An brat dearg

Foilsíodh an leagan Gaeilge seo de mhóramhrán sóisialach Jim Connell in Eagrán 43, i Márta 2011.

Go dtí le gairid, ní raibh aon aistriúchán iomlán Gaeilge le fáil ar ‘The Red Flag’, an t‑amhrán sóisialach is fearr aithne anseo agus sa Bhreatain. Tá dhá aistriúchán foilsithe againne le bliain anuas, áfach—agus murar leor na leaganacha atá i Red Banner 32 agus 36, seo iarracht eile fós! Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh a rinne an ceann seo dúinn.

Is dearg brat an phobail mhóir
Taisléine mairtíreach go leor
Is sula raibh siad fuar gear
D’fhág fuil a gcroí an dearg air

LOINNEOG
An brat dearg go hard sa spéir
Is faoi a sheasfaimid go léir
Ainneoin lucht fill is meatachán
An dearg a bheidh ar ár gcrann

Is breá le Francaigh é a fheiceáil
Is Gearmánaigh á mholadh thall
Cantar air i Moscó leis
Is Chicago ag dul sa treis

Bhí sé ann i dtús ár nirt
’S an sruth ag dul in aghaidh an chirt
Tugadh cath is mionna air
Coinnímis a dhath dá réir

Meabhraíonn sé an bua a bhí
Is síocháin chóir i ndeireadh slí
Bratach bhreá í, comhartha beo
Den cheart a thabharfaidh daoine leo

Feileann sé don seoinín claon
Ag santú pribhléide dó féin
Lútáil roimh an rachmasaí
An brat naofa a shatailt faoi

Geallaimid é a iompar linn
Ar aghaidh sa chath go gcaillfear sinn
Pé croch nó géibheann atá i ndán
Seo linn ag canadh ár n‑amhráin

Community Employment Scheme

This poem by Kevin Higgins appeared in Issue 42 in December 2010.

for Jack O’Connor

I am the thin fat man woman
you have been assigned to,
henceforth known as
The Co-ordinator.

Before the afternoon’s out
I’ll have you counting toilet rolls;
or guarding the traffic cones
that live at the bottom of the canal.

You will say nothing
about the blank cheques
you’ll never see me sign.
Play the cards I deal you right,
and I’ll have your back
fitted with a hunch. The others will know
you as my lovely assistant. You’ll spend
your best years penning post-it notes
to yourself, here in the office
with me. You’ll get to drink
on the job and hardly ever turn up
and know nothing
about the blank cheques
you never saw me sign. The rest
will be time in the loo.

Malcontents will be dispatched
to my friend the Independent Mediator.
I’m a social inclusion seminar
in a windowless room
no one leaves;
the thin fat man woman
you have been assigned to,
evermore known as
your Co-ordinator.

Decent auld sticks

In September 2010 (Issue 41) Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh reviewed a history of the Officials.

Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party (Penguin Ireland)

The authors of this book were kind enough to mention me in their acknowledgements, based on no more than some passing conver­sations with one of them. Thankfully, they saw fit to ignore one suggestion of mine, that Sticky Bastards would make a far better title! While my tongue was firmly encheeked at the time, of course, it may serve to give a sense of the chronically jaundiced eye with which some of us have traditionally approached the Officials and all their works. This outstanding history should succeed in replacing that with an attitude that recognises the genuine merits of that move­ment, without for a second abandoning a critical stance.

The chronic anti-Stick position is in large part a result of reading backwards from later situations, rather than comprehending them in their own terms. While the Workers’ Party did wind up in the perverse predicament of finding itself more comfortable with union­ism than with anyone opposing unionism, that was not always so, and nor was it an inevitable destination. The Officials were born of a sincere and worthwhile attempt to combine the two aspects of Ireland’s revolution that have evaded successful combination all too often: socialism and national liberation.

The failure of the IRA’s 1950s campaign to dislodge British rule forced a rethink on the republican movement, which led to it making a gradual but decisive shift to the left. Precedents from the 1930s are evident all over 1960s republicanism. On the one hand, republicans became lively participants in a remarkable range of campaigns and struggles. On the other hand, the movement contained many whose aims effectively went no further than a united Ireland, and adjusting its course from the top down proved complicated and awkward.

The eruption of the north deprived the movement of any leisurely atmosphere in which to work such problems through. Talk of building up a broad front to fight for a socialist Ireland seemed to be isolated from the urgent task of defending northern nationalist communities from official and unofficial unionist onslaught in 1969. This book should dispose of the myth that the IRA had ceased to exist in Belfast: in fact, it fought as best it could. But the IRA nationally had become less of an exclusively military force, and was inevitably less prepared for action. The movement’s leadership was evidently caught off guard by the speed of events and its response was consequently confused and contradictory. But the same can be said for virtually every political activist of the period, including those whose analysis was of far less consequence.

The conventional narrative of the republican split is given a much-needed corrective in this account. Far from being a clear-cut case of traditional militarist Provisionals versus radical socialist Officials, some of the left went with the Provos, plenty of the Officials were never backward in militarily coming forward, and a few tried to prevent the split happening in the first place. The positions that the split eventually solidified into were determined more by subsequent developments than by first positions.

Policies put forward on paper by either side only tell part of the story. The official Official line was that socialism couldn’t be fought for until Ireland had been united, and that Ireland couldn’t be united until the northern state had been democratised by a bill of civil rights. But this line was observed more in the breach than the observance by their members on the ground, who blurred these ‘stages’ in practice. It couldn’t have been otherwise unless they were to futilely hurl themselves across the path of a rapidly oncoming mass movement that was instinctively reacting against oppression in the round.

The early Official strategy of ‘defence and retaliation’ against British forces made a lot more sense than the Provisional strategy of bombing the British into an unlikely submission. Their staunch opposition to sectarian strife comes across as superficially admirable, but when working-class Protestants were physically attacking working-class Catholics to keep them in their place as second-class citizens, no socialist should have been concocting sociological excuses to prevent them supporting those fighting against oppression. By the time the Officials were regarding the UVF as legitimate representatives of Protestant workers, potential allies rather than enemies of the working class, they were on a downward spiral. Having given the devil their finger, they were to end up seeing the Provisionals as worse enemies than the British govern­ment. Too far east is west.

After a period where a hundred flowers seemed to bloom in the Official garden—Trotskyists, anarchists, Maoists and more besides feature here—by the mid-1970s their politics crystallised into a pretty settled Stalinism. Admiration for the eastern bloc dovetailed with an advocacy of state-sponsored accumulation for the Irish economy. But the divergence between leadership policy and grass­roots practice seems to recur here. While the pages of the Irish People could extol the virtues of the workers’ paradise supposedly being constructed in Albania, your average Workers’ Party member could just carry on regardless with the practical task of organising resistance to pay deals, water charges, or whatever.

Alike with other national liberation movements, the rigidity of Stalinist organisation came easily enough to a movement where military command structures had traditionally prevailed. The reliance on robberies to raise funds reinforced both the internal un­touchability of the military wing and the habit of nods and winks in place of open debate. While banks being relieved of a few thousand here and there is nothing to lose sleep over, illegal fundraising in a situation where socialists can operate legally creates a false situation where an organisation lives beyond its political means, surviving on its wits rather than its actual support among the working class.

The authors have done a remarkable job of gathering the various threads of a complicated story. The fact that this is neither hagio­graphy nor hatchet job has clearly won the confidence of past and present activists who tell their stories frankly. While it can be frustrating to find references to anonymous sources, the nature of the incidents involved dictates that it should be so, and we are at least given an idea of the sources’ position in the movement.

Irish-language sources are utilised in the book, something rare but indispensable in conveying the breadth of an often bilingual movement. However, say what you like about Seán Sabhat, but he never spoke Irish as barbaric as that attributed to him on page 14. (As if he isn’t turning enough above in Mount St Laurence cemetery, what with Limerick city serving intoxicating beverages last Good Friday—and for the benefit of a foreign game!) Page 237 claims that Sinn Féin’s Gaeltacht organiser Eoin Ó Murchú was supplied with the equipment with which Saor-Raidió Chonamara began pirate broadcasting in May 1970. But the station began broadcasting in March that year (before Ó Murchú was appointed) with equipment accessed by UCC engineering student Mícheál Ó hÉalaithe—facts revealed later that same year.

One area which could have done with further coverage is the activity of the Workers’ Party in the south during the 1980s. It brought together hard-working activists determined to battle for workers against the rich and powerful, and with a good degree of success. Anyone minded to snigger contemptuously at the party’s subsequent decline needs only compare the way it mobilised working-class communities against a biting recession 25 years ago with the left’s sorry attempts to do the like today. For all their mistakes, and they made loads of them, they deserve credit for their real achievements. While their leaders were often given to stupidity —vaulting the railings in Leinster House to vote in Charlie Haughey as Taoiseach, for Christ’s sake!—rank and file members were just as often to be found doggedly fighting for their class.

But it did all come to a crashing end as that decade did. The fall of the Berlin Wall tore many a playhouse down across the world’s left, of course, exposing the folly of all those who had hitched their socialism to that particular star. Having narrowly failed to win a two-thirds majority for an open embrace of social democracy, most of the party’s TDs and leading lights jumped ship to form Democratic Left and eventually wound up front and centre of the Labour Party. Given the pattern of members getting on with the job while acquiescing in whatever the leadership was up to, it is intriguing to speculate whether de Rossa and Co. would have brought the party with them by just quietly shifting tack rather than openly charting a different course. “One doesn’t say such things,” the godfather of reformism Eduard Bernstein was told, “one simply does them.” Over on the other side of the old split, after all, Sinn Féin has shifted considerably in recent decades but avoided large-scale splits by working on the ‘slowly, slowly, catchy monkey’ principle.

And so the story ends as it usually does. A group of proud socialists, Marxists, revolutionaries finish up merely providing fresh and energetic recruits for reformist politics, trade union bureaucracy, even high state office. “You train them, and we buy them,” as the duchess said to the left-wing intellectual. But how come an organisation based on hundreds of decent dedicated socialists came to such a pass?

When all is said and done, the fundamental cleavage of class society is between thinking and doing. The people who do the world’s work are on the bottom, while the people who decide what work is to be done are on the top. Socialism succeeds to the extent that it abolishes this unnatural division between mental and manual labour, and unites—on a social and an individual level—the making of decisions and the implementation of decisions. Any type of society that has some leading while others follow cannot be socialist.

Of course, an organisation seeking to get rid of capitalism cannot set itself up as a pre­figuration of the ideal society it aims to bring about. But its members cannot work towards overcoming the separation of leaders and workers if that same separation is re­inforced by the organisation they belong to. The Officials took this to the max, with leadership theoretic­ians in separate clandestine branches from the rank and file who carried out their policies, but the basic mould is visible in other left-wing groups that don’t take it to such an extreme. How many socialists leave it up to their leaders to worry about the big questions while they concentrate on the everyday nitty gritty? And how many of their leaders have built up structures which ensure that it will always be thus?

The Lost Revolution is required reading for socialists wanting to under­stand a crucial part of what the Irish left has come through. But unless we use the knowledge it gives us to help plough a different kind of furrow, we are only reading a version of our own future in other people’s past.

SIPTU: The view from the bridge

Noel McDermott reviewed an official cententary history of Ireland’s biggest union in Issue 40 (June 2011).

Francis Devine, Organising History: A Centenary of SIPTU (Gill & Macmillan)

The first thing that strikes you about this book is the sheer daunting bulk of its 1220 pages. A work of this size, length and weight will sadly put off all too many potential readers, or cause them to leave it as an ornament on the shelf. SIPTU’s arrangement with Gill & Macmillan has seen the publication of a few hefty tomes in recent years, some with no evidence of any editing process. Marx once wrote of the dogs who judge the value of books by their cubic volume, but intelligent readers know that size isn’t as important as what you do with it.

It is often difficult to see the wood for the trees here, as the author gets bogged down in the facts instead of utilising them to present a coherent narrative. On pages 28-9, for instance, we read:

In 1912 R.J.P. Mortished contributed statistical articles to the Irish Worker as “justification for the agitator”. Larkin secured the distribution of bread to Enniscorthy during a bakery strike to feed the people. In Dublin, cinema and theatre workers struck.

Three sentences fire out three unrelated facts, neither of which is developed or located within the general sequence of events, and neither of which are probably important enough to include out of a hundred years of activity. Page 109, with its disparate retailing of distinct topics under distinct sub-headings, looks for all the world like the parish notes of a provincial newspaper.

It should be pleaded in Francis Devine’s defence that he had a fiercely difficult task, boiling down a complex century into a single book. And all the while, he had his nose to the grindstone as a tutor for SIPTU, something he none too subtly emphasises in his preface. While it is not uncommon for an author’s preface to mention other work that held a book up, it is rare to give comprehensive references to it in footnotes!

He could have done us a few favours, all the same. Hardly a committee gets mentioned without a full-dress roll call of its members in the footnotes. It is interesting to learn that the ITGWU organised a boxing tournament “to raise funds and morale” in the wake of the 1913 lockout (p 66), but did we really need a footnote telling us who fought who in each bout? The 122 pages of footnotes should have been severely reduced by excising such minutiae, and employing some abbreviations. An attempt was clearly made to amalgamate footnotes, but often confusingly, so that the connection between text and reference is hard to decipher (and in Chapter 33 goes askew altogether). Some chapters conclude by wasting a few pages on reproducing frankly unremarkable documents in full.

The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union was founded in 1909, a radical new union under the lead of Jim Larkin. It is tempting to contrast the revolutionary drive of the early ITGWU with the staid conservatism of today’s SIPTU—to entitle the story ‘When Good Unions Turn Bad’—but way too simple. Unions exist above all to win workers better terms for the sale of their ability to work, and that means encompassing as many of them as possible, from the socialist to the anti-socialist and all points in between. By a certain stage this process evolves some kind of administrative apparatus, and a layer of officials whose interests no longer coincide entirely with those they represent. As early as 1914 ITGWU officials were salting strike pay into a mortgage on the union head office, unbeknown to Larkin. A young trade unionist enthusiastic about bringing his workmates into the union in 1919 had his admiration for Larkin dampened by the president: “What is wonderful about him?… Today we settle everything by negotiations” (p 942).

But one of the ITGWU’s guiding principles was “a Socialist philosophy… an agenda that stretched well beyond wages and conditions to question the validity of capitalism itself” (p 17, 26). It is hard to imagine SIPTU president Jack O’Connor proposing “abolition of the capitalist system” at an ICTU conference as his predecessors did in 1912 (p 32). In fact the initial ITGWU rules, demanding nationalisation of land and transport, far outstrip anything SIPTU calls for today. Its lack of regard for the rules of the capitalist game gave the union an energy that saw it spread like wildfire after the first world war as part of a general enthusiasm for radical social change. Was the union’s leadership to blame for the squandering of that enthusiasm? It’s “debatable”, writes Devine, but he has no intention of debating it, beyond wondering whether the union was “the victim of a broader submission of labour to National­ist politics” (p 14). Given how central the ITGWU’s voice was in the movement’s counsels, this is implausible. The problem was expect­ing union leaders to do a job that properly lays on the shoulders of organised socialists.

But the author’s refusal to get off the fence on this and other controversies is not just irritating: it robs the book of a unifying standpoint that would have allowed the material to be filtered better. And there was an admirable precedent that could have been followed. C Desmond Greaves’s The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union: The Formative Years 1909-1923 (1982) is magisterial in locating the incidents of the union’s activity within a wider political context. Far too frequently Organising History is just annual reports writ large, enumerating the unions’ own versions of their activities—quite literally going through the motions.

The union split in 1923, with the Workers’ Union of Ireland established the following year. Larkin had always stood for instinct­ive radicalism and chaotically primitive organisation. During his nine years in the US, the ITGWU under William O’Brien had organised more effectively but lost much of its soul. Someone like James Connolly could have united efficiency and militancy, as he did during his remarkable year and a half in charge, but the tragedy of 1923 was the way those two elements were cast as antagonists rather than complements.

This history lays the split primarily at the door of Larkin and O’Brien personally, with a touch of plague on both their houses. But while their mutual hatred undoubtedly poisoned the well further, the split was political at its core. There is no way that 15,000 of the capital’s best trade unionists just blindly followed Larkin out as if he was the Pied Piper of Dublin. The wisest course was that shown by a committee of rank and file ITGWU members who investigated the affair: they tried to do everything humanly possible to prevent the split, but once it was irrevocable most of them joined the WUI (p 153). The WUI was a better union to work in, more militant and—despite Larkin’s one-man showmanship—more democratic. The ITGWU effectively allied with employers and the state against it.

The difference between the two was clear when the government imposed wage freezes during the second world war. While both unions were officially opposed, the WUI was wholeheartedly in­volved in the protest movement whereas the ITGWU chose to work the system. Devine does take sides here: “While others shouted at street corners about Standstill Orders, the ITGWU got on with the business” (p 300)—quite a contemptuous dismissal of one of the century’s most significant movements of Irish labour.

WUI branches had more autonomy within the union, even financially, giving the rank and file a greater voice than in the ITGWU. In the 1950s the latter union proclaimed unofficial action to be “the complete antithesis of trade unionism”, its president decree­ing that “unofficial strikes are outlawed and ended so far as this Union is concerned”, and backed up the threat by slashing strike pay from 52 per cent of total income in 1952 to 4 per cent the following year. The WUI leadership also opposed unofficial action—after all, that’s what union leaderships do—but the union’s culture wouldn’t allow it such vicious opposition, and its strike pay actually doubled in the same period (p 409, 412, 498). While all unions succumbed to the religious fervour of that decade, the WUI didn’t prostrate itself quite so humbly before papal and episcopal authority.

From the 1960s on the unions converged, however, and the author plausibly suggests that they would have merged sooner only for the passing of leaders on both sides committed to greater co-operation. He says that “The WUI’s growth was less impressive” in the sixties, but his figures reveal a membership 21.2 per cent that of the ITGWU at the start of the decade and still 20.6 per cent at its end (p 585). Its expansion beyond Dublin and into new sectors—especially its amalgamation with the Federation of Rural Workers to form the Federated Workers’ Union of Ireland in 1979—meant that it had caught up a good bit on a more slowly increasing ITGWU by the time the two formed the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union in 1990.

The convergence is clear in the similar reaction of ITGWU and FWUI leaders to the tax marches of the late 1970s and early 1980s: supportive of the campaign’s purpose, but fearful of a rank and file movement growing beyond their control. While arguing convincing­ly that workers were paying an unfair tax burden, they baulked at the idea of backing up the demand with their industrial muscle. A slight majority of ITGWU members voted for strikes on the issue, but the ballot was organised in such a way that votes for stoppages of different durations were counted separately (p 1123). Devine locates the ultimate failure of the movement elsewhere, in “the fact that tens of thousands marched in protest against Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael actions but then voted for them in successive elections” (p 717). This becomes a constant refrain: union leaders let down by the political ignorance of their members, donkeys led by lions. But if tens of thousands of workers on the streets are told to go home quietly and wait for an election, where’s the surprise if passivity sets in? And Labour’s super-adhesive attachment to coalition meant that voting for them came to the same thing as voting for Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. If the unions had summoned the imagination to create some kind of independent political alternative for workers, things may have been different.

Unions outside of SIPTU and its predecessors get short shrift. Thousands of Irish workers are members of unions that organise in Britain also, but Devine has no time for them. He applies sarcastic quotation marks to their self-designation as “‘Amalgamated’ unions”, before bluntly characterising them himself as downright “British unions” pure and simple. A familiar attempt at a neutral description is then corrected by him within brackets: “‘cross-channel’ (British) unions” (p 306-7, 309). The biggest such union, the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers, is regularly jibed at, with the insults of ITGWU leaders uncritically repeated—including one perverse condemnation of it for pursuing a distinct policy for Irish members (p 414)! Cases of workers transferring to the ATGWU are incredulously and haughtily dismissed. The heavy blow of Aer Lingus cabin crew defecting to IMPACT in 2000 is acknowledged only by a general remark about SIPTU’s efforts at Dublin airport being “not fully appreciated by members” (p 861).

This is very much an in-house history, as emphasised by a foreword jointly signed by SIPTU’s ruling triumvirate. They even refer to the author as “Francy” (p viii), and the familiarity is mutual in his profiles of union leaders. Mostly these are very useful summaries of careers, but sometimes they stray into the realm of public relations. A line like “his persuasive, personable style hides a shrewd and, if need be, tough administrator” (p 992) would be more appropriate to a Joe O’Flynn fan club newsletter. A competition to see who “has shown personal courage and integrity on many issues and is not afraid to champion unpopular causes” (p 988) would throw up an awful lot of names before anyone guessed Éamon Gilmore!

For all its imposing girth, this book leaves much of the story untold, as its author acknowledges (p 881, 886):

the overwhelming amount of union activity remains hidden, unrecorded in annual or Conference reports, Executive minutes or journals.… Leaders, naturally, make headlines and are record­ed in any history. Conversely, thousands of ‘unsung heroes’ escape any record.

But not all of them escaped the record, if you’re prepared to look for them. Devine’s belief that “arguably the most historic Conference in the union’s 100-year history” was one that adopted changes to SIPTU’s structure (p 842) betrays an unmistakeable bias towards the bureaucracy as against workers’ activities on the ground.

Repeatedly, rank and file members organised to point a different direction to that of their leaders, but only the merest hint of it surfaces in this history. The fullest account, but all too short, is of an ITGWU branch in the Donegal Gaeltacht which spoke a different language to Liberty Hall in more ways than one. The radicalism of its paper An tOibrí irked the leadership who—for all their boasts of leading an Irish union—demanded “a literal translation in advance” of the next issue. The editor carried on regardless, but they got their own back by suspending him for supporting successful unofficial action (p 641). New Liberty was a significant ITGWU rank and file group in the 1970s, but only merits tangential references. All we are told of Dockers’ Voice, produced by Belfast rank-and-filers in the same decade, is the leadership’s predictable view that it was “led by ‘outside influences’” (p 600). The groundbreaking 42 per cent vote for factory worker Carolann Duggan in the 1997 SIPTU presidential election is presented merely as “ruffling feathers” (p 805) with never a word about her campaign or others like it.

One of the factors behind that vote was dissatisfaction at leaders paying themselves salaries closer to those of employers than those of their members. The author mentions SIPTU and the ITGWU before it “often being characterised as non-militant, undemocratic and bureaucratic. The data does not support such allegations” (p 882-3). But if we use staff costs as an indicator of the strength of officials in relation to members—something Devine does (p 286-7)—then the data does support them. Staff salaries more than doubled as a proportion of ITGWU expenditure between 1974 and 1978, from 25 per cent to 52 per cent, and SIPTU has kept the figure steady around 60 per cent (p 1013, 835-6). On the other hand, the percentage spent on strike pay was held to single figures throughout the ITGWU’s last decade, and SIPTU’s average has been only 1.2 per cent, with a barely credible figure of 0.1 per cent for 2005 (p 1011, 1021).

The author is honest enough to recognise the consequences for union membership. Recruiting workforces through sweetheart deals with employers who then collect subs on the union’s behalf, along with corporate agreements at state level, led to (p 685-6, 737)

the invisible distancing of the membership.… The ‘service model’ unconsciously placed members outside their union as consumers of its services, rather than embracing these members as integral, participating components of its organisation. …‘slot machine’ trade unionism: you pay your money and expect a product, but saw no participative role for yourself.

The remedy was for the new SIPTU to ensure that “the individual member was placed at its heart” (p 695). It would be more accurate to say ‘the isolated, atomised individual member’, who was allowed a vote for top officials every couple of years but structurally denied scope to combine with his or her fellow members and collectively influence or challenge the union’s workings from below. When union density declined in the 1990s, “SIPTU’s response was to trans­form itself from ‘service’ to ‘organising union’, a return to Larkin and Connolly’s instinctive organising model” (p 881). This will come as news to many of its members. Whereas those two pioneers believed in their hearts that an injury to one is an injury to all, SIPTU only believes this to be the case provided said injury has been processed through correct procedures and officially sanctioned at executive level in accordance with rule.

One of Organising History’s merits is that it integrates the experience of women members into the story—although union leaders weren’t always so keen. In the 1930s the ITGWU called for and welcomed legislation to restrict the employment of women (p 235-6). But there was some internal opposition to this, and thankfully there is more than a tale of sexist male trade unionists to tell. The example of Tralee ITGWU is a good one. They proposed a motion at the 1964 conference against the displacement of male workers by women, but the following year came back to demand equal pay for women, the same delegate having seen the light. By 1972 the branch was proposing industrial action to enforce equality (p 514-15, 594).

A WUI delegate is quoted from 1960: “The conference ‘should not argue against women replacing men’ but ‘see that the women get the same wages as the men’” (p 556). No such clarity characterised SIPTU’s official response to workers from other countries forty years on, with nods and winks about displacement by foreigners giving dangerous hostages to fortune. This is lost here amid self-congratulatory description of multicultural initiatives signed up to. In 1971 the ITGWU leadership opposed a motion against employing foreigners as “unfair” (p 623), but SIPTU’s successful attempt to exclude Romanian and Bulgarian workers in 2005 is swept under the carpet.

The modern era of social partnership has had its tragic aspects, but when discussing it the book becomes unintentionally comic. In 1987, the year of the first deal, “Another 30,000 people abandoned ship through emigration; but at least now there was some receptacle for union policies other than wastepaper bins” (p 732)! Also with an apparently straight face, Devine informs us that “In 1993 SIPTU expressed concerns that ‘findings of the judiciary were inconsistent with the assurances given’ by the then Minister for Labour, Bertie Ahern, when the Industrial Relations Act (1990) passed” (p 822-3). When making claims for rises in workers’ pay under partnership (p 852-3), he is careful not to quote any figures for the far greater rises in corporate profits.

But the course of the social partners’ true love didn’t always run smooth. The author is mightily impressed with Jack O’Connor heroically staying away from partnership talks for a whole month in 2004, because he tells us about it three times in seven pages (p 853, 858, 860). A predecessor, Jimmy Somers, insisted in 1997 that he wouldn’t be party to any agreement “unless there was ‘substantial and significant’ progress on recognition and no ‘fudging, dodging or parking the issue somewhere for another ten years’” (p 824)—but the very next sentence supplies the deadpan punchline: “There was little advance on recognition in 1997.” After another thirteen years, bosses still have no legal obligation to negotiate with unions. But fear not, for the leaders’ foreword says: “we must ensure that workers do not have to wait another 100 years to secure the basic civil right to organise and bargain with their employers” (p viii). Union recog­nition some time before the year 2109: now there’s ambition for you!

Many readers will have their own memories of the more recent disputes covered here, and many of those memories will be at odds with what they read. Pat the Baker, Nolan’s Transport, Ryanair are all acknowledged as failures, but there is no notion that SIPTU bears any of the blame for losing them. The Irish Ferries dispute showed undoubted fighting spirit and solidarity, but this book tries to claim some of that for the union leaders who negotiated the surrender. Worst of all, perhaps, is the Gama strike, where the union’s years of pocketing subs from workers they left languishing on an illegal pittance is shrouded in a self-serving account that draws exclusively on the SIPTU annual report.

Francis Devine does deserve our gratitude for assembling a vast array of facts about our biggest union and its forerunners. For all the criticisms that can be made of how he handles them, it is good to have a book which tells that story, where almost every reader can light upon a mention of their own workplace or town or industry. Without a doubt, you can see an awful lot from the top floor of Liberty Hall—but looking outwards will reveal a lot more.

A false economy

Maeve Connaughton reviewed two attempts at a socialist response to the economic crisis in Issue 39 (December 2010).

Kieran Allen, Ireland’s Economic Crash: A Radical Agenda for Change (Liffey Press)
An Economy for the Common Good: Strategy for a new direction (Communist Party of Ireland, €4.50)

Kieran Allen’s book appears, as he writes, “At a time when the living standards of PAYE workers are being severely reduced” (p 177). All the more reason, then, that they shouldn’t be charged €17 to read all about it. Does he not know there’s a recession on? In all seriousness, times like these call for socialists to take real account of the afford­ability, and hence accessibility, of their arguments.

Both these publications give a solid and useful account of the way the economy has gone belly-up in Ireland and globally, and the painful social consequences that have followed. An Economy for the Common Good features an admirable analysis of Irish economic history to illustrate the peculiar weaknesses of capitalism here. Allen, on the other hand, refers only to “many complex historic reasons” for this (p 14), without telling us what they are: his history only really starts in the 1990s.

Both analyses agree, however, in locating the source of capitalist crisis primarily in the sphere of consumption. The system’s problem, according to Allen, is that capitalists hold down wages, and hence “workers cannot buy the goods that have been produced… the more they succeed, the more they reduce the buying power of workers and feed into the problem” (p 95, 97). An Economy for the Common Good sings from a similar hymn sheet, asking “if production is increased while the wages of the workers—who are also the majority of the final consumers—are held down, how can the rising volume of goods be sold” (p 41)?

Strange, then, if low wages are the cause of capitalism’s woes, that the capitalist class always and everywhere strives to reduce wages as much as it can get away with. A vast sector of the economy doesn’t produce consumption goods for workers at all, but machinery and technology for other companies: how would higher wages help to sell those? Crisis originates, not from workers’ decreasing consumption, but from their decreasing role in produc­tion: the tendency for their labour to become a proportionally smaller part compared to other inputs, and therefore for the surplus value they produce to reduce in relation to overall investment. If capitalism gets out of its current predicament, it will be by extracting more profit from workers and paying them less in return, not more.

Focussing on the capitalist labour process like this points logically to the need for a whole new economic system. The under­consumption argument, how­ever, logically leads to the conclusion that stimulating consumer demand can revive the economy. Allen calls government stimulus packages “a form of ‘Keynesian­ism from above’” (p 80), as if the theories of John Maynard Keynes were ever based on something other than state inter­vention. His call for a large-scale public works programme is classically Keynes­ian, even if he hopes for this Keynesianism to come from below. Of course, we should be building more schools, better hospitals, decent houses, but purely for the benefit of the working class, not as a measure to revive the fortunes of the capitalist economy.

Understanding the recession “entails returning to the ideas of the greatest critic of the system, Karl Marx” (Allen, p 84). Indeed, reading Marx’s analysis of capitalism is one of the most profitable things you could be doing at the moment. But you can only return somewhere once you’ve been there in the first place. Both public­ations ignore Marx’s insistence that exploitation is rooted in produc­tion rather than consumption, that while capitalism systematically fails to meet human needs, its growth was never based on meeting them and neither can its collapse arise from failing to meet them. He was quite clear about it in Book Two of Capital:

It is a pure tautology to say that crises are provoked by a lack of effective demand or effective consumption. The capitalist system does not recognize any form of consumer other than those who can pay, if we exclude the consumption of paupers and swindlers. The fact that commodities are unsaleable means no more than that no effective buyers have been found for them, i.e. no consumers… If the attempt is made to give this tautology the semblance of greater profundity by the statement that the working class receives too small a share of its own product, and that the evil would be remedied if it received a bigger share, i.e. if its wages rose, we need only note that crises are always prepared by a period in which wages generally rise…

The cavalier attitude that so many self-proclaimed Marxists have towards Marx’s economics is on prominent display here. “Karl Marx, in his study of capitalism,” according to An Economy for the Common Good (p 11), “explained the tendency for individual capital units to become bigger and in so doing to oust the smaller capitalists, to stop the distribution of surplus value among smaller capitalists by price-fixing and by limiting the supply of material to them.” He did explain such a tendency, but not by such underhand means: while price fixing and other fiddles undoubtedly take place, the concen­tration of capital in fewer hands proceeds apace when the system operates entirely legally and above board. Allen quotes from Capital repeatedly, but if you follow his references, the text he cites usually doesn’t match up with the edition he refers to (p 90-1, 94-5, 117). Evidently he has lifted his quotations from someone else’s book but cobbled together footnotes that give the impression of having read Capital. It is a little disturbing to come across such an old student trick from such a leading academic personage.

More disturbing is the nationalistic framework that An Economy for the Common Good argues from. It sees the sovereignty of national capitalist states as some kind of bulwark against capitalism, but worse still, displays an unmistakably negative attitude to migration (p 39):

The “free movement of labour” is anything but free… whole families are split and communities wrecked so that the most able can go to another country and earn money, often in conditions of extreme exploitation, while local workers are unemployed… In such circumstances, policies of economic protection are the only method available to a national parliament answerable to the people with which to protect the population within its legal framework. Each country, in the face of ruthless trading, must do what it can to protect itself and its people.

This amounts to a sophisticated version of the claim that foreigners are taking jobs from “local workers” and that Ireland needs to ‘look after our own’. The exploitation of immigrant workers becomes a reason, not to combat that racist exploitation, but to restrict the entry of its victims. When a rich country closes its borders to poor immigrants, it is never out of concern for their families or communities, but an attempt to encourage prejudice against scape­goats. The duty of labour movements in such countries is to wel­come and organise them as equals, to defend their rights as tenaciously as any “local workers”. This responsibility should be greater than ever now in Ireland, as the recession is disproportion­ately attacking the jobs, conditions and entitlements of workers from other countries.

Both publications put forward similar demands to alleviate the current situation, demands that are becoming fairly common currency on the left: a state bank, nationalisation of oil and gas reserves, a public pension you could comfortably live on, and more besides that contains much merit. But is all this to reform capitalism or replace it?

An Economy for the Common Good is explicit here (p 2):

These proposals are not in them­selves revolutionary; they will not “smash capital”. The overthrow of capitalism requires that the working class and its allies refuse to be governed in the old way and that the ruling class is unable to rule in the old way. These circum­stances have not yet arrived.

Consequently it calls for “a profound democratisation of the role of the state, moving it away from being an instrument for imposing policies and protecting the interests of the powerful minority to being an instrument for ensuring that the will of the majority—of working people—is primary”, with parliaments being “forced to administer the state in favour of all the people” (p 51).

Of course we are not on the brink of revolution, but neither are we a million miles across an impassable chasm from it. The ruling class’s way of ruling has been severely upset lately, and many workers are a good bit less amenable to how they are being ruled. In these circumstances, socialists can put the idea of smashing capital up for serious discussion, rather than putting it into dismissive quotation marks. But that would require a recognition that capital’s state needs smashing and replacing too, instead of trying to remodel it into something it can never become.

Allen is better here: “we need to question the very fundamentals of the system… step beyond the parameters set by a for-profit economy”. His proposals are meant to be “Bridging mechanisms” that combine “a vision of what a different society might look like with certain policies which can be fought for now”. But while he wants a different state “which represents an entirely different class interest to the present one”, his demands could all be met within the boundaries of the capitalist system. So there is more here than the “certain ambiguity” he admits to: reform and revolution are blurred, with a new society stumbling into existence out of frustrated attempts to remould the old one, with no clear demarcation between the two (p viii, 84, 157-9).

An Economy for the Common Good is frankly nostalgic for the good old days of the USSR where the economy was apparently based on “providing for all citizens, not merely a privileged few” (p 13). This may come as a surprise to people who worked in that economy to fund superior lifestyles for their economic and political bosses. Allen has no such attachment to Stalinist economy, but surprisingly his chief objection to it is technical: the lack of “genuine transparency or accountability” in economic administration (p 210). His ideas for a workers’ economy are strikingly weak (p 184, 209):

In a socialist society, there would be monthly meetings organ­ised, on a non-hierarchical basis, where staff are allowed to propose changes in the organisation of the service.… Workers should periodically discuss how to run their enterprises. They should be free to discuss better ways to raise productivity…

This differs little from modern techniques of capitalist management that endlessly interact with staff, valuing their feedback and wel­coming their suggestions. In a truly socialist workplace, workers would not just be allowed a consultative role but would run the show themselves. And the same principle would apply to the political direction of society—an aspect on which Allen is mute.

Who exactly is going to turn the situation around? The answer is annoyingly vague: “people power” for Allen (p 207), “a politically organised people’s movement” for An Economy for the Common Good (p 50). But the ‘people’ is anyone and everyone, Tom, Dick, Harry, and whoever you’re having yourself: it’s a word that mystifies rather than clarifies. Marxist socialism, in contrast, is nothing if not clear that the working class and its struggles have to be in the saddle if capitalism is to be genuinely overcome. Allen, to give him his due, does speak of “the workers’ movement, the key agency in modern society which has the power to reorganise society” (p 158)—but socialism and “people power” are two separate and parallel tracks for him. With all these wheels within wheels, it looks as though the socialists are to emerge from the belly of populism when the time is right, like Greeks from a Trojan horse.

While the economic crisis hasn’t been as catastrophic as feared, it has shaken up a lot of things in society. It has obviously given some socialists the impetus to start talking about how the economy works or doesn’t work. What it hasn’t yet done is emboldened many of them to stand up openly for an absolute clean break with capitalism and all it crawls for. Too often, the left’s alternative comes across as a radical reconditioning of the vehicle that’s breaking down on us, when what we need is a scrappage scheme. The idea that we have to skirt around the notion of socialist transformation, smuggling it into the conversation as only a little thing after all, is a false economy, a dead end rather than a short cut. A bold advocacy of a complete social and economic overhaul can begin to create a real pole of political attraction for people seeking credible answers. We could surprise ourselves, because now is a time for socialists to come out with their ideas fighting. If not now, when?

Mining soul deep: A lesson in history (part two)

Following on from part one, in Issue 38 (December 2009) Michelle Charlton concluded her look at music in solidarity with the British miners.

By late 1984, the increasing isolation of their strike had led some miners to assault individual scabs. “No, it’s not good, is it?” was the verdict of Bob, one of the strikers interviewed for the B side of ‘Soul Deep’. “I don’t believe in that.” When asked if such tactics didn’t play into the enemy’s hands, he agreed that “It’s not doing us any good at all, no.”

Shortly after that interview was recorded, on 30 November, two strikers dropped a concrete slab from a bridge on to a taxi driving two scabs to work in Merthyr Vale pit: the driver, David Wilkie, was killed. It was a desperate act born of utter frustration. Scabbing was even more of a betrayal than usual in the close-knit south Wales coalfield, particularly here where 144 people had been killed in the Aberfan pit disaster eighteen years before. The police siege of the area was preventing any effective picketing, and two miners resorted to extremes. It emerged at their trial that another striker was on the bridge trying to persuade them against the act, and we can only imagine the arguments that took place there. Wilkie had been ferrying scabs under police escort for a while, but his death left behind a fiancée and three kids, with another on the way. It did nothing but harm, presenting the miners’ enemies with a gaping open goal.

It also allowed Polydor Records to push for the withdrawal of the record due to come out in support of the strike. “From the outset, the company was unhappy about releasing ‘Soul Deep’”, according to Dennis Munday who liaised between them and the Style Council. They claimed it would alienate the band’s potential audience, but—given that the record-buying public was well aware of where the Style Council stood politically—it just sounds like a corporation supporting its own side in the strike. The killing of Wilkie saw them redouble their opposition to the single, “bringing about immense pressure to withdraw it”, writes Munday. He stuck to his guns, though, forcing Polydor to accept that ‘Soul Deep’ would only be pulled if the Council Collective themselves wanted it pulled.1

Only the most hard-bitten supporter of the strike affected to remain unmoved by the Merthyr Vale tragedy, and those involved in ‘Soul Deep’ did have some heart searching to do. Rumours spread as thousands of copies of the single lay idle in a warehouse, and on 5 December the company announced its cancellation for “artistic reasons”, the standard record industry excuse.2 But after discussions between Paul Weller and Polydor, that thankfully proved a false alarm. The single would come out, it was announced, with some of the proceeds being diverted:

The aim was to raise money for the striking miners and their families before Christmas. In the light of the tragic event last week we will also be giving some of the money to Mr Wilkie’s widow. We still support the strike—because if the miners lose it will mean the end of the trade union movement.3

The lyrics were originally to be printed on the back of the sleeve, but Weller had them removed.4 Presumably he felt it was no longer appropriate to highlight the line “There’s blood on the hillside” in the chorus. The single was released on 14 December. “We just wanted time to think about it”, explained Weller in an interview. “I still think the strike’s got to go on and got to have support, but that kind of violence isn’t going to help anyone.”5 An advance of £9,800 went to Women Against Pit Closures immediately.6

Weller and Ruffin were interviewed on BBC Radio 1, and the Council Collective performed on Channel 4’s The Tube. Despite the reluctance of mainstream radio to play the single and the refusal of some record shops to stock it, it entered the charts at number 37, accompanied by a performance on Top of the Pops. Given the programme’s subsequent slow demise, it can be easily forgotten how central Top of the Pops once was to popular cultural debate. It set the agenda for schoolyard discussions up and down Britain every Friday morning, the previous night’s performances being cited as proof that The Smiths were genius, that Duran Duran were wankers, or whatever. The Style Council were notorious for not taking the programme as seriously as the BBC would have liked: deliberately miming badly, playing the wrong instruments, smirking at in-jokes. But the Council Collective were on their best behaviour for the cause, dutifully playing along amidst the moronic dancers and flying balloons. In a slight variation to the single, Weller even joined in the song’s rap, and the result manages not to be embarrassing.7

Later on the same Top of the Pops, Weller joined in the perform­ance of Band Aid’s number one ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, sheepishly miming Bono’s part as the future knight of the realm must have been washing his mullet that evening. While Weller was fully involved in the single’s aim of publicising and trying to alleviate famine in Africa, it is nonsense to claim that Band Aid “certainly inspired the Council Collective”.8 One of the many reasons ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ is such a dog’s dinner is that it mashes together a sorry hotch-potch of musical styles, whereas ‘Soul Deep’ has an underlying musical coherence to it. Plenty of other musicians could have been willingly roped in—Billy Bragg, for example, who had played support on the Style Council tour in March and was performing benefits in miners’ welfare halls across England at the time9—but the Council Collective was kept as a united collective of musicians with a broadly similar style, rather than a random grouping of hitmakers.

Apart from anything else, ‘Soul Deep’ had been recorded a month before Band Aid was assembled. Despite their mutual dislike, Bob Geldof had gone out of his way to get Weller involved in the project, bringing him into the studio to help put the song together the day before the stars turned up in front of the cameras.10 The Council Collective was not one of the rash of charity supergroups that followed in Band Aid’s wake. In fact, while benefit concerts with various artists were nothing new, and individual musicians had donated royalties from records, ‘Soul Deep’ may well have pioneered the practice of bringing together an ensemble to record a single for a good cause.

‘Soul Deep’ got as high as number 24 and spent six weeks in the charts, selling 100,000 and raising a decent sum of money for the miners.11 In Ireland, seemingly the only other country the single reached, it got to number 11—which goes along with NUM leader Arthur Scargill’s belief that Irish support for the strike was proportionately higher then elsewhere.12 But it was all a drop in the ocean when faced with a state willing to spend twenty times as much to defeat the miners. Those power cuts didn’t happen, other unions didn’t turn sympathy into action, and in March 1985 the miners went back proud but defeated. However, ‘Soul Deep’ had helped ensure that some miners’ families were fed, that some miners’ children got Christmas presents, that thousands of people got the message that their fight had to be supported.

The song featured in the Style Council’s live set throughout 1985, but the early part of that year was devoted to recording their second album Our Favourite Shop. Its predecessor was a very eclectic mix, but Weller promised that this would be different: “Though there’s still loads of styles on Our Favourite Shop, it’s more coherent and more confident. We took more time over it too.”13 The tracks do hang together a lot better, but after the instrumental that gives the album its title, it concludes with a track that sticks out: ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down!’ Unlike many of the tracks, its recording date is unknown: it seems to have been laid down late in March.14 Musically, it is noticeably less slick than the rest of the album, and the lyrics are far more rough and ready. The song bears all the hallmarks of being written quickly in response to the defeat of the miners’ strike and recorded soon after.

What’s more, the main influence on the lyrics is ‘A Miner’s Point’, the interview from the B side of ‘Soul Deep’. Chris’s point that solidarity from other workers in the energy industry was needed to cause power cuts and bring Thatcher to heel is openly evident:

Governments crack and systems fall
’Cause Unity is powerful
Lights go out—walls come tumbling down!

Bob’s belief that the working class was being weakened by consumerism and debt is also there:

The competition is a colour TV
We’re on still pause with the video machine
That keep you slaves to the HP

Their insistence that the strike was more than a simple industrial dispute is echoed too: “Are you gonna get to realise / The class war’s real and not mythologised”.

Some of these lyrics sound clumsy. One line refers to those who “dangle jobs like the donkey’s carrot”, with the emphasis on the second syllable of ‘carrot’ just so it rhymes with “not” two lines before. Then follows “Until you don’t know where you are”, which seems to be the work of a songwriter who didn’t know where he was when it came to filling in the next line. It’s not that Weller couldn’t write a political song that worked artistically too: the album is full of them, like the blatant call to arms ‘Internationalists’ with no such weaknesses. It all points to ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down!’ being written in the heat of the moment as a gut reaffirmation of socialist principle.

And that is the song’s abiding virtue. With the beaten miners’ strike still an open wound, it was a shot in the arm to hear a song that began: “You don’t have to take this crap / You don’t have to sit back and relax / You can actually try changing it”. As many on the left embarked on a long day’s journey into the right, hearing Paul Weller on Top of the Pops insist that the class war wasn’t mytholog­ised stiffened the resolve. On top of that, it was commercially successful, going to number six when released as a single in May, a position no later Style Council single would reach. Hundreds of millions heard it at Live Aid that July too. For all its shortcomings as a song, ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down!’ was a powerful and necessary political statement inspired by the thoughts of two strikers in Britain’s most important class battle for generations.

What is wasn’t was an attempt to slag other musicians. The line “You don’t have to sit back and relax”, claims John Reed’s biography, “alluded to the ‘Frankie Say Relax’ T‑shirt craze which followed the enormous success of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s single”.15 Paolo Hewitt takes it further, calling the line “a direct dig at the band Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Their single, Relax, had recently hit the number one spot. The band’s decadent image riled Paul.”16 First, ‘Relax’ was a hit a year and a half before, not “recently”. Second, while Weller was never shy in criticising other artists, no caustic comments on Frankie have emerged. Third, their subsequent single ‘Two Tribes’ was a prominent part of a popular anti-nuclear mood that the Style Council actively promoted. Fourth, when the Style Council played at a rally in February 1985 against compulsory training schemes for unemployed youth, Frankie Goes to Hollywood sent a message of support: “Frankie Say, Don’t Relax—Organise”.17 Fifth, the Style Council embraced the slogan T‑shirt themselves, producing one with the line “You don’t have to take this crap” next to a shattered image of Ronald Reagan to promote ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down!’ itself.18 Another contem­porary band may have influenced the song, though. ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ by Tears for Fears was all over the charts in March 1985, and one couplet may have given Weller the idea of linking power cuts with the fate of Jericho: “There’s a room where the light won’t find you / Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down”.

The rest of the Style Council’s career saw some great work, much of it still unappreciated, but the band entered a clear decline after 1985. In part this was musical, with their desire to experiment with new forms often confusing and sometimes failing. In part it was personal, with band members settling down to parenthood and private happiness. In part it was down to a worsening relationship with their record company after the departure of their trusted A&R man, culminating in their 1989 house album Modernism being rejected and the band calling it a day.19 But there was also a political element to it all. It got harder and harder to be a socialist in the aftermath of the miners’ defeat as Thatcher’s offensive on the working class steamrollered along. Being a socialist and expressing it in meaningful music was no easier, especially when the audience was shrinking and retreating. The Style Council’s pivotal role in the Red Wedge project was an admirable attempt to break out of the dilemma, but Red Wedge was always hamstrung by its attachment to an increasingly worthless Labour Party.

Paul Weller is still a rightfully acclaimed artist today, but politics don’t feature overtly in his songwriting. Fans of the anti-acquisitive love song ‘You’re The Best Thing’, with its timeless line “I’m content just with the riches that you bring”, were surprised to hear it bringing its author some more riches advertising a blackcurrant drink in 2003! But he has never disowned his political engagement in the 1980s. “It wasn’t a time to be non-partisan”, he said in the sleeve notes to the 2007 re-release of Our Favourite Shop:

It was too serious a time, too extreme. I wasn’t waving the Labour Party flag, but the socialist red flag, that’s for sure. …the trade unions were being worn down, we had the miners’ strike, there was mass unemployment: there were all these issues, you had to care, and if you didn’t you had your head in the sand or didn’t give a fuck about anyone else. You couldn’t sit on the fence.

In 1984 he sang that “I know as much as the day I was born”, but his response then was to “shout to the top”. In 1996’s ‘The Changingman’—arguably his finest hour as a solo artist—he similarly acknowledges that “The more I know, the less I under­stand”, but remains “waiting for the bang / To light a bitter fuse”. When that fuse is lit again, a radical Weller may return. The Conservative Party leader remarking last year that he thought The Jam’s ‘Eton Rifles’ was a rather spiffing tune certainly brought forth a visceral response from the song’s author, and a look back in anger at the years of Tory rule: “I think they were absolute fucking scum—especially Thatcher, who I think should be shot as a traitor to the people. I still think that, and nothing will ever change my opinion.”20

There’s nothing left-wing about seeking personal vengeance against individual capitalist leaders, of course, or even thirsting for the blood of the ruling classes in general: if anything, it detracts from the essential humanity that all socialism is founded upon. But Thatcher is an exception. The way she cruelly ground down the British miners, callously allowed Irish hunger strikers to die, ordered the killing of Argentinian conscripts sailing away from battle—it all sets her apart from the run-of-the-mill bourgeois politician. You might think Blair or Haughey were bad, but she has them well in the halfpenny place. A world without her will be an immeasurably better one. Our hopes were cruelly raised and dashed again earlier this year when she turned out to be just ill, but when she does finally go, millions will breathe easier and rejoice. And when those parties get going, ‘Soul Deep’ should be on the turntable.

Notes

  1. Dennis Munday, Shout to the Top—The Jam and Paul Weller: An inside story (Omnibus Press 2008), p 173-4.
  2. John Reed, Paul Weller: My ever changing moods (Omnibus Press 1997), p 174.
  3. Quoted in Steve Malins, Paul Weller: The Unauthorised Biography (Virgin Books 1997), p 133.
  4. Munday, p 174.
  5. Quoted in Reed, p 174-5.
  6. Iain Munn, Mr Cool’s Dream: The complete history of the Style Council (Wholepoint Publications 2008), p 71. In terms of average earnings, that would be equivalent to £34,279 in 2008 (www.measuringworth.com/ppoweruk), or about €40,000.
  7. The performance can be seen on YouTube. Weller and rap could be an unhappy combination, as proved by his woeful composition ‘A Gospel’ on Café Bleu.
  8. Reed, p 175.
  9. See Andrew Collins, Still Suitable for Miners. Billy Bragg: The Official Biography (Virgin Books 2002), p 127, 143-5.
  10. Malins, p 141.
  11. Reed, p 175—though Reed’s figure of £10,000 obviously refers only to the advance: writer and performance royalties on 100,000 singles would far exceed that.
  12. See Des Bonass, ‘Ireland and the miners’ strike’, Red Banner 22, p 54-5.
  13. Quoted in Reed, p 181.
  14. The last item for March 1985 in Munn, p 76, refers to it as a “newly recorded track”.
  15. Reed, p 178. This is repeated in his Complete Guide to the Music of Paul Weller & The Jam (Omnibus Press 1999), p 121.
  16. Paul Weller: The changing man (Bantam Press 2007), p 149. The fact that the word “Relax” had a capital R on the album’s lyric sheet may have confused them, but such use of capital letters is evident throughout that lyric sheet.
  17. Collins, p 156. See Reed, My ever changing moods, p 177.
  18. Munn, p 79.
  19. Incidentally, that album’s opening track features some ad libbing by Jimmy Ruffin from the ‘Soul Deep’ session. See Munday, p 214.
  20. Quoted in John Harris, ‘Hands Off Our Music!’, The Guardian, 18 March 2008.

Mining soul deep: A lesson in history (part one)

In September 2009, twenty five years after the British miners’ strike, in Issue 37 Michelle Charlton began a look at how music played in solidarity with the struggle.

Twenty five years ago, battle was joined between Britain’s miners and Margaret Thatcher’s government. On 12 March 1984 the National Union of Mineworkers began a strike against Coal Board plans to close scores of pits alleged to be uneconomic. The titanic struggle that ensued saw a widespread movement in support of the mining communities’ fight—and some of that movement took musical form.

The strike got underway in a busy period for the Style Council, the band formed by Paul Weller, after splitting up The Jam at the height of its success, with Mick Talbot and a transient mix of other musicians. Their first British tour started just as the miners’ strike did, with their debut album Café Bleu released days later. Their path crossed with the strike when their tour bus was stopped by police on the hunt for flying pickets.1

Their next single, in May, was ‘You’re The Best Thing’, but was released as a double A side with a new song, ‘The Big Boss Groove’. Its call to break with the capitalist way of seeing things—to “step outside the big boss groove”—chimed well with the spirit of the strike:

Get up is what we say
And don’t wait for judgement day
There’s too much going on
You may think you’re weak but together we could be so strong

In July the Style Council headlined a benefit gig for the miners in Liverpool where £3,000 was raised.2 An even bigger one followed at London’s Royal Festival Hall in September where they shared the stage, not only with the alternative comedians of the day, but with Wham! The appearance of George Michael’s pop group at a miners’ benefit has bemused and amused ever since, but it shouldn’t. In their early days the Style Council and Wham! recorded in studios close to each other, and Dee C Lee sang with both bands before becoming a permanent Style Councillor. Wham!’s early music did have a rebellious streak in amongst its poppiness, an urban image of refusing to get a job and conform. Above all, the fact that a band that had gone totally disposable months before (with the truly awful ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’) still wanted to show their support for the strikers underlines how deep the urge for solidarity went. This was a truly popular cause that didn’t just mobilise worthy lefties stroking their chins to meaningful lyrical juxtapositions, but reached out to teenage pop fans too. Anyone organising a strike benefit today should jump at the chance of having, say, Girls Aloud on the bill, rather than massaging artistic integrities with lesser-known acts.

The politics of the next Style Council single, ‘Shout to the Top!’, often escape listeners to this day. But those who missed its message to answer personal adversity with political revolt were left in no doubt by the promotion. The video featured the band performing in front of a wall painting of the miners’ strike. Adverts announced the single in no uncertain terms: “Make no mistake / this is all class war / fight back / Shout to the Top!”3

It seemed logical to release a single directly in support of the miners’ strike. The year before, Weller had donated his royalties from the single ‘Money-Go-Round’ to Youth CND, a cause always close to the band’s hearts. Their A&R man recalls a meeting “to discuss the next Council single and I could see he [Weller] was clearly moved by the plight of the miners and their families. He decided that rather than just offer money, he would write and record a song about the dispute and donate the royalties to the suffering families.”4 By now, it was clear that the strike would be long and drawn-out, and the realisation that thousands in mining communities faced a bleak Christmas galvanised people to do their bit.

The net was cast a bit wider than the Style Council itself. The Council Collective, as the ensemble was called, brought in people they had worked with before—Dee C Lee and rapper Dizzy Hites—alongside bassist Leonardo Chignoli and Vaughn Toulouse rapping, as well as two quite high profile vocalists. Junior Giscombe had hit the charts with ‘Mama Used to Say’ two years earlier, seeming to herald a new black British soul before his career inexplicably stalled. Jimmy Ruffin, a miner’s son himself, was a Motown veteran most famous for the 1966 standard ‘What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?’ They recorded ‘Soul Deep’ on the weekend of 22-23 September: music on the Saturday, vocals on the Sunday.

Right from the first verse, the lyrics pulled no punches:

Getcha mining soul deep with a lesson in history
There’s people fighting for their communities
Don’t say this struggle does not involve you
If you’re from the working class this is your struggle too

The speed with which the single had to be put together in­evitably meant that the lyrics were rushed, and in places it shows. For instance, “If they spent more on life as they do on death / We might find the money to make industry progress” is another example of Weller’s opposition to the arms race, but the sense of the line was sacrificed somewhat to fit the tune. Strangely enough, the strike is referred to as “Going on ten months now—will it take another ten?” But the strike was only six months old when this was recorded, and it was due to be released some time in its ninth month. ‘Eight’ or ‘nine’ are hardly difficult words to find a rhyme for, but Weller must have stuck with ‘ten’ purely because it rhymed with “Just living on the breadline with what some people send”.

However, given the haste of its composition, and the fact that a song written for a collective can’t really express the writer’s personal feelings, it does have some very nice touches. “There’s mud in the water, there’s lies on the page” conveys that year’s images of muddy pickets defying riot shields, but also the deliberate media campaign to muddy the waters of the debate. “No pit stops, no closures” simply but originally broadens the meaning of the commonplace motor racing phrase.

But the lyrics’ greatest achievement was to confront the difficult big question that the strike was posing. After so long on strike in so just a cause, how come the miners weren’t winning? A couple of weeks before ‘Soul Deep’ was recorded, the Trades Union Congress had met and pledged full support to the NUM, asking unions to boycott all coal and any fuels used to replace coal. If this were implemented—and plenty of workers would have responded to the call—it would have closed Britain’s power stations and ground industry to a halt, forcing the government to give way. Weller was quick enough to realise that the resolutions were unlikely to mean much. “Just where is the backing from the TUC?” asked the second verse, “’Cause if we ain’t united there can only be defeat”. Jimmy Ruffin’s knowledge of bitter battles fought by black miners in the US gave added point to the verse he sang:

Think of all those brave men, women and children alike
Who built up unions so others might survive
In better conditions than abject misery
Not supporting the miners is to betray that legacy

“But as for solidarity, I don’t see none”, bemoaned the last line of the chorus. “The whole record is about Solidarity,” explained Weller, “or more to the point, getting it back!”5

Musically, ‘Soul Deep’ is a fine example of mid-1980s dance music. Although Weller had produced the last Style Council single himself, he brought in Martyn Ware of Heaven 17, acknowledged masters of dance electronica, to mix the single. Bert Bevans (not yet the superstar DJ he was to become at Ministry of Sound) made a ‘Club Mix’ which is funkier and blacker: Weller’s vocals were replaced by Ruffin and Junior, meaning that only black vocalists can be heard on this version.

At over six minutes, the track was too long for a single, and so—in time-honoured disco fashion—it was split in two, Part 2 going on the B side. The 12” single featured a full version on the A side, with a fairly unique B side. ‘A Miner’s Point’ was a 17 minute interview with two striking Nottinghamshire miners by Paolo Hewitt, the music journalist who wrote Style Council sleeve notes in the guise of ‘The Cappuccino Kid’ (although getting anyone to admit this open secret is like getting Gerry Adams to say he was in the IRA). The miners, Bob and Chris, tell us they have been out on strike for eight and a half months, so the interview would have taken place around late November, close enough to the single’s release date—which may explain the uneven sound quality. But even twenty five years later, ‘A Miner’s Point’ gives a great insight into the issues of the strike and the beliefs that motivated strikers.

Chris, mining since 1980, sounds like a good example of the militant younger miners who powered the strike on the ground, though Bob, with thirty years down the pit, is no moderate either. This is no ordinary strike, insists Chris, but “a class war”, Bob having taken the words out of his mouth. But he is very bitter at miners breaking the strike and the failure of other workers to come out in support: “I can’t understand why we all haven’t stood together as has been done in the past”. Bob puts it down to workers being “in far too much debt” paying off car loans and inflated mortgages: he agrees with Hewitt that “material goods have, like, divided them”. Asked if there would be power cuts that winter, Chris replies: “Hopefully!” While he had no desire to cause people hardship, he maintains that “the only way, I’m afraid, that we’re going to win this strike is if power cuts take place”.

‘Soul Deep’ was due to come out in early December, the royalties going to Women Against Pit Closures. One of the greatest revelations of the strike was the way women in the mining communities came into their own, taking a lead role in organis­ing solidarity. There was no point donat­ing money directly to the NUM, of course, as the union’s funds were being snatched by the courts. A hit record in the run-up to Christmas looked set to raise a tidy sum for the miners, not to mention awareness of their cause. But the project was all but derailed at the last minute.

Part two >

Notes

1      Iain Munn, Mr Cool’s Dream: The complete history of the Style Council (Wholepoint Publications 2008), p 57. While Munn’s book is meticulous­ly researched, he seems to have the details of this incident wrong. He has their bus being stopped on the way from Nottingham to Newcastle, but the flying pickets were heading towards Nottinghamshire. They were more likely stopped the day before: travelling from Ipswich to Nottingham, the band could have been caught up in the police operation to prevent Kent miners picketing in the midlands.

2      Ibid, p 66.

3      John Reed, Paul Weller: My ever changing moods (Omnibus Press 1997), p 173.

4      Dennis Munday, Shout to the Top—The Jam and Paul Weller: An inside story (Omnibus Press 2008), p 172. A&R (artist and repertoire) is largely concerned with relations between artist and record company.

5      Quoted in Munn, p 71.

Economical with the truth

As the recession dragged on, Maeve Connaughton offered this analysis of it in Issue 36 (June 2009).

I’ve seen the future, I can’t afford it
Tell you the truth sir, someone just bought it

Fry/White, ‘How to Be a Millionaire’

All that is solid melts into air, like the man said, and even more so if it wasn’t as solid as it looked. Economists are now crying into their cocktails over the Irish economy’s prospects, but it wasn’t always so. For an awful long time, there was an underlying trend for econ­omists to big up the Irish economy come what may. It had far less to do with economic analysis than with the ideological self-image of Irish capital. For the first time in its history, Irish capitalism seemed to be on the pig’s back, booming for all it was worth and sweeping all before it. Given its pathetic past, it couldn’t quite believe it itself.

A cute cattle dealer who sells a heifer for a tenner more than she’s worth can’t help boasting about it to everyone at the fair, even if it means spending his windfall twice over in the pub. Piling up profit is the heart of capitalism, of course, but it’s not enough. It also wants and needs to project itself as a good and necessary system—indeed the only one that in any way fits the nature of human beings, a permanent fact of life. It obviously has great difficulty doing so in times of economic collapse, when it can’t even do what it says on the tin. When a boom does come along, it reaches a fever pitch in making hay while the sun shines—ideological hay as well as economic.

And this is where the economists came in, the biggest majority of them being what Marx called “hired prize-fighters” rather than genuine investigators of economic reality. As economic forecasters, their collective record is poor. The move towards an unprecedented boom in the mid-1990s was the greatest shift in the history of Irish capitalism since it began to sink real roots during the Famine—and yet, the economists didn’t see it coming until it landed in their laps. They were all wise after the event, attributing it to this or that cause, but at the time they knew no more than the rest of us. Faced with a Celtic Tiger in the front room, most of them were at a loss as to what to make of it, never having beheld such an exotic beast before. But one or two of the fly boys saw the writing on the wall, and resolved to ride this wave. They crowned themselves the kings of wishful thinking, and consistently said that these good things that were happening were going to carry on happening. But just as they didn’t see it coming, they didn’t see it shuddering to a halt either until wiping the egg off their faces.

Not that us socialists have much to say for ourselves: our economic record could be a lot better. Our initial reaction to the Celtic Tiger was usually to deny its existence. When that was no longer tenable, we told each other that it wasn’t a real boom but an artificial one: nice try, but again, no cigar. Later we tended to say that there was a boom but that its benefits were being distributed unequally: true, but capitalism never has had and never can have an egalitarian boom.

The problem with short-term or even medium-term economic forecasting is taking so many different and interacting variables into account. If you throw a tennis ball into the air, it would be possible to scientifically establish where it will land. You would have to know the precise size, shape and weight of the ball and your hand, as well as the prevailing temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, and a few other things—but you could work it out. Now imagine an armful of fifty tennis balls all thrown in the air at once. Trying to make out the trajectory of each of them, including those that bounce off each other, is a hopeless task that would drive anyone to drink. Short-term micro-economic ball-gazing—trying to predict when a boom or a slump is going to happen—is a mug’s game. Back in the 1850s, early in his economic studies, Marx used to often play this game: in 1851 he’d tell people the crisis was coming in 1852, in 1852 that it would come in 1853, and so on. One of his comrades, Wilhelm Wolff, even started a sweepstake on it, taking bets on what year Marx would finally get it right. Marx must have seen the funny side, because he dedicated Book One of Capital to Wolff.

What we can do, and what Marx succeeded in doing better than anyone, is understand the general workings of the capitalist economy. We can get to grips with how employers wring surplus value from workers. We can follow the way they increase their individual profitability by replacing workers with technology. We can see how, because that proportionally lessens the input of human labour-power which is the ultimate source of all profit, it depresses the overall profitability of the economy and brings about a tendency for the profit rate to go down over time. That investigation confirms that capitalism lives on a cycle of booms and slumps, but doesn’t help in the guessing game as to when and where boom becomes slump becomes boom again. But such an understanding can help us draw a few provisional conclusions about the type of economic crisis we are now in.

Not a few socialists are currently experiencing a Pavlovian reaction to events, salivating at the thought of a juicy big depression. An eighties revival is underway in left imagery, with downward-spiralling graphs featuring prominently. Socialists gleefully rubbing their hands while listening to doom-laden speeches presaging a return to the 1930s should think on, however. A knee-jerk rush to the most pessimistic judgement can end up playing into the hands of employers and politicians who are consciously spinning doomsday scenarios to soften workers up for more sacrifice. But anyway, hopes that capitalism is in its death throes are still very previous.

The crisis that is currently dogging the system is a financial crisis. Credit plays a crucial role in greasing the wheels of capitalism. Rather than companies waiting for last year’s profits to invest this year, banks advance them credit in the expectation of those profits turning up later. So there is always some kind of disconnect between the actual capital of the real economy and the fictitious capital circulating through financial institutions. But this necessary gap widened into a gaping chasm as they were allowed to lend like there was no tomorrow, and even lend the loans on to others. When the chickens came home to roost, the chasm could only be narrowed by writing off millions and a few major institutions going to the wall, in a process that is still painfully unfolding.

But that financial crisis has not yet grown over into a general slump in the real economy. While inability to access credit is starting to wipe out a whole layer of small business, the biggest corporations have a far greater capacity to keep the show on the road. Profits are clearly down, and very badly down in some cases, but the overall profitability of big business is not going through any catastrophic collapse. The capitalist economy as a whole has not sunk into depression. While finance capitalists may be getting familiar with the window ledges of their offices, productive capitalists won’t be jumping just yet.

The financial crisis could develop into a comprehensive econ­omic depression, as happened in the 1930s—but it won’t necessarily do so. Talk of ‘green shoots of recovery’ is more often than not a case of whistling past the graveyard, and the light they claim to see at the end of the tunnel could always be an oncoming train. Finance capital has become a much bigger and more integral component of capital in general, and its problems leak out further. But it is conceivable that capitalism could start recovering after a few bad years, with the recession performing its classical function of taking out the small fry of business for the big fish to gobble up. There won’t be any return to the boom years or anything like them, but the system could struggle through.

However, if we are not witnessing the last days of the capitalist empire, the outlook for Irish capitalism is very grim. The economic strategies that paved the way for the Celtic Tiger were based on encouraging growth in three main areas: finance, construction, and multinational investment. The crisis of finance capital is the very eye of the current storm. Construction was reliant on financial specul­ation, and the entire sector has crumpled along with that house of cards. Multinational corporations pulling in their horns are cutting or closing their operations here. In the boom years it looked as if Irish capital had backed all the right horses—now it looks as if they have all fallen on top of one another at Becher’s Brook and are headed straight for the glue factory.

So even if capitalism globally can manage to restrict the crisis and ride the storm, in the best case scenario, capitalism in Ireland will still suffer disproportionately. Small firms, along with the com­panies that are and will be biting the dust—financial institutions, building firms, branches of multinational outfits—are just where workers here are predominantly employed. This is why the rise in unemployment has been so sharp and so sudden. The extra demand this places on public services coincides with the emptying of the state coffers as a result of the pathetically low taxation of Celtic Tiger profits. We could well face a situation, not for the first time in our history, where any international recovery might still leave the Irish economy a good way behind.

One factor in the system’s last major failure, around 1973-4, was the high level of fight in the workers’ movement. The legacy of the radical sixties made it more difficult for capital to impose its traditional crisis remedy of intensifying the exploitation of workers. Today’s labour movement—certainly in capitalism’s traditional heartlands—doesn’t possess the same consciousness or combativity, and is led by people who seem willing to facilitate that traditional remedy if invited. They agree that all of us should pay our share for the sins of our bankers, as long as they can have a say in a fairer schedule of punishment. For all its nightmares, the capitalist class will sleep sounder unless and until workers can bypass such leaders.

When opposing cuts in wages or social welfare, labour leaders often do so on the basis that such cuts are not in the interest of capitalism itself. Reducing workers’ ability to purchase goods will worsen the situation, they say, and instead the state should be stim­ulating personal expenditure. Elements of this ‘underconsumption­ist’ explanation are also widespread amongst socialists, because it seems to make common sense—but in reality, it fails either to explain the crisis or inform a response to it.

For a start, a huge swathe of the economy produces machinery and materials intended for capitalist production rather than workers’ consumption. Whatever wage rises we might win, none of us will be buying aeronautical engines, for instance. If increased wages meant increased profits, bosses would be falling over themselves to con­cede them, instead of resisting them tooth and nail every chance they get. The state can introduce an artificial stimulus by throwing extra money into the economy, but such reflation can only be a one-off. A currency is only as good as the quantity of commodities it can buy, and speculators would rapidly devalue money that had nothing real behind it. Consumption did play a substantial part in fuelling the Celtic Tiger, but much of it was senseless and unsustainable, funded by the very credit bubble that has now burst. If economic recovery depends on us once again shelling out money we don’t have on things we don’t need for lifestyles we can’t bear, then we’re better off without it.

Socialists shouldn’t be wasting their time finding solutions on capitalism’s own terms. That system lives by taking wealth from working people, and will only revive if it can do that more effectively. An alternative approach that pushes the needs of work­ing people to the forefront cannot do other than break the command­ments of the capitalist bible.

Instead of being bailed out, banks that fail should be cheered to their doom like demolished blocks of slum flats. Not one of them is worth sacrificing a single special needs teacher for, a single cancer vaccination or a single children’s allowance. Our only concern should be to safeguard workers who have jobs, pensions or savings with them. Rather than heaping their losses on to the backs of working-class taxpayers, a new state bank could channel resources according to social need. It could fund workers to take over enterprises when their bosses make a hames of them. The money could come from taxing to the hilt all incomes over a sum in the low six figures. Specific demands should emerge in the course of con­crete struggles, but the crucial thing is refusing to be bound by the hallowed ground rules of capitalist economics. Rather than pander to the whims of the ‘international financial community’—a tiny clique who speculate on human destinies as if gambling on two flies climbing a wall—it is high time we had a bit of democracy in the running of our economic affairs.

Far more important than any analysis of economic statistics is how the working class react to it all. A whole generation has grown up that has never known a recession, and their response in particular is all to play for. Capitalism proving unable to provide what they have come to expect could be a catalyst for revolt. Trotsky once observed that the most auspicious time for workers to fight back is when the economy recovers somewhat from a recession that followed a boom, and such a period, if it materialises, would seem more favourable than the atmosphere of shock and awe that currently prevails. On the other hand, workers could well dive the wrong way. If there’s anywhere to go, we may just emigrate like we did in the 1980s and 1950s. Of course, if we’re particularly stupid we may, to the immense satisfaction of our enemies, try to blame the immigrants and kick them out. Or we may hang on for dear life to what little we have and be thankful it’s not less.

A battle of ideas is beginning to kick off about the big dilemmas we all face. Under severe attack, significant numbers of workers could draw the conclusion that the system attacking them should go. Whether they draw that conclusion, and whether they do what is necessary to translate it into effective action, depends on a lot of things—but the one that should concern us most is how far socialists are doing their job amongst them.

The Hidden Connolly 35

Issue 35 (March 2009) published for the first time since his execution a story of Dublin poverty by James Connolly.

The Mendicity and its Guests

[The Workers’ Republic, August 27 1898]

A great city by night usually presents a series of studies in human nature which might make the fortunes of some of our latter-day professors of what is known as “the cult of realism”. The gradual disappearance from the thoroughfares of the mere work-a-day world and all its insignia of labour, leisure, and orthodox respec­tability, the noiseless appearance in its place of the underworld and its peculiar votaries, is to the observant eye a phenomenon of a more curious character than any the obtrusively glaring day can furnish forth to the seeker after novelties.

When the last pub has shot forth into the street its crowd of would-be customers with a reluctance usually both obvious and mutual, when the last tramcar has deposited its load, and the drivers and conductors have been permitted to visit their stately mansions for the few hours’ rest necessary to fit them for the succeeding day’s toil, when all that pertains to day has at last settled down to rest, then this other world I speak of crawls out of its hovels, or tiptoes its way from its clubs or mansions, and until the sun again emerges from the eastern horizon, the streets of our big cities are haunted by a class of beings which our social system either refuses to admit within its pale or else tacitly recognises as an evil, hateful but necessary. The thief in the first category, the female unfortunate in the second, and all their allies and dependents, the gentleman who sows his wild oats at night and prates of the depravity of the masses by day, the resetter1 in broadcloth cheapening the spoils he purchases from the sneak thief in rags, the frail sisters earning the rents for the virtuous slum landlord, all these are but the outline of that dark side of our civilisation of which the wanderer by night in our big cities catches but a glimpse as he moves upon his way. But if the wanderer belongs to that class of labourers to whom our system has either temporarily or permanently denied employment, there is a danger that his faculties of observation will not be acute enough to set in motion the intellectual machinery needful to produce the required philosophising. When the stomach has not received the necessary food to sustain the body, when as a result of prolonged hunger the human frame refuses to perform any but the most mechanical actions, and mind, heart and ambition, and even self-respect, become but mere meaningless words, in the throes of a terrible longing for food, then the sights and sounds which other­wise might startle pass unheeded before the eyes.

This was the condition in which a certain spring morning caught the two individuals with whom my short sketch has to deal as they crowded together on the steps of Nelson’s Pillar a few short years ago. The “City Sofa”, as the steps were called before the watchful guardians of our public property fenced them around with iron railings, was at that time a favourite place of resort, both night and day, for those with whom Fortune had dealt none too kindly.

To rest their jaded limbs by day, to serve as a substitute for a bed at night, the hard stone of the Pillar steps often, no doubt, seemed to them less cold and unyielding than the rigour of their fellow-men. Of such an unfortunate class were these two outcasts. Throughout the entire night they had crouched helplessly there, wishing for the day to dawn, yet entirely hopeless as to any good the rising sun had to reveal to them. Night succeeded day, and the hours had endlessly crawled along, while they unsuccessfully wooed the god of slumber, and still they retained their position as the city gradually woke to consciousness and the first ripples of the sea of industry began to show around their couch. Gradually their companions in misfortune slunk away to hide their misery from the curious eyes of their more fortunate working brothers, until at last they alone were left, crouching, cold and shivering together. Then at last the elder of the two slowly uncoiled himself, and stood erect beside his companion, grasping him by the arm. His companion, younger by half his years apparently, looked up inquiringly, but with that taciturnity born of extreme misery, spoke not as he, in response to the gesture of his elder comrade, also arose, and in hangdog fashion shuffled along­side the other as he moved off in the direction of O’Connell Bridge. Crossing the bridge the younger man, seeing his neighbour about to turn down Aston Quay, ventured to break the silence.

“Where are you going, Jack?”

“To the Mendicity.”

“What for?”

“Something to eat.”

Satisfied apparently, if not with the information, at least with the assurance that his companion [had] seen the possibility of getting food, the younger man once more relapsed into silence, and no other word was exchanged until, turning up Bridgefoot Street and into Island Street, the two halted at the back door of the Mendicity Institution.

The traveller along the quays of Dublin who passes this once famous house and sees its present unpretending front and curiously ambiguous title would scarcely associate the building he is looking at with scenes of such hopeless misery and unfeeling charity as our friends were fated that day to witness. In the back lane, dignified by the name of Island Street, there were gathered together about 40 human beings of both sexes. Old men bent with age, young men pallid with poverty, women, some tawdry but still striving after appearances, some openly careless of their looks or virtue, boys wild and rough, girls trembling on the verge of a life of shame, all huddled up together in single file against the wall, awaiting the opening of the wicker door through which they passed to the region and the food beyond. Our two acquaintances, having in their turn arrived at the door and satisfactorily answering questions as to their birthplace, occupation when working, residence if any, etc., all of which were duly recorded in a volume kept for the purpose, were at last admitted into the yard. Arrived there, they found that their companions, who seemed familiar with the place, had taken shelter in a kind of hall provided for the purpose. Entering in here, they discovered a long building with a seat fastened to the wall running right around its entire length, a stone floor, and no other fixings of any kind. Most of their companions had already seated themselves and they were not long in following their example. Conversation between the persons present was only carried on in an undertone, every one being apparently desirous of escaping notice as much as possible, actuated, it would seem, by the dread that to attract attention was to risk an expulsion. After waiting about half an hour, the tolling of a bell in the yard gave what appeared to be a signal, for a number of those present immediately arose and then, followed by their fellows, formed themselves up in single file in the yard. In due time our friends following in their places found themselves admitted into another hall provided with seats and tables. Passing towards their allotted places, they were each handed a tin porringer of milk and an allowance of stirabout composed of equal parts of motion and oatmeal. Consuming this in silence, they were then ushered out of the dining hall, some into the outer world, some few to perform drudging in the institution itself.

At dinner time the same routine was once more gone through. The same muster at the back door, the same pause in the reception room, the same shamefaced parcels of poverty in the courtyard. But a merciful Board of Management had at least provided for a change of diet. In place of stirabout and buttermilk the guests were now provided with cold stirabout, the remains of this morning’s repast, and a bowl of steaming hot broth with which to heat it, two officials presiding over this function. The first handed to the guest a full bowl of stirabout and an empty bowl for the broth. The second official stood beside a large copper vessel, armed with a large ladle, filling each man’s bowl in turn with broth from the copper over which he stood guardian. Our young acquaintance had not had one really good meal for an entire month, and to his famished senses the smell arising from the steaming copperful of broth seemed calculated to tickle the nostrils of a king. But as he drew nearer the presiding deity of the ladle, he heard sundry grumbles from those already seated as to the absence of the faintest particle of meat from their vessels, and this, filling him with alarm, caused him to pay particular attention to a curious game of hide-and-seek going around at the copper, round which all his hopes were now centred. Floating upon the top of the fragrant liquid was a more than usually tempting bit of meat, juicy and delicious it looked to the famishing guests as it floated about in full sight of them all, and not one of the lot but secretly wished that when the ladle descended to fill his bowl it would come up with that lovely morsel in it. But each time the ladle descended, it did indeed take the tit-bit down with it, but when it reappeared the desired morsel was always left behind, once more to bob surely to the top and once more to arouse the cupidity of all.

As our young friend approached the copper he watched the alternate disappearance and reappearance of this piece of meat with a mingling of hope and fear no pen could do full justice to.

As each successive man and woman presented themselves to the guardian of the ladle his heart sank within him, and he watched with starting eyes the reappearance of that culinary instrument. When it appeared each time minus the glorious piece of beef still floating in his sight, his heart rose again with hope and expectation. One by one his companions were served, and now he drew near in his turn. As he held out his bowl his poor emaciated body quivered with excitement, the tears forced themselves to his eyes, his hand shook as with palsy, and with his soul in his gaze he watched the fateful ladle as with a flourish the official plunged it into the broth. Beef, ladle and all sank out of sight, there was a pause of a moment and then the ladle was lifted into the air—and left the beef again behind it. With the howl of a famished tiger the disappointed wretch sprang upon the copper and, clutching at the tantalising morsel, plunged his arms into the steaming liquid, upsetting the huge vessel over his entire person and scalding the life out of his poor body, which an hour later lay stretched in death upon a Mendicity table.

Where the road from Keady strikes over the hills into the town of Ballybay, an old woman lay down that night in her lonely cabin to pray for him, her darling son, who had gone up to the “big city” to make his fortune. And as her eyelids closed in slumber the last vision which passed before her was the sight of her boy, invested with the Lord Mayor’s chain of office, presenting a petition to the bar of the House of Commons.

Setanta

Notes

  1. Someone who receives stolen goods.