who live primarily by their labour, all those who are wage workers. Effectively this includes what’s commonly now called the middle class (white collar workers and wage earning ‘professionals’) as part of an undifferentiated working class. The latter definition can end up in an oversimplification which lumps almost everyone into one undifferentiated über-proletariat, while the former presents us with an excessively narrow, almost nineteenth century, definition of working class.

The main problem here seems to be where to locate those who regard themselves as middle class but work for a wage: teachers, civil servants, those working in new technology etc. This is not a new problem: Gramsci commented on the fact that the meaning of the term ‘middle class’ varies from country to country, and illustrated this by pointing out that in Italy the term simultaneously meant those who were not workers or peasants and a more positive definition of those who belonged to certain strata such as intellectuals, professionals and public employees, who were neither part of the ruling class nor what he called the subaltern classes. This problem is compounded nowadays by the fact that sections of this ‘middle class’ are now contract workers, own shares or have a great deal of power over other workers, complicating their relationship to the capitalist class. The American Marxist sociologist Eric Olin Wright has tried to explain the position of some these elements of the ‘new middle class’ by claiming that they receive some of the appropriated surplus from the capitalist class as a ‘loyalty rent’, in the case of managers for maintaining discipline in the workplace, or in the case of highly skilled workers because the skills they possess are rare (he argues this second case less convincingly in my opinion, drifting towards Weber’s idea of class as market position).

Another problem is the attempt by some Marxists to squash everyone in under the headings of capitalist and proletarian. In response to such attempts, Ben Fine, the author of Marx’s Capital, wrote: “Marx’s political economy does not reduce the class structure to that of capital and labour. On the contrary, other classes are located in relation to capital and labour whether as an essential or contingent part of the capitalist mode of production”. The key here is to do just that: to assess where people are located in relation to this central aspect of the capitalist derived class structure, not to fit everyone into one or other of these classes. This inevitably leads us to a more complex reading of the class structure, where there are different strata and fragments within larger classes, and individuals and groups who have unclear or contradictory relations to the central dynamic.

Of course, one way out of this messy discussion is to simply abandon class as a useful concept altogether, or to relegate it the status of just another ‘identity’. This goes down well in the halls of academia, though it so patently fails to conform to reality that we end up with the deeply ironic situation that some rightist commentators see the nature and importance of class more clearly than the liberal lefts obsessed with ‘identity politics’. This rejection of the centrality of class by many academic leftists should itself be seen in the socio-political context: in some ways it is born out of the series of defeats of the working class in the 1980s and the fallout of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. These led to profound pessimism amongst a section of the intellectual class which had previously thrown their lot in with the workers. Some, wishing to maintain an aura of radicalism, embraced ‘post-modernism’, privileging any social struggle that does not contain an overt class content, and reducing all human activity to a question of language or, to use the fashionable term, ‘discourse’. Others advocate a form of theoretical Blairism, which portrays the practitioners of class politics as dinosaurs, and go over to the camp of capital in the name of modernisation. They have become the theorists of degenerated social democracy.

While the study of class and class structure may seem to be an academic game to some, we cannot seriously claim to advocate ‘class politics’ without some understanding of what the concept means. So we return to the assertion that such an understanding equips us with the ability to ask the right questions and grapple with a host of questions related to class. How do we unite the disparate elements of the modern working class? What is the relationship between the class structure and imperialism? What is the role of intellectuals and political organisations in the class struggle? What do we mean by class consciousness and how does this relate to class struggle? How does class relate to other structures such as gender, race, sexuality and ethnicity? For serious activists, coming to grips with class at a theoretical level is only a first step in applying theory in a fruitful way to our political practice.

Sitting on the hot stove: Reflections on Malcolm X

In Issue 22 (July 2005) Maeve Connaughton marked the anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination with this assessment.

It’s forty years now since Malcolm X was assassinated, which itself took place forty years after his birth. Much of his appeal across those decades has to do with the general rather than the particular, the way principles and attitudes he put forward apply to any liberation struggle. Getting back some of what’s rightfully ours is nothing to be thankful for, he said, only a payment on account: “When someone sticks a knife into my back nine inches and then pulls it out six inches they haven’t done me any favour. They should not have stabbed me in the first place.” Those who wore the chains were the people to break them:

There’s only one way to be independent. There’s only one way to be free. It’s not something that someone gives to you. It’s something that you take. Nobody can give you independence. Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything.

You could fill pages with quotable quotes from Malcolm, his down-to-earth way of speaking and genuine charisma driving the revolu­tionary message home. But at the heart of it was the insistence that you should never follow leaders or toe lines: “see for yourself and listen for yourself and think for yourself”.

But Malcolm X is rightly celebrated above all as a fighter against racism “by any means necessary”. The struggles of the 1960s against racism in the US produced much heroism and many heroes, but Malcolm stands out for the way he always refused to set any limit to the struggle. African-Americans didn’t want civil rights but human rights, he insisted: not a seat at America’s table but absolute emancipation from the centuries-old legacy of oppression that America had visited upon them. In later life, he moved away from his earlier dismissal of fights for smaller goals, but he never had much patience for those who went no further than such fights.

‘Any means necessary’ sounds extremist, but is only common sense. It’s pointless looking for something without being prepared for what’s needed to achieve it. For many civil rights activists non-violence was a principle, but unless the racists were prepared to sign up to the same limitation on themselves, it left anti-racists at a permanent disadvantage. Fighting fire with fire doesn’t make you as bad as them:

If we react to white racism with a violent reaction, to me that’s not black racism. If you come to put a noose around my neck and I hang you for it, to me that’s not racism. Yours is racism, but my reaction has nothing to do with racism. My reaction is the reaction of a human being, reacting to defend himself and protect himself.

Malcolm saw the fight of black Americans as part of “a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter”. He regularly condemned the capitalist system —“You show me a capitalist, I’ll show you a bloodsucker”—and saw racism as inherent in it: “You can’t have capitalism without racism.” But it would be an exaggeration to describe him as a socialist. Only in his last months did he stop advocating the development of local black capital as a solution, and even then never embraced socialism. His favourable comments about it refer to the nationalisations carried out by newly independent African governments, not to the liberation of the working class.

He openly rejected the idea of working-class unity as a force to oppose racism:

There can be no black-white unity until there is first some black unity. There can be no workers’ solidarity until there is first some racial solidarity. We cannot think of uniting with others, until after we have first united among ourselves.

This seems to throw overboard the conventional left-wing idea that the struggle for socialism will put an end to racist prejudice, to place socialism in one box and black liberation in another. To draw such a political conclusion would be wrong, but to ignore the real problems raised by this issue would be worse.

One of Malcolm’s rarely quoted statements holds the key here. A questioner at a left-wing meeting asked him if ordinary white people weren’t suffering as much as black people from what the govern­ment was doing. “I just can’t quite go along with that”, he replied. “You see, it’s the black man who sits on the hot stove. You might stand near it but you don’t sit on it.” There is a basic and undeniable difference between those who are in the racist firing line and those who aren’t. One group faces racism week in and week out with no choice in the matter: the other has the option of whether or not to confront racism.

The problems and interests of those who do face racism have to be in the driving seat. Opposition to racism has to start by asking what is to be done about those problems, and work from there. Too much anti-racism starts by asking what will be acceptable to ‘the general public’: in other words, to those who don’t face racism. This inevitably tones down the demands, and accommodates to prejudice instead of taking it on.

What role does this leave for white, settled anti-racists? None, was Malcolm X’s original answer, but his position developed some­what. He put forward John Brown, hanged in 1859 for organising rebellions against slavery, as the model of a white anti-racist. White people had to prove their anti-racism in practice, he said, and should be combatting racism among the white community rather than telling black people how to conduct their struggles. “The black man has to be shown how to free himself, and the white one who is sincerely interested has to back whatever that black group decides upon to do.”

So should people who don’t suffer racism be excluded from campaigns against it? That is up to those who do suffer racism. If they decide that only those directly affected should be included, then other sincere anti-racists should accept that fact and work in an auxiliary role. The situation in Ireland at the moment is the opposite, though: refugees have looked for all the help they can get from white Irish people. Some have used a pseudo-liberal argument about not wanting to encroach as justification for standing aside, but there can be no excuse for a socialist shirking the duty of full solidarity with the oppressed.

The point is that anti-racists who only stand near the hot stove have to put themselves in the position of those who sit on it. This does not mean listening to bad multicultural poetry, walking a mile in the other man’s shoes, foreswearing your bacon and cabbage in favour of ethnic cuisine. It does mean sustained, unconditional support for people up against racism, working for what they need rather than what you feel like.

This can’t be done if you’re not prepared to swim against the tide of public opinion. John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 unleashed an all but unanimous wave of public sympathy across America and the world. Malcolm refused to join in and shed crocodile tears for the man who presided over US racism, saying that the chickens had come home to roost. His reward was vilification from friend and foe alike.

Opposing racism means offending and outraging the everyday, ‘common-sense’ view of things. Opinion polls, last year’s racist referendum, and the evidence of your own ears confirm a clear and strong majority of Irish society that want racist restrictions placed upon immigrants and their children, to one extent or another. Anti-racism has to defy that majority, force them to see the error of their ways, and stand unashamedly with those they want to discriminate against.

The other attitude is far easier and more common, of course. In practice, most of today’s left disagrees with Malcolm X and agrees with the questioner who saw no difference in the treatment of black and white by the powers that be. They prefer not to mention the war. Involving white people in campaigns on other issues will eventually erode their racism, if they are to be believed. But then how can immigrants join these campaigns, if those who want them kicked out of the country are explicitly welcomed in? ‘Understanding people’s fears’ is more often than not code for legitimating suspicion and hostility. Of course racist attitudes should be understood, but in the same way a doctor seeks to understand a malignant growth: so that it can be cut out before it spreads.

When the mantra is trotted out that ‘Of course, no one is in favour of an open door policy’, we need the guts to come out and say that is exactly what we are in favour of. The open door already exists for—predominantly white—EU citizens, and opening it wider would not bring on the collapse of civilisation as we know it (not that civilisation as we know it is all that much to write home about). People don’t up and leave their home country lightly, and any demographic effect on Ireland would dwarf recent increases due to the end of emigration, leaving us with a well underpopulated country still. There is no logical reason for supporting immigration controls, only prejudice or pandering to prejudice. And the idea of socialists preventing human beings from living in the country of their choice is grotesque.

Refugees fighting to be accepted into Irish society in the first place are in something of a different position to Malcolm X rejecting American society and all its works. Irish travellers seem closer to it, a community in Ireland for centuries but systematically excluded from Irish society and the most basic of rights. Last year, local authorities in Dublin took a small leaf out of the Israeli government’s book, building a security wall to keep travellers out of Finglas village—until direct action by travellers themselves forced them to change their minds.

Prejudice against travellers, from passive hostility to outright racism, is deeply rooted in the settled community, and many succumb to the temptation of giving way to it. The left should make sure it has nothing whatsoever to do with any objection by settled people to accommodation, education or employment for travellers. Those who try to excuse discrimination by citing incidents of anti-social behaviour in the travelling community should not get even the hint of an echo from us. Full support for the demands of travellers needs to figure on the socialist agenda.

So does committed involvement in individual anti-racist cam­paigns. Opposing the government’s vicious deportation policy can’t be done without opposing individual deportations. This is not charity but solidarity—the kind of solidarity, for instance, that saw Marx spend time, energy and money supporting individual political refugees from Europe after the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune. Saying that you oppose deportation in general without doing the nitty-gritty work of opposing deportations in particular is like saying you’ll cut down the wood but not the trees.

A socialist attitude to racism isn’t afraid to say that the power of the working class can pull racism up by the root, and that the exercising of that power can clean out the dross of racist attitudes. But the socialist position is all too often presented in a way that downplays and sidelines the specific fight against racism, rather than reinforcing it. Socialists have to understand that the road to uniting the working class can’t be travelled without sustained serious opposition to racism.

Socialist Classics: Victor Serge, ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionary’

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh considered a unique witness of the rise and fall of the Russian revolution in Issue 21 (March 2005).

When Victor Serge began to write his autobiography in 1942 he had three and a half decades of revolutionary activity to look back on. He had fought in several countries and clocked up about ten years of imprisonment. He had just managed to escape from France as the Nazis took over, repeating a pattern that saw him win release from Stalin’s prisons in 1936 and from a French internment camp in 1919. As an accomplished writer, novelist as well as polemicist, his memoirs are full of penetrating pictures of the circumstances and personalities of the stormy years he lived through.

What stands out above all, though, is the fate of the Russian revolution, a fate Serge was uniquely well placed to witness. He was one of many anarchists who in 1917 found themselves in basic agreement with what the Bolsheviks were advocating, and putting into practice, in Russia: the workers should not just kick out the Tsar, but go on to take power for themselves. Serge joined them in Russia in 1919. He was now a Bolshevik, but a critical one (Memoirs of a Revolutionary, London 1963, p 76):

I was neither against the Bolsheviks nor neutral; I was with them, albeit independently, without renouncing thought or critical sense. Certainly on several essential points they were mistaken: in their intolerance, in their faith in statification, in their leaning towards centralism and administrative techniques. But, given that one had to counter them with freedom of the spirit and the spirit of freedom, it must be with them and among them.

Unlike other supporters of the revolution, he did not believe “that approval of it entailed the abdication of the right to think” (p 138).

What disturbed Serge most was the Bolsheviks’ sanctioning of wholesale terror, which ranged further and further from outright enemies of the revolution until it took on a bloody life of its own. The most horrifying incident he relates comes in January 1920 when the Bolshevik government abolished the death penalty: even as the decree was being printed, the Cheka secret police executed hundreds of prisoners while they still had the chance. Serge realised that any revolution needs to defend itself with violence against its opponents, but this type of violence endangered the revolution rather than protecting what it stood for (p 80‑1):

I believe that the formation of the Cheka was one of the gravest and most impermissible errors that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918, when plots, blockades, and interventions made them lose their heads. All evidence indicates that revolutionary tribunals, functioning in the light of day (without excluding secret sessions in particular cases) and admitting the right of defence, would have attained the same efficiency with far less abuse and depravity. Was it so necessary to revert to the procedures of the Inquisition?

While the constant military attack and economic collapse could explain the curtailment of individual rights, reinforcing this curtail­ment after the danger of war had passed was “an immense and demoralizing blunder” (p 153).

Part of the blame for such blunders lay in the way Bolsheviks sought to justify the repression in itself, rather than something that had to be done in the circumstances. When Serge and his fellow ex-prisoners reached Russia in 1919, they saw a copy of a soviet newspaper (p 69):

From it came our first shock. We had never thought that the idea of revolution could be separated from that of freedom.… In Petrograd we expected to breathe the air of a liberty that would doubtless be harsh and even cruel to its enemies, but was still generous and bracing. And in this paper we found a colourless article, signed ‘G. Zinoviev’, on ‘The Monopoly of Power’. ‘Our Party rules alone… it will not allow anyone… The false democratic liberties demanded by the counter-revolution.’ I am quoting from memory, but such was certainly the sense of the piece. We tried to justify it by the state of siege and the mortal perils; however, such considerations could justify particular acts, acts of violence towards men and ideas, but not a theory based on the extinction of all freedom.

Some were putting such a theory forward even before the revolution and the difficulties it faced had materialised: a Bolshevik interned with Serge had already “advocated a merciless dictatorship, supp­ression of Press freedom, authoritarian revolution” (p 63).

Anyone reading this book cannot but realise how tough a situation the revolution faced. With the troops of a dozen empires invading, hunger and disease devastated Russia and left people literally scavenging to get by. (As Serge points out, Bolshevik leaders shared the misery, living on the same rations as the average worker—something that one or two socialist chiefs in our own time find to be beneath their dignity.) A perfect model of workers’ democracy is hardly to be expected from workers who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. Clearly, the only solution was “that relief and salvation must come from the West… a Western working-class movement capable of supporting the Russians and, one day, superseding them” (p 155).

But throwing all the blame on to ‘objective conditions’ is a lame excuse. Even in the most dire straits, people have some freedom of movement, and too often—though not always—Bolshevik leaders chose an authoritarian solution. While this may have appeared more convenient from an administrative point of view, it steadily chipped away at the socialist ideals of 1917. Most leading Bolsheviks were of a mind that predisposed them to take this path:

The Party is the repository of truth, and any form of thinking which differs from it is a dangerous or reactionary error. Here lies the spiritual source of its intolerance. The absolute convict­ion of its lofty mission assures it of a moral energy quite astonishing in its intensity—and, at the same time, a clerical mentality which is quick to become Inquisitorial.

This dogmatic intolerance favoured bullying and browbeating over argument and persuasion: “a sort of natural selection of authoritarian temperaments is the result” (p 134). A similar atmosphere of heresy-hunting prevailed even amongst those who opposed the strangling of the revolution, as Serge’s difficulties with Trotsky showed: “Trotskyism was displaying symptoms of an outlook in harmony with that of the very Stalinism against which it had taken its stand” (p 349).

In 1933, anticipating the arrest that would send him to a Stalinist prison for three years, Serge restated some fundamental principles of his socialism (p 282‑3):

Man must be given his rights, his security, his value. Without these, there is no Socialism.… I hold that Socialism cannot develop in the intellectual sense except by the rivalry, scrutiny and struggle of ideas; that we should fear not error, which is mended in time by life itself, but rather stagnation and reaction; that respect for man implies his right to know everything and his freedom to think. It is not against freedom of thought and against man that Socialism can triumph, but on the contrary, through freedom of thought and by improving man’s condition.

It is a point of view that will still get you in trouble with most of today’s left. What sets Serge apart is that all his criticisms of Bolshevism come from within the revolutionary camp. He is never so lazy as to resort to a concept of ‘Bolshevik original sin’ which reduces the whole revolution to a mistake, destined to failure through violating a preordained scheme of things. He was a libertarian within the revolution, not against it: he was the one defending the concept of workers democratically running society. This kind of criticism always seems to get up the noses of socialists far more than the attacks of the ruling class do. The proper response to socialist criticisms should be to take them on board seriously, see whether any truth can be learnt from them, and amend your viewpoint accordingly. Even if the criticism is false, the scrutiny of our own ideas will strengthen our understanding of them.

But don’t go holding your breath, now. Going to a left-wing meeting and raising a criticism of the prevailing line is just asking for it. Far from a sympathetic hearing, you will probably be treated something like a fly to be swatted away, or preferably smashed into the wall with a rolled-up copy of the party paper. (If they wipe the remains off it carefully, they can still sell it at the door….) Funnily enough, when those on the receiving end get fed up with this kind of thing, they sometimes reproduce the same method themselves, as if to prove how orthodox they still are, without addressing the basic fault.

Such intolerance was clearly a factor in the degeneration of the Russian revolution. If we swallow the notion that the objective historical difficulties are responsible for it all, we are in big trouble, because there never was nor never will be a revolution with no such difficulties to contend with. If similar difficulties justify similar treatment of dissenters, then some of us should start acquiring a taste for prison food. Either that, or fight for a socialist movement that welcomes diversity instead of stifling it.

Of course it is right that socialists should hold their opinions strongly and argue for them keenly, but that doesn’t mean contemptuously dismissing other opinions. Rather than jabbing the finger to pulverise an opponent, we should start from a sincere recognition of other people’s honesty and respect the different view they advocate. We should maybe, as Bertolt Brecht once said, draw up a list of things that we have no answers for. In no field of human thought has the final truth been attained, and unless we are open to the possibility of friends correcting our mistakes, we face the prospect of enemies tearing our ideas to pieces.

Left-wing authoritarianism is an enemy within, and the tragedy Victor Serge survived should serve as a weapon against it (p 374‑5):

I immediately discerned within the Russian Revolution the seeds of such serious evils as intolerance and the drive towards the persecution of dissent. These evils originated in an absolute sense of possession of the truth, grafted upon doctrinal rigidity. What followed was contempt for the man who was different, of his arguments and way of life. Undoubtedly, one of the greatest problems which each of us has to solve in the realm of practice is that of accepting the necessity to maintain, in the midst of the intransigence which comes from steadfast beliefs, a critical spirit towards these same beliefs and a respect for the belief that differs.

‘The Plough and the Stars’: Sixteen characters in search of analysis

Joe Conroy interrogated Seán O’Casey’s classic play in Issue 19, in July 2004.

History, as both Karl Marx and Abba have observed, has a habit of repeating itself, but we have been reminded recently that it rarely repeats itself exactly. In 1926 Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars opened in the Abbey Theatre to critical acclaim and box-office success; recently it was revived in the Abbey to similar acclaim and success. In 1926 a fierce debate raged over the play’s political content; of late, however, such debate is conspicuous mainly by its absence. It seems to be the fate of plays which have attained classic status that, as time goes on and more attention is focussed on the technique of their production, what exactly is being produced gets forgotten.

But The Plough and the Stars cries out for political analysis. It remains the best-known play about the Irish working class; the best-known play about the historical turning point of Easter 1916; and the best-known play—in Ireland, at any rate—about the ideas that motivate people to rebel or not to rebel. Its author was an openly declared socialist. All this, and it is a work that has never lost its established place in the pantheon of the Irish theatre.

Of course, it is a work of art, and needs to be considered artistically. But you wouldn’t be long doing so before breaking beyond the bounds of aesthetics as such, and leaping right into the heart of the play’s politics. To ignore or dismiss this by retreating behind the walls of dramatic licence—something O’Casey himself tried when first criticised—won’t do. The Plough and the Stars is a political play by a political playwright looking to convey a political message. That message has to be defined and questioned.

The cast of characters is headed by Jack Clitheroe, who is just after leaving the Irish Citizen Army because he wasn’t made an officer, and because his wife Nora was always at him to jack it in. Just as the couple settle down to domestic bliss Jack learns that he has been appointed a commandant after all, only Nora hid the news from him; he goes off to lead a Citizen Army mobilisation. Later, during the Easter rising, Nora begs him to abandon it; he refuses and is killed in the fighting, while she suffers a miscarriage and a nervous breakdown.

A dramatist is under no obligation whatsoever to stick to the historical facts. But it is fair to ask what kind of an adaptation O’Casey makes of them. He has Clitheroe being appointed commandant by General Jim Connolly, and charged with mobilising the eighth battalion, ICA, with two days’ rations and fifty rounds of ammunition, the order being despatched by Captain Brennan, a butcher. Now, Connolly was never called General: his rank was commandant, one of only two in the Citizen Army. The Army could never dream of having eight battalions, or that amount of supplies for them. And a tradesman was unlikely to be in the Citizen Army at all, let alone a captain in it.

The difference between the actual Citizen Army and O’Casey’s stage Citizen Army is obvious. He presents it as a full-scale ornamental outfit with tinpot generals and all the tinsel that go with them—the kind of place where merchants and the vainglorious could count on ascending the ranks. These are the people he presents as giving their lives in Easter week: conceited men motivated by self-importance.

Conceited men held back by selfish women, to be exact. Nora Clitheroe has, in the words of a neighbour, “notions of upperosity”, considering herself a cut above the rest of the tenement. During the rising, as Jack tries to get a dying comrade to a doctor, Nora appeals to him to come back to her and let the man die. As far as O’Casey is concerned, this is how women are. “Nora voices not only the feeling of Ireland’s women, but the women of the human race”, he wrote in defence of his play. “The safety of her brood is the true morality of every woman.”

Were there no vain men in the Citizen Army in 1916? Were there no selfish women trying to keep them out of it all? Chances are there were. But the overwhelming majority of the Citizen Army fought out of a determin­ation to end British rule in Ireland and win a better life for their class, wanting nothing in return. The overwhelming majority of their wives, girlfriends and mothers supported the actions of their “brood”, and not a few shouldered a rifle themselves. O’Casey had every right to ignore them and instead construct a story of a vain husband and his selfish wife. But equally, we have every right to ask why, and to answer: because he wanted to belittle the Easter rising and those who fought in it.

O’Casey himself took the view expressed in the play by the Covey, that “There’s only one war worth havin’: th’ war for th’ economic emancipation of th’ proletariat.” He never appreciated that the proletariat can only win that war if it also fights battles against every kind of oppression, national, sexual or whatever—above all, that the Irish working class cannot liberate itself without overthrowing British rule. The Citizen Army did appreciate this, however imperfectly, and this is the fundamental reason that O’Casey holds them up as objects of ridicule.

The exact nature of the ridicule owes something to O’Casey’s personal predicament. His disdain for the Easter rising was retrospective: in the years immediately following it, he was part of the mood of romantic nationalist eulogy of ‘the men of 1916’. His refusal to join in the rising itself was partly down to quarrels he had had with its leaders, and partly because his elderly mother (to whom he dedicated The Plough and the Stars) was dependent on him. Just as his own decision was a matter of personal pride, so is Jack Clitheroe’s; just as his own involvement could have meant family tragedy, so does Jack Clitheroe’s.

O’Casey spent Easter week watching and admiring those who seized the opportunity to loot Dublin’s shops. Perhaps that is why The Plough and the Stars’s portrayal of the looters rings truer than its portrayal of the insurg­ents, people with whom O’Casey had severed his connections. But the heroic admiration it bestows upon the looters, and denies to the rebels, is misplaced. Which is more heroic, and which is better: stealing a bag of flour, or trying to overthrow an empire?

Certainly flour larceny is less problematic to the powers that be, and the latest powers that were certainly appreciated O’Casey’s Dublin plays. The Shadow of a Gunman presented an egotistical man who pretended republic­anism in order to win notoriety, resulting in the death of an innocent girl. Juno and the Paycock presented a world in a terrible state of chassis because politics has turned hearts of flesh into hearts of stone. The ruling classes of the young Free State lapped it up: they flocked into the Abbey, saving it from bankruptcy, and the government decided that the theatre now deserved a state subsidy. The Plough and the Stars spun the same line: all that nonsense between 1916 and 1923 was desperate altogether, and wasn’t it time now to put it all behind us.

Which is not to say that the play’s artistic merits didn’t come into it. Where the play attempts to provide a straightforward entertaining night out, it succeeds. The comic wisdom of Fluther, and the Covey’s thwarting of his Uncle Peter are great crack. The way Bessie Burgess turns out to be good-natured towards Nora in the end, only to turn on her in death before proclaiming her faith in Jesus, is superb (even if the way she meets her death does lay it on a bit thick).

The great political strength of the play is that it portrays the looters of Easter week. Here it puts its finger on one of the big ambiguities of 1916, that a large part of Dublin’s working class didn’t support the rising, and if anything frustrated it. O’Casey’s portrayal fumbles the opportunity, however, in its haste to glamorise the looters so as to deprecate the insurg­ents. Only at the end, when Fluther’s sympathy towards the rebels captures something of the move from contempt to sympathy for the rising, does the play look like getting the point.

But O’Casey went the other way, from sympathy to contempt, and so this is not the only time he gives the wrong answer to the right question. There is a huge tension in the way the working class came out of 1916 as just a tail of the nationalist movement. There is a huge tension between political commitment to revolution and personal commitment to loved ones. There is a huge tension between the use of revolutionary violence and its tragic consequences. O’Casey raises these questions, but comes nowhere near to answering them. Perhaps, when the head has finally gone flat on The Plough and the Stars, someone might write a play that does.

Jim Larkin: A man on a mission

Noel McDermott contributed this review to Issue 20 (November 2004).

Joseph Deasy. Fiery Cross: The Story of Jim Larkin. (Irish Labour History Society)

The Labour History Society certainly moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform. A relatively minor pamphlet from forty years ago, a secondary account rather than a primary narrative, seems a strange document to reprint. Why reproduce a potted biography of Larkin when a couple of full-scale biographies are readily available? Not for the first time, the workings of the ILHS engender much furrowing of the brow and scratching of the head.

Having said that, Joe Deasy’s pamphlet on Larkin is an interesting read. When it came out in 1963, there was no satisfactory biography of Larkin on the shelves. Although only a short pamphlet, the author did put the work in, researching the papers of Larkin’s time (not without difficulty, as the appendices to this edition testify) rather than relying on second-hand sources. What’s more, Deasy had a nice way of putting things: he describes Larkin’s funeral as the occasion when he “dislocated for the last time industrial life in Dublin city”! Working-class activists buying the pamphlet back then would have been well rewarded for their shilling and threepence.

Larkin’s basic attitude is aptly summed up as one of “complete working-class solidarity”, with no ifs, ands or buts. He didn’t unionise Dublin port by sitting down to negotiate no-strike sweetheart deals, but by preventing any ship from entering the port until its crew had full union conditions. He was “unselfishly and incorruptibly dedicated to the cause of the working class”.

Larkin never minced his words but served them up in big raw chunks, “calling ugly things by their names”, as Deasy says. He relates an anecdote from Larkin’s time in a US prison. One Patrick’s Day, the authorities thought it would be harmless enough to let him address his fellow inmates on the saint’s mission. But when he claimed that the snakes driven from Ireland “came to America to become politicians, policemen and prison guards”, there ended the lesson. (Not that Ireland’s own boys in blue came off much better. A poem quoted from Larkin’s Irish Worker describes a policeman as “six feet of colossal ignorance”, a line that seems just as appropriate for today’s Templemore alumni.)

Larkin’s message involved far more than bating his enemies, though. During a strike he pointed out the utter uselessness of these parasites:

Why do not the capitalist class carry on the distribution of goods? They are not on strike. Why are the ships lying idle, trams at a standstill, factories closed and commodities rotting? You can take your kings, lords and capitalists, tie them in a bunch, send them out to the Bailey lighthouse and dump them. The world would move on all serene… Labour, producing all wealth, should own and control all wealth.

In the first issue of The Irish Worker Larkin said the paper would be “a well of truth reflecting the purity of your motives”. There was an almost spiritual dimension to what he himself called his mission to make people discontented. Again and again, he tried to get working people to realise their own dignity and worth as human beings. They were entitled to a full and free life in the society that rested on their shoulders.

The introduction to this edition opines that Deasy’s claim that Larkin was a Marxist is the most controversial section of the pamphlet. But the claim seems fair enough: “While some of his conceptions were not strictly in accordance with Marxist tenets his general political position was certainly Marxist.” Of course, all kinds of everything can be found in Larkin: syndicalism, nationalism, Christianity and more besides, the traces of varied influences on his thought. But for the most part, Larkin at his best took a stand that approximates to what a Marxist would do. His syndicalism didn’t stop him from fighting on issues outside the traditional realm of trade unionism. His nationalism didn’t stop him reacting against the sub­ordination of working-class claims to the middle class’s idea of a fight for national independence. His Christianity didn’t stop him giving the priests hell when he wanted to. His Marxism was an instinctual gut Marxism, of the heart more than the head, but that’s not the worst thing a person can be accused of.

The worst part of Deasy’s account is instead his depiction of Sinn Féin. The enmity towards Larkin in 1913, he writes, “extended to some elements in the Sinn Féin movement… right-wing elements of Sinn Féin, typified by Griffith and MacNeill”, whereas other republicans were on his side. But the republicans in question—Pearse, Clarke, McDermott—were never in Sinn Féin, which at that time wasn’t republican at all. Arthur Griffith’s hostility to Larkin was perfectly in keeping with Sinn Féin’s intention that Ireland take her place amongst the capitalist economies of the earth. Deasy’s excuses are in keeping with the attempt of too many Irish socialists over the years to extract some kind of progressive potential from nationalist advocates of capitalism.

American socialist Eugene Debs is quoted here calling Larkin “the incarnation of the revolution”. There is an awful lot of truth in that—which is not a good thing. At the end of the day, it was a symptom of the weakness of the young Irish working class that they needed to embody their fighting spirit in one man. Successful revolutionary movements of the working class throw up modest leaders, and then only for a short time.

Worst of all, Larkin sometimes believed the hype himself. Identifying himself with the workers’ cause sometimes went too far, to the point of identifying the workers’ cause with himself. Deasy doesn’t shy away from the consequences, and his comments only confirm the testimony of Connolly and other contemporaries:

even his warmest admirers had often occasion to refer to him as “an impossible man.” He was a law unto himself and was incapable of submitting to the discipline necessary in any organisation. …he was extremely individualistic, unpredictable and unamenable to the discip­line of any organisation, political or industrial.

This side of Larkin is nothing to be proud of.

Emmet O’Connor’s fine biography recently pulled no punches on this issue, even going so far as to blame Larkin’s recklessness for the split in the ITGWU following his return from the US in 1923. Deasy’s reading makes more sense, however. He is very critical of Larkin’s tactics in the dispute: “very badly conceived… ill-chosen… Instead of trying to change policies by working democratically within the Union, he made a frontal assault.” But he does recognise the very real question at the bottom of it all, albeit “an undeclared one… Larkin still stood for militancy, the executive for moderation at almost all costs.” The fierce workplace struggles of those years, and the ITGWU’s failure to back them, were more than a foundation for the new union Larkin helped set up: thousands of workers don’t change union just to flatter the vanity of one individual.

Larkin on one side and those opponents on the other drew the battle lines that divided the Irish labour movement for decades. Though the organisational wounds are well healed, the political chasm still gapes wide. Deasy tells us that the assets of the ITGWU “consisted of a couple of chairs, a table, two empty bottles and a candle” when it was established, but it was far richer in solidarity than the bureaucracy it was to become. In 1913 Larkin was imprisoned, and later evicted for being unable to afford his rent: can you imagine one of today’s Liberty Hall mandarins gracing the inside of Stubb’s Gazette, never mind a prison cell? If Deasy could write forty years ago that Larkin’s militancy “may now be irksome to some of the sophisticated in the contemporary Labour movement”, what could we say now, when they have ensured that almost the only time you see a strike on RTÉ is in the archive footage of Reeling In The Years?

Deasy pays tribute to the great power of Larkin’s writings and speeches, and this is born out by those he quotes in the pamphlet. So how come no one has ever thought to publish a selection of them? There’s a worthwhile job for the Labour History Society, or for someone who is willing to put the work in and given to thankless tasks. In Ireland we prefer to erect statues to our fighters and thinkers rather than publish and read their work.

Don’t mention the war: The rehabilitation of a Nazi film-maker

In March 2004 Catherine Lyons gave this assessment of Leni Riefenstahl’s work in Issue 18.

On 8 September, the Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl died, aged 101. The many obituaries that followed seemed to indicate a curious kind of ambivalence towards the only woman who played a significant role in the rise of National Socialism. Her stylistic flair and contribution to film form were widely acknowledged and celebrated among these epitaphs. However, for the most part, accounts of her political involvement were left vague or, worse still, overlooked. It is clear that Riefenstahl has become a member of a particular kind of dead poets’ society, one that includes many formerly objectionable artists who are now celebrated within contemporary culture, their rehabilitation made possible not merely because of their conspicuous talents, but also because of a willingness on the part of liberal society to dismiss the significance of their transgressions.

The whitewashing of Riefenstahl’s work started long before her death. During her lifetime she won over many high profile admirers. Figures such as Jean Cocteau, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger championed her cause. Even Jodie Foster recently considered developing a sympathetic film about her life. In the face of such selective amnesia, it is essential to re-establish where precisely her guilt lies, and to ask why this attitude towards her has prevailed in a world which was never supposed to forget.

Riefenstahl was a successful dancer before developing a career as a movie star in the 1920s. Her leading roles in Arnold Fanck’s German mountain films and later in the 1933 Hollywood epic SOS Iceberg made her a household name in Germany. While working with Fanck she learnt about film-making, and in 1932 released her first feature The Blue Light which she both directed and starred in. Later she claimed that the role she devised for herself was a premonition of her own fate. She played Junta, a wild girl who is seen as a witch by the villagers. She is lured by a mysterious blue light which radiates from the mountain on the night of the full moon. Junta dares to scale the peaks of the mountains that the valley pigs shrink from. Indeed, there was not much that Riefenstahl did shrink from.

Shortly after she finished this film, she wrote to Hitler and asked to meet him. He admired her skill as a film-maker, and she agreed to make a documentary film of the 1933 Nazi party congress. The result was Victory of Faith, and the film was an unmitigated disaster. At this point, both Hitler and Röhm shared joint leadership, and certain factions of the party refused to co-operate with her. Until recently it was believed that this film was destroyed, or even never existed. But in the 1980s it was recovered. Riefenstahl consistently distanced herself from this film, interestingly enough, not because of what it represents but because of its shoddy camera work. That same year she made Day of Freedom: Our Army which depicted the beauty of soldiers and soldering for the Führer.

In 1934, after Röhm was murdered, Hitler had full power to stage the party congress he wished for. Riefenstahl’s interpretation of this 1934 Nuremberg rally was to be her most infamous film, Triumph of the Will. The dramatic intensity of the event was pumped up by her creative compos­ition of shots and artistic editing. She managed to inject the sensibilities of dance and movement into film form, to spectacular effect. But throughout the film Riefenstahl constructed reality to serve the image. She claimed that not a single scene of the 1934 Nazi party congress was staged. However, it was planned not only as a spectacular mass meeting but as a spectacular propaganda film. Everything was designed for the convenience of the cameras. The event, instead of being an end in itself, served as a set to a film which was then to assume the character of an authentic documentary. Set to classical music, it had a balletic and monu­mental quality which glorified Hitler and Nazism. It is considered by film historians to be the best propaganda film of all time. The artistic depth of the film was recognised by its accumulation of many international awards.

After Triumph of the Will, she was commissioned by the International Olympic Committee to make the official film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics—although in reality she was funded by the Nazi ministry of propaganda and provided with unlimited resources to promote the image of a powerful, modern Germany. The result was Olympiad, which was released two years later. This film is considered by many critics to be one of the best films of all time. It demonstrates her creative techniques at their very best. The diving sequences are particularly beautiful, where athletes seem to glide through the air like swallows. During the making of Olympiad she pioneered many technical innovations which have become standard film and television practice. However, throughout the film she managed to transpose the ancient and the modern in much the same way as she did in Triumph of the Will. By doing so, she conferred the Nazi regime with the kudos of ancient Greek civilisation. This was achieved particularly with the help of an imaginative prologue which consisted of a classical Greek sculpture metamorphing into a German athlete. After the war she was reproached because of her preoccupation with strength and athletic perfection within the film.

In 1938, as a present to Hitler, she made Berchtesgaden über Salzburg, a fifty-minute lyrical portrait of the Führer against rugged mountain scenery. In 1939 she accompanied the invading German army into Poland as a uniformed army war correspondent with her own camera team. She witness­ed the massacre of Polish civilians by German soldiers in the town of Konskie. But Riefenstahl did not have the stomach for the realities of war, so she returned to film-making.

In 1941 she began working on the feature film Tiefland, fully funded by Hitler. Riefenstahl needed ‘mediterranean types’ as extras for her film, and the nearby Salzburg concentration camp provided gypsies for this purpose. This was one of the main accusations levelled at her in Freiburg where she was tried after the war. Documentation and survivors’ accounts would seem to substantiate this crime. In 1945 two of her sumptuous homes were seized and she was placed under house arrest for three years. Riefenstahl never officially joined the Nazi party and was cleared of active involvement. However, she was declared a Mitläufer or fellow traveller, which barred her from ever seeking public office. After this she went through a lengthy denazification process. Many people at the time felt that she was dealt with too leniently, and that her leading role as a Nazi propagandist was not fully appreciated.

After the war and up until the time of her death, Riefenstahl insisted that she was a politically naive artist caught up in an impossible position. She maintained that she had to make Triumph of the Will because Hitler requested it: under pain of death, she made the film as best she could, only obeying orders as it were. Riefenstahl only ever refers to her three ‘apolit­ical’ films, The Blue Light, Tiefland and Olympiad, clearly attempting to give the impression that she was an independent film-maker keeping her head down in Nazi Germany. She says that she lived in fear of Goebbels and uses this to back up her claims.

In the 1930s Riefenstahl, by her own admission, enthusiastically attended Nazi meetings, and it was her who approached Hitler and offered to serve the Reich. But how naive could she have been? She worked in the famous UFA Studios in Berlin where all the great classical silent German films were made. A high proportion of the workforce was Jewish, and their subsequent mass exodus to Los Angeles would have been something she would have been fully aware of. Riefenstahl was a gifted artist with sophisticated tastes. She was an ardent follower of avant garde art. There is no doubt that she was well aware of the persecution of artists and intellec­tuals throughout the thirties.

There were some artists who lived through the regime and produced the obligatory kitsch paintings and sculptures that filled the public buildings and art galleries of the Third Reich—people who had not got the strength of their convictions and played it safe. But Riefenstahl was never one of these. Her creative work flourished within the regime. Far from being persecuted by Goebbels, his diaries reveal that he was a deep admirer and personal friend of hers. She not only socialised with leading Nazis, she worked with them to build the party. Leni Riefenstahl was part of the Nazi establishment, profiting from that regime both profess­ionally and materially. Her decision not to officially join the party was a calculated one. Both she and Hitler knew that the international art world would take her work more seriously if she abstained. Therefore she made films not through the auspices of the ministry of propaganda, but commissioned directly by Hitler. Five of her six films were fully funded by the Nazi party or by Hitler himself.

It seems that Riefenstahl was so talented that people are willing to make excuses for her and to believe the lies she pedalled for over fifty years. But perhaps there is another reason. She is the only female director who consis­tently appears on lists of what film critics consider the greatest films of all time. Who wants to hear that their feminist pioneer is really a Nazi?

In the 1960s she went to Africa and lived with the Nuba tribe of southern Sudan. For six months she learnt their language and photographed them. In 1973 she published a book of these photographs, The Last of the Nuba. Riefenstahl was ready for a comeback. Shortly after the book was published Susan Sontag, the American intellectual, wrote a negative article in the New York Review of Books which historically and aesthetically re-evaluated Riefenstahl’s work. She convincingly asserted that “although the Nuba are black, not Aryan, Riefenstahl’s portrait of them is consistent with some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology”. Sontag pointed out that, by her own admission, Riefenstahl was drawn to this particular African tribe because of its pugilistic culture. She considered the Nubas’ beauty and their strong athletic physique to be outstanding among African tribes. By focusing particularly on their fighting rituals, Riefenstahl celebrated this athletic beauty and masculine strength. This symbolised a correlation rather than a departure from her work under the Nazis. Funerals are also extremely significant events in Nuba life. Glorification of death was a consistent theme within Nazi culture. Sontag believed that choosing to portray a society whose most enthusiastic and lavish ceremony is the funeral was highly suspect. Furthermore, the tribe survived mainly by hunting, living an elemental existence. Throughout the book Riefenstahl laments what she sees as the imminent erosion of this existence by modernity. Sontag discussed how the Nazis believed that city life was degenerate and that the urban city dweller was corrupted by intellectualism. They aspired to bring the people back to the soil and their true spirit, albeit with modern technology playing its part.

Riefenstahl rather cleverly explored a number of major Nazi themes through the medium of photography, and almost got away with it because her subjects were black. The popular notion that Nazi culture was nothing more than racial hatred made it possible for her to do this. But surely without the racial theory there is nothing obnoxious about Riefenstahl’s ideas? On the contrary, her portrayal of Nuban society is synonymous with Nazi art in that it glamorises death, exalts mindlessness and glorifies brutality and submission. However, it is not entirely true to suggest that Riefenstahl was not motivated by any racial consideration. The Nazis insisted that the Jews were bastardised and not of pure race. The Nuba are the indigenous and most ancient people of the Sudan. They retreated to the Nuba mountains several centuries ago in response to invasion, a remote community who have had little contact with the outside world. Anthropo­logists say they are a rare ethnically pure indigenous race—a fact which was not lost on Riefenstahl who considered them “an extraordinary pheno­menon” and one which took her six years to find. During her search she turned her nose up to many African tribes who did not suit her requirements.

Sontag’s influential essay damaged Riefenstahl’s attempted comeback. Unable to raise substantial backing to produce a film project, she continued to work as a photographer. In the 1980s she joined Greenpeace and devoted herself to photographing exotic plant and animal marine life. It was then that she affirmed: “I can simply say that I feel spontaneously attracted by everything that is beautiful.” However, her sense of beauty was dangerously irresponsible and ultimately cruel. During her Nuban project, many of the tribe had joined the Southern Sudanese Liberation Army to fight against the Arab North. The Nuban people were at that time suffering greatly, yet there is no reflection of this in her work, because it did not fit her fascist aesthetic. She was outraged that this guerilla warfare had begun to modern­ise the Nuba, who had begun to wear “sunglasses, ugly clothes and clumsy shoes”. Her treatment of the Nuba people is reminiscent of her use of gypsies from Salzburg concentration camp. In both cases her heartless insensitivity was astounding.

The idea that it is impossible for great art to be political is of course a myth. In film terms, the great masterpieces of Pudovkin and Eisenstein are as polemical as Riefenstahl’s work, but less problematic. This is because their political involvement was motivated by a sense of altruism. Admitted­ly her techniques were brilliant, but they should never be appreciated out of context. Celebrating her as a great artist, without entering any caveat, is to condone the immorality which underpins her work.

Nevertheless, Riefenstahl retains her high profile band of followers, people who wilfully misinterpret her work, who insist that art and politics are two completely different things. Her admirers can hardly deny the political intentions of Triumph of the Will, yet they manage to abstract Riefenstahl’s pioneering techniques from her unsavoury themes. They somehow manage to separate the dancer from the dance and celebrate her cinematic flare with impunity. Failing to grasp the complexities of her work, they merely see her as an aesthetician, a type of classical artist concerned with beauty and form. They see her as an artist who applied these sensibilities to a modern medium, with spectacular effect. Above all else, they recognise her as a great artist who, by a twist of fate, tragically and momentarily lost her way. However, one thing Riefenstahl never lost was her talent for befriending powerful leaders. In 1999 she was invited by Bill Clinton to Time magazine’s 75th birthday party in New York.

A few years before she died, she demanded that Germany recognise her contribution to cinema and photography, and blamed a cabal of “opinion formers” and “left wing intellectuals” for destroying her reputation. However, her work condemns itself. A close and honest examination of her films and photographs reveals that, throughout her career, she consistently aesthetised elements of life and politics that are fundamentally malevolent. However brilliantly she did this is inconsequential. In the end, Riefenstahl was wrong when she claimed that her role in The Blue Light was a premonition of her own fate. Junta was seen by the world as a witch, while Riefenstahl is more often than not recognised as a cine­matic genius. Junta fell to her death at a tragically young age. But as we all know, only the good die young. Leni Riefenstahl passed away peacefully in her bed at the grand old age of 101. The same can not be said for the gypsy men, women and children that she took from concentration camps in order to make one of her many twisted fairytales.

The Hidden Connolly 17

In November 2003 Issue 17 presented more articles by James Connolly unpublished since his execution.

Home Thrusts

[The Workers’ Republic, September 23 1899]

The land for the people!

A splendid rallying cry, a fine old wheeze.

What is wanted is a good rallying cry; it does not matter whether it is sense or nonsense, whether it means anything or nothing, so long as it has a good, sonorous sound about it—and will fetch the working man.

Therefore, hurroo for the land for the people!

The United Irish League is now raising this good old cry again, and Mr Davitt MP is stumping the country to the old, old tune that served the professional agitators so well in the days of the Land League.

The old tune, and the old game. Any amount of cheering, band playing, demonstrating, and orating of leaders, but no toleration of anything in the nature of an intelligent discussion of the meaning of the words we are using, or the application of the principles we are invoking.

The land for the people!

In the days of the Land League every politician in Ireland professed to desire the land for the people, but scarcely two of them meant the one thing, and any man who would venture to rise at a public meeting to ask a speaker to explain what he meant was certain to be howled down as if he were a traitor.

And ran grave risks of having his neck broken as a reward for his temerity.

Home Rule MPs complain about the “gag” at Westminster, but no English Minister ever dared to stifle discussion half as rigorously as our Irish middle class have done when they had the power.

But that day is gone. The new working class democracy of Ireland is too alert, and too confident of its own strength, ever to surrender its political conscience to the care of leaders.

The land for the people! By all means, but

What is meant by “the land”?

And who are “the people”?

Mr Davitt said at a meeting in Duhallow that there were at present 40,000 farmers in Ireland who had become owners of their holdings since 1885, and he claimed this as a step in the direction of the “land for the people”.

How does the Socialist regard the matter? That there are now 40,000 more individuals interested in maintaining private ownership of land than there were in 1885.

Just how this is making “the people” owners of the land passes my comprehension.

Mr Davitt, and all the other posturing patriots who are using the United Irish League to boost themselves once more into notoriety, speak as if the tenant farmers alone constituted the people, but a common person like yours truly would even venture to include in that category the entire population of Ireland.

Farmers, and those who never turned a spadeful of earth on a farm, the people of our towns and cities as well as the people of our hills and valleys, the clerk as well as the cottier, the artisan equally with the agriculturalist.

All these are, collectively considered, the people.

The men whose fathers were hunted off the agricultural lands by landlord tyranny in the past have just as much title to the land as the men whose fathers were not hunted therefrom.

The land for the people should therefore mean the land for ALL the people.

Not to be divided up, or shared out, but to be vested in the nation at large as its public property.

The national ownership of the land—that is the real “land for the people”, but Mr Davitt and the wirepullers of the United Irish League know well that every one of the 40,000 peasant farmers he refers to as owners of their land are as much opposed to national ownership as Lord Clanricarde himself.

And when they speak of land why do they only refer to agricultural land?

What moral law, or maxim of political economy, can be held to justify private landholding in the cities which does not justify landlordism everywhere?

The land, alike in city and country, is the property of the entire people, and is only held by a class to-day because of the laws forced upon our fathers at the point of the sword.

Rent is the modern substitute for the tribute exacted from the dispossessed “Irishry” by the mail-clad invaders under Strongbow and his successors.

The land was once the property of the Irish clans. The clans were then the corporate embodiment of the life of the Irish nation. The clans are no more and could not be revived even if it were desirable to do so, which is more than questionable, but the right of ownership still lives on and should now be established in the modern corporate embodiment of the Irish nation—our public boards, municipalities, and independent Irish Congress, when we are men enough to win one.

Spailpín.

Compositors and the Linotype

[The Workers’ Republic, September 30 1899]

We have ere now pointed out in the columns of the Workers’ Republic that the ordinary capitalist press can find time and space in its pages to chronicle anything and everything, except those matters which are of the most importance to the wealth producers. In considering this phenomenon we are often at a loss to determine whether such neglect of matters affecting the social welfare of the vast majority of the race is malice aforethought, is the product of a desire to please the capitalist paymaster to whom the journalist has sold his pen—and his conscience, or is only the offspring of a real, though disgraceful, ignorance upon all such matters. We might be inclined to attribute this boycott of the graver issues of life to the latter cause, ignorance, rather than to the former, deliberate malice, were we not deterred from taking this charitable view by remembering the fact that the journalists in question can always be depended upon to gravely undertake to act as instructors-general to the working class, during every crisis in our history, be the crisis political or industrial. As the assumption of the functions of instructor precludes the possibility of taking shelter behind the plea of ignorance we feel constrained to regard capitalist journalism as an effective weapon in the hands of a well-informed, but utterly unscrupulous, enemy, rather than merely as an unbiassed, but ill-informed, recorder of passing events.

Those reflections are suggested to us by a consideration of the absence from the columns of our Irish newspapers of all reference to the present state of the printing trade, and especially to that branch of it represented by the caseroom, viz, the compositors. This once flourishing and all-powerful trade is now practically ruined. In Dublin alone, we are informed, there are something like 140 members on the books as unemployed,1 and a like state of affairs is also reported, not only from every other centre of the trade in Ireland, but from Great Britain and America. In fact, in the last named countries the outlook for compositors is even blacker than at home, as the introduction of linotype machines has set in longer, and is therefore at the present time much more general than in Ireland. But a perusal of the advertising columns of our daily papers will show that scarcely a week passes without some fresh printing office adopting the machine and dis­charging its hand compositors, so that we may fairly expect that in a very short time, as far at least as newspaper work is concerned, hand-setting of type will only be a memory. The effects of such a change will be far-reaching and, for the men, disastrous. No trade union can long stand the strain on its resources of such a large proportion of its members as are now being thrown upon the out-of-work funds of the Typographical Society. Interested officials, or optimistic members in employment, may shut their eyes to the danger or question the inevitableness of the coming crash, but the most far-seeing and wisest of the craft readily recognise the gravity of the approaching crisis, and readily recognise also that no power within the scope of trade union action can avert it.

We have said that the near future will possibly see the entire displace­ment of hand-setting for newspaper work, and the members of the Typo­graphical readily concede the point, but what they do not so readily concede is that hand-setting for jobbing work is equally threatened with ruin. Their failure to perceive this is due to their inability to conceive how the intricate, and at times almost artistic, work involved in display advertisements and certain kinds of book work, etc. could be satisfactorily performed by the machine. We readily grant that in its present state the linotype could not perform such work, but we see no reason why the perfectioning of the machine to the point where it could perform such work should be con­sidered impossible when we bear in mind the wonderful fact of the machine itself. Even as some optimistic compositors now say that a machine can never perform jobbing work, so a few years ago most compositors thought, and asserted, that a machine could never satisfactorily perform compositor work of any description. We have seen the one dream rudely shattered, may we not also see the other as ruthlessly dispelled? But, apart altogether from the danger involved in a further development of the powers of the linotype, there is another danger arising out of the wholesale displacement of news hands which directly affects the prospects of the whole trade. It lies: First, in the exhaustion of the funds of the Trade Union, and consequent weaken­ing of its power of resistance to the encroachments of the employers: Second, in the competition for work on the part of the cleverer of the news hands, who could, in a few months at most, adapt themselves to the requirements of jobbing work: Third, all apprentices to the trade will henceforth betake themselves to the acquirement of the technical knowledge necessary for the practice of the more intricate forms of the typographical art: Fourth, that because of all the foregoing reasons there will soon be a practically unlimited supply of labour seeking employment at the one branch of the trade not yet touched by the linotype, and in face of such a congestion of the labour market no trade union can possibly keep up wages against the downward pressure of capitalist greed.

We are now speaking of the crisis as if it belonged to the future, but in a very real sense it is already with us. Some of the most important printing firms of Dublin have already utilised the linotype to enable them to completely discard their trade union employees—Messrs Hely and Co. furnish a notable instance, other and smaller firms have been encouraged by their success to follow their example without the aid of the linotype, and the daily and weekly newspapers have reduced their staff of hand compositors to such small dimensions that the statement that these journals are produced by “trade union labour” has no longer any serious meaning.

In view of this grave state of matters in the printing trade we would ask our friends of the Typographical what do they mean to do? They must see that all the miseries that are come upon them are the result of a logical adherence to the rules of business prescribed by capitalism; that the master class in all they have done have only acted as their class interests impelled them, and finally that non-political trade unionism has no remedy for this intolerable evil. For, what is the evil? It is the displacement of labour by machinery, the performing by a machine of work hitherto done by human beings. It is not the machine, nor its inventor that is at fault. The fault lies in the system which permits private individuals to own the machine, and use it to destroy the happiness of the workers, instead of making it the public property of society, to be used to lessen the labour whilst increasing the comforts of all. In other words, the machine itself might be a blessing, but the private ownership of the machine has made it an unmitigated curse. Thus when the compositor thinks of the linotype let him remember that it is only as an instrument in the hands of the master class it is to be execrated; as an instrument in the hands of emancipated Labour it would be hailed as a glorious achievement for lightening toil and increasing pleasure.

And remembering this, let them rally to the support of the Socialist Republican Party, the only party in Ireland which stands for the interests of the working class, seeking to capture the political power necessary to make the instruments of Labour the property, not of a class, but of a free people in a free social order, the Socialist Republic.

Notes

  1. That is, members of the Typographical Society claiming unemployment benefit from the union.

The future of trades unionism

This article by Pádraic Ó Conaire was translated in Issue 16 in July 2003.

This year sees the seventy-fifth anniversary of the death of the Irish language writer Pádraic Ó Conaire. While generations are familiar with his stories, little is known of his commitment to revolutionary socialism. To give English speakers a taste of Ó Conaire’s politics, we here translate an article of his. The original, ‘Cumannachas Ceárd san Am le Theacht’, appeared in the April 1919 issue of An Branar in Dublin, and was based on a talk Ó Conaire gave in Liberty Hall on 18 March that year.

I

This old world has seen many a great change over the centuries: the Roman Empire rose, gaining supremacy of territories East and West, and then declined and collapsed; the fierce Turk came east from Asia and seized Constantinople, scattering the remains of ancient Greek learning and philosophy throughout Western Europe; that scattering gave hope and courage, so that Christopher Columbus sailed to find a new world; the religious wars and the imperial wars and the wars of succession came; the lower orders of France arose, lighting a fire that hasn’t been extinguished since; the age of engines and steam came, putting a new face on the world; but none of the changes mentioned is anywhere near as great as the revolution this world is undergoing before our eyes, or before the eyes of those with insight.

And this is the great change I mean: that the working class of the world, the providers of all wealth, are coming to power and seizing control of this world.

II

Gradually this seizure will take place. The flood is heading towards us from the east.1 And there is no power under heaven that can stop that flood. The working class will be beaten here and there, and from time to time—through lack of study and knowledge, through some of their leaders being bought by the bosses—but they will get what is rightfully theirs in our time: what is rightfully theirs—how much is that? The ownership and control of all means of wealth—that is the right of the working class, because it is they and they alone who provide all the abundance and riches that exist. And when they have achieved that right the Great Revolution will be here, the greatest industrial and economic revolution that ever came.

But no economic revolution can last unless it corresponds to the time and the occasion. The people must be ready for it. If any society is overthrown, those overthrowing it must have a new society ready to replace it. The age of Capitalism is more or less over. The age of Socialism is coming from the east. Will we, the working class of Europe, be able to build a new society in place of the one collapsing?

III

The old trade unionism was set up to defend the working class’s standard of pay against the capitalist, and those who established it had no intention of fundamentally changing the industrial world. But the leaders of the new unionism have the opposite view: achieving the ownership and control of all means of wealth for the working class is the great object they have placed before them. Up until ten years ago—until Larkin set up the Transport Union, say—there was no close connection between the trade unions in Ireland. There were hundreds of them, each working on its own behalf and with no great friendship between them. Strikes for wage rises would be organised, but the help strikers got from their fellow workers was pathetic. But that was changed. The Trade Union Congress was set up in 1894, but there was little strength in it until twelve years later, until Larkin set up the Transport Union in 1907.2 This union showed the Irish working class the proper road. It was explained to them that a separate union for each trade wouldn’t do much good. The new unionism was established in Ireland when this new union’s two battle cries were heard: “one big union” and, secondly, “an injury to one is an injury to all”. That is the battle cry of today’s working class in Ireland, and that will be their battle cry in future, until they win their full rights, their natural rights.

IV

The foundation was firmly laid. One big union, one big industrial army will exist in future until the aforementioned object is achieved, until every industry in the country is owned by those who work it.

But I will be told that there are many types of trade and that one trade union won’t suit them all. We are stronger standing shoulder to shoulder, and every benefit of separate unions can be got by the other method, because the future one big union will have a separate section or department for each trade (as there is presently in the Transport Union) and the members of that section will control the section. That way, every type of trade will be able to promote the affairs of that trade without restraint from the working class in general, and if any enemy interferes with any section of the big union that section will know that the whole working class will stand behind them, unlike now.

This arrangement gives the advantages of a separate union without the disadvantages.

It goes without saying that the connection between many unions in Ireland and their equivalents abroad will be broken. The big union I have in mind will stand on its own two feet, but will help and extend brotherhood to the working class in all countries, while itself being independent of all. This Brotherhood and Internationalism exists already: the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress take part in every international assembly on the continent, two delegates from Ireland are on the Executive of the Inter­national since recently, and that International recognises Ireland as a separate nation, unlike the Conference of States currently sitting in Paris.3 Some of our people are currently scared of talk of Internationalism, but they have no need to be afraid. Both are needed, Nationalism and International­ism, and don’t interfere with each other in any way.

V

The wealth of the Trade Union Movement will not be sunk in war funds or in the bosses’ businesses in future. No, the big union, or the sections of the union, will have their own assets, administered by the members of the big union for the good of their brother workers. Most of the unions’ resources are currently spent on sickness benefit, unemployment benefit, funeral benefit and so on: but in future, when the sections of the big union have lands and factories of their own, the trade union movement won’t have to waste its money like that; and these awards certainly are a waste, as trade unionism derives no permanent benefit from them. The man who is out of work will be able to feed himself and his family on his union’s farm or in his union’s factory according to his trade and ability, and the unemployment benefit he now gets from his union will not be spent, serving instead as assets for the union to promote the industrial work on hand. The existence of these lands and factories would provide another benefit: a period on the farm or in the workers’ colony would greatly improve the man himself; it would improve his and his family’s health and make him independent in every way. Each of these colonies would be a little world in itself, a happy pleasant little world with the invalids of the labour army working in them as befits their own nature. As befits their own nature—we, tormented under the yoke of capitalism, can hardly comprehend the good this method of working would bring. Leave the magazine aside for half an hour, reader, and think about it, not forgetting that there are traits and virtues in humanity that do not flourish at all under the yoke of capitalism. We don’t know what triumphs poetry, painting, sculpture and many other trades and arts would achieve when the great mass of the slaves of today could shed their great burden of worry.

Strikes are broken easily enough at present. Scarcity and hunger is the capitalist’s strongest weapon of attack to that end; but in future, when trade unionists have set up these workers’ colonies, this barbaric weapon will be blunted. Trade unionists will have a food supply of their own during strikes.

VI

We know that the bosses and the arrogant rulers of the world will not release their grip easily; that is clear from their current attempt to crush the Socialist Republic that has been set up in Russia.4 But the trade unions, or the congress of those unions, will have their own defence force in future. James Connolly started this defence force in Ireland when he set up the Irish Labour Army during the great strike in Dublin in 1913-1914.5 But this defence force is not the only defensive and offensive weapon that Trade Unionism will have: when the working class come to a proper realisation of themselves, they will be able to deny food and fighting men to the State Army; they will be able to put an end to State Wars because of their grip on the industrial and economic system of all countries.

And the age of capitalism will be over when that day comes.

VII

But political freedom has to be obtained for the nation itself in Ireland first, because that freedom is the basis of every other freedom. And when trade unionism is strong and equipped in the manner mentioned, the complete economic freedom of the working class will be achieved, and it will be able to take ownership and control of all means of wealth. They will have a new society to replace the one being overthrown. But individual freedom, the crowning glory of every other freedom, there are few in Ireland who believe such a precious treasure can be given to this tormented world at all—but let them wait.

Notes

  1. A reference to the Russian revolution of October 1917 and the revolutionary outbreaks that followed it elsewhere in Europe.
  2. Ó Conaire’s confusion regarding the date of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union’s foundation is understandable. Jim Larkin began working as a union official in Ireland in 1907. A meeting on 28 December 1908 decided to set up the ITGWU, and it was formally established on 4 January 1909.
  3. Two delegates from the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress attended the International Labour and Socialist Conference in Berne, Switzerland in March 1919. The conference, called to re-establish the international links that collapsed with the outbreak of the world war, supported Ireland’s right to self-determination and gave the Irish delegation a seat on its commission. The Paris Peace Conference, where the victorious powers had been discussing peace treaties since January 1919, refused to hear Ireland’s claim to independence.
  4. Armies from various states were invading Soviet Russia in an attempt to overthrow the revolution.
  5. A reference to the Irish Citizen Army: while Connolly was not the Army’s founder, he became its commandant in 1914.

Everything the Party did, said and thought

In Issue 15 in March 2003 Kevin Higgins reviewed a bizarre account of Stalinism.

Martin Amis, Koba the Dread (Jonathan Cape)

At the outset I should say that this is one of the most idiosyncratic books I’ve read in a long time. On one level it is simply a continuation of British novelist Martin Amis’s attempt to work out his relationship with his father Kingsley, who died in 1991. Also a prominent literary figure in his time, Kingsley Amis is perhaps best known for his novel Lucky Jim (1954). Its hero Jim Dixon was a lower-middle-class radical whose aggressive anti-establishment, anti-pretension stance led some to associate Kingsley Amis with the group of 1950s British novelists and playwrights usually referred to as the Angry Young Men. And while Amis himself always resisted being associated with that particular grouping, he certainly shared much in common with them.

Like most of the Angries he started out as a left-wing radical (a member of the Communist Party from 1941 to 1956) and ended up somewhere to the right of Margaret Thatcher, whom he adored despite being disappointed that she never actually got around to shooting striking miners or sending the blacks back to Africa. Such minor frustrations aside, Kingsley Amis appar­ently ended his days relatively content with the general direction in which the world was headed. In his last book Experience (published in 2001) Martin Amis investigated his personal relationship with his father. Here he talks about his politics, taking issue, as one would perhaps expect, not with his later lurch to the right, but with his earlier support for Stalin.

On one side we have the rather pampered Martin, utterly incapable of imagining for even five minutes a world fundamentally different from that which he sees around him. In many ways Martin Amis is the prototype post-cold war ‘liberal’. Concerned, but not too concerned. The closest he’s ever come to having a big idea is probably his belief in Tony Blair. Indeed, on page four Amis tells us that he began writing this book “a day or two” after spending the evening of 31 December 1999 at the Millennium Dome in London “along with Tony Blair and the Queen”. He had apparently “recently read yards of books about the Soviet experiment”.

On the other side we have his cranky father, Kingsley, talking about the loss he felt at letting go of his socialist beliefs: “The Ideal of the brotherhood of man, the building of the Just City, is one that cannot be discarded without lifelong feelings of disappointment and loss.” Now, this is a feeling which every disappointed socialist must at some time have felt. Once the possibility of a New Society has raised itself seriously in your head, then there really is no going back. As a friend of mine puts it: “What­ever you do, you can never unlearn all you now know to be wrong with the world. You can never just get on with things in the same way again.” When one thinks of it this way, it suddenly becomes rather less surprising that so many former revolutionaries end their days as monumental cranks, obses­sively spitting poison at anything that even vaguely reminds them of what they themselves once were.

Now, if Martin Amis had restricted himself to writing about the obvious dichotomy between his father’s politics and his own, then it could have made for an interesting, if not exactly earth-shattering little read. Instead, he insists on addressing what the book’s jacket blurb describes as “the central lacuna of twentieth century thought: the indulgence of communism by intellectuals of the West”. If Amis had at his disposal the intellectual equipment to deal properly with the issues involved, that would be one thing. But it so clearly isn’t his area.

In places he ends up sounding like a loudmouthed student berating a Trotskyist newspaper-seller outside Trinity College. We are told that, among other things, “Trotsky was a murdering bastard and a fucking liar… He was a nun-killer—they all were”. Surely, deep down, a writer of Amis’s stature must realise that behind the failure of language explicit in such crude phraseology as “murdering bastard” and “fucking liar” lies a much more important failure of ideas? He can’t quite prove his point, so he resorts instead to shouting abuse and stamping his feet.

Later we are told of Lenin’s reaction to the famine which struck Czarist Russia in 1891:

He [Lenin] ‘had the courage’, as a friend put it, to come out and say openly that famine would have numerous positive results… Famine, he explained, in destroying the outdated peasant economy, would… usher in socialism… Famine would also destroy faith not only in the tsar, but in God too.

Clearly this ‘friend’ of Lenin’s was a nineteenth-century version of the sort of sad anorak who can sometimes still be found wandering around the fringes of the various far left organisations. You know the sort, the one with a slightly mad stare who thinks that what we really need to stir the masses into action is a sudden economic collapse followed immediately by a good long war. The key point here, though, is that the words belong not to Lenin, but to this unnamed ‘friend’. If Amis wanted to convict Lenin of the crime of being indifferent to famine, then he really should have gone to the trouble of finding a quote from the man himself, rather than relying on such dodgy hearsay. It is true that Lenin believed that many of the famine relief schemes of the time were more about appearance than they were about reality: “In the regional capital of Samara only one intellectual, a twenty-two-year-old lawyer, refused to participate in the effort—and, indeed, publicly denounced it. This was Lenin.” However, there’s nothing very surprising about this. For example, there were many—and by no means all of them revolutionary socialists—who thought that the 1985 Live Aid concert was at least as much about ageing rock stars in general (and Bob Geldof in particular) salving their con­sciences and using the issue to get publicity for themselves, as it was about the Ethiopian famine. Surely what Lenin said back in 1891 amounted to nothing more than a nineteenth-century Russian version of the same thing?

Marxists are often accused, sometimes correctly so, of crude reductionist thinking. And yet here it is Amis who is desperate to simplistically collapse complex issues together. Marx is glibly dismissed as “a long dead German economist whose ideas [in the 1970s] were bringing biblical calamity to China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia”. Marxism = Stalinism. End of story. No mention of the fact that nowadays even many Wall Street economists regularly refer to the works of this “long dead German econo­mist”. To admit such an inconvenient fact would be to allow a shade of grey. And in this book Amis works only in black and white.

He makes no real attempt to differentiate between Stalinism and Trotskyism, preferring instead to pretend that they are one and the same thing. He asks his friend, the prominent British poet and onetime Trotskyist James Fenton: “How he… could align himself with a system that saw literature as a servant of the state; and, I thought, [you] must hate the language, the metallic cliches, the formulas and euphemisms”. There is a vast reservoir of non-Stalinist Marxist literary criticism into which Amis could have dipped, if he was even slightly interested in getting a real answer to this question. But why bother with nuance, when caricature will do? Similarly, he tells another friend (and former Trotskyist) the essayist and critic Christopher Hitchens that “An admiration for… Trotsky is meaning­less without an admiration for terror. [He] would not want your admiration without an admiration for terror. Do you admire terror?” It is as if the victims of the show trials of 1936 and 1938, such as Trotsky, Kamenev, Bukharin and Zinoviev, were as guilty as those who tortured and murdered them. Amis again and again accuses Marxists of being glib about human suffering, only to end up being very glib about it himself.

As far as I’m concerned, anyone who supported, or acted as an apologist for, regimes such as those in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China and North Korea certainly has questions to answer. In case anyone out there needs reminding of just how rough it sometimes got in the so-called ‘socialist’ countries, here is a description of life in the Gulag:

A group of prisoners at Kolyma were hungry enough to eat a horse that had been dead for more that a week (despite the stench and the infesta­tion of flies and maggots). Scurvy makes the bones brittle; but then, ‘Every prisoner welcomes a broken arm or leg.’ Extra-large scurvy boils were ‘particularly envied’. Admission to hospital was managed by quota. To get in with diarrhoea, you had to be evacuating (bloodily) every half hour. A man chopped off half his foot to get in there. And prisoners cultivated infections, feeding saliva, pus or kerosene to their wounds.

I personally would find it difficult to take very seriously anyone who ever so much as whispered an excuse for a regime such as this. Yes, we all make mistakes. But there are mistakes. And then again there are mistakes. However, there are, of course, also those on the left who never believed that the Soviet Union was any sort of paradise. The problem now is that we have all, to some extent, been painted with the same brush. To most people Marxism now either means failure or it means North Korea. And as soon as your average Joe and Josephine start thinking about North Korea, you can be sure it won’t be long before they’re also thinking how George W Bush isn’t so bad after all.

Yes, Koba the Dread is in many ways an absurd book; so deficient that had its author not already been very famous, it would probably never have been accepted for publication by a reputable publisher. But in one sense that is neither here nor there. The real issue is what, if anything, the left can do to disentangle itself from Stalin’s legacy? A few glib sentences here and there about North Korea being either ‘state capitalist’ or a ‘deformed workers’ state’ are unlikely to be enough. The thing which above all else fatally undermined the revolutionary left in the twentieth century was the disastrous knack it developed—and I think some of the Trotskyist organisa­tions are probably guilty here as well—of turning generation after genera­tion of wide-eyed young activists into grim apologists for everything the Party did, said and thought. If the word ‘socialism’ is to have any relevance at all in the 21st century, then this is surely the issue which, above all else, must be addressed.