The Hidden Connolly 36

Issue 36 (June 2009) published this article by James Connolly for the first time since his execution.

Home Thrusts

[The Workers’ Republic, September 10 1898]

I have just concluded a brief study of a paper published in London under the title of New Ireland: a Non-Sectarian Paper for Irishmen in Great Britain and Abroad. After concluding said study, I feel more and more convinced that the mystery of existence is insoluble.

What crime has the Irish race committed that it should be compelled to accept the responsibility of giving to the world so many fearful and wonderful products as have sprouted forth from the rank soil of Irish politics?

Here, for instance, is a paper published in the capital of the enemy, posing as a light of instruction and wisdom, and yet on the very first page of literary matter, on its issue of September 3rd, there occurs this amazing proof of the ignorance of its contributors on a matter on which almost every pupil in a National school might have enlightened them.

Listen to the sage. “The Cork Examiner is evidently being sub-edited during the holidays by its sporting reporter. The account of the ’98 celebrations at Castlebar was headed in large capitals ‘The Races at Castlebar’.”

It is quite evident that the sagacious scribe who from the superior heights of an English metropolitan residence essayed to enlighten the poor Irish provincial journalist referred to had no idea why the inglorious flight of the English army from the handful of French invaders at Castlebar one hundred years ago has ever since been facetiously referred to as the “Races”, but he might “for the honour of Ould Ireland” have refrained from parading his ignorance before the world.

Or at least asked the first Irish scavenger or hod-carrier he met in the streets to help him out of his difficulty.

But after all what could we expect from a journal which refers to the disgraceful flunkeying of Lord Mayor Tallon to the Lord Lieutenant1 as “a striking and welcome exhibition of good feeling”?

It must not be supposed, however, that this precious New Ireland is the mouthpiece of the Irish Colony in London. Oh, no! It is only the mouthpiece of the Irish snobocracy. Those kind of people who on big occasions pose as Irish patriots in order to invest their person­ality with just sufficient interest to secure occasional invitations to the “At Homes” or “Drawing Rooms” of any English parvenu on the hunt for “oddities”.

Swinging themselves into London Society by dint of their firm grasp on the coat tails of some rich soap boiler or brewer, they look down with scorn upon the working-class Irishman in Great Britain. His class is beneath their consideration.

Their lofty minds must have lofty subjects to deal with. Con­sequently their leading article, in the issue under review, dealt with no less difficult and abstruse a subject than—the relative merits of Irish and Scotch whiskey.

The Editor, no doubt, repeated, in the form of a leading article, some of the exciting and refined debates he had overheard while patiently trying to borrow the price of a drink in a London bar-room.

What can we do to prevent such creatures passing among strangers as representative Irishmen?

The Daily Independent of last week devoted a large amount of its space to reports of the army manoeuvres in England. As a penance for my sins I read the reports all through. I am now, thank heaven, recovered, and think the penance was too severe for any crime I ever committed.

The Independent Special Reporter declares in tones of deep regret that the manoeuvres were valueless, that he could not see a single redeeming feature in the military organization, although he says “I came here expectant and enthusiastic.” Queer talk for a “nationalist” journalist, isn’t it?

What was he enthusiastic about? Was it over the splendid organization of the army that keeps his countrymen in subjection?

Again he declares, “We are often accused by our rivals of playing deceit in diplomacy”, that “we can not put an army corps in the field without calling to our aid”. “One would think the horrors of the mis­management of the Crimea2 had never occurred. We are courting its repetition, but who will hang for it?” and “Truly like the Bourbons we learn nothing.”

And he solemnly informs us: “I have devoted so much space to this matter (of the commissariat) because its importance cannot be exaggerated.”

All of which leaves me a bit mixed. Who and what are the we so often referred to? Can it be the Irish people? But we have no army, except of Castle officials, DMP and Constabulary men,3 and their commissariats, I am sorry to say, are well enough provided.

But is it the English Government he refers to as WE? If so, the phraseology of the article leads to the suspicion that the Independent special reporter is himself a Government official. Else why use that pronoun?

Not that I believe the Independent would employ a Government official. At least not willingly.

But then strange things do happen. And Alderman Meade, a principal shareholder and director of the Independent Company, is, as we all know, a member of Her Majesty’s Privy Council. And birds of a feather flock together.

But just try and imagine the Press newspaper, the organ of the United Irishmen of 1798 (published in the room where I am writing this note) devoting columns to a lamentation over the bad military organization of Great Britain’s army.

And then think of the Daily Independent special.

If the United Irishmen learnt that one of their number had accepted a seat on Her Majesty’s Privy Council, while still retaining his position on their executive, they would have concluded that he was a traitor who meant to betray them. Wouldn’t you?

But Alderman Meade is a member of Her Majesty’s Privy Council, and yet the Parnellite wire-pullers unanimously elected him a member of their executive.

They thus showed their consistency, you see. They are consistent in their resolve to keep in with whoever has control of the biggest purse.

Of course the working man does not count. In fact even Pat O’Brien MP thinks it quite safe to kick the working man. Did he not attack the Dublin Trades Council for daring to claim representation under the Local Government Bill?

“A mere Tory dodge”, he declared it was. But then poor Pat is a very small man, you know, and unless he said or did something ridiculous the people might forget his existence.

He snaps at better men than himself for the same reason as impels any other little cur when it jumps up on a big wall to bark.

There is no lack of effrontery in Pat just now, but if the Trades Council sent a Labour candidate to oppose him in Kilkenny he would speedily become the civilest man in Ireland.

Patrick, my dear boy, you should be more careful. Your present course of action will only attract the attention of the Sanitary officers to the offensive exhalations arising from the unburied corpse of the thing once known (among professional jokers) as the Independent League.4

They might order it to be abated as a nuisance.

Which reminds me of the revelations of slum life now being published in the Daily Nation. (Free advt., Mr Healy.)5

Of course every working man knew about such things before. The revelations are not intended for him, but for his masters. The Special Commissioner, you see, went and visited the homes of the poor and then sat down and described them. How condescending?

But what would be said to any gentleman who attempted to penetrate into the houses of the rich in order to describe them for the benefit of the poor? He would be given in charge as an insolent ruffian. Sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander.

In its issue of Monday the Nation asks in an awestruck manner, “Should there be an outbreak of infectious disease amongst the denizens of these slums what guarantee can be given that the pestilence would not speedily spread amongst the residents of Mountjoy Square?” Of course, this has nothing to do with the fact that Mr Tim Healy himself lives in Mountjoy Square.

Nothing, absolutely nothing.

The rich men don’t like the slums except when they draw rent from them.

Otherwise they fear that pestilence arising from the slums might not stop there but spread to their own comfortable mansions. Hence the new slum agitation.

I heartily congratulate Mr James Egan on the successful result of his candidature for the position of City Swordbearer.6 The election is, I hope, a sign of returning grace on the part of Dublin Corporation. Or is it inspired by a desire to placate the electors before the dreaded polling day?

Spailpín

Notes

  1. Tallon had requested a British army escort for his installation as mayor, condemned demonstrations against Queen Victoria’s jubilee, and drunk a loyal toast to her.
  2. The Crimean war of 1854-6, between Britain and France on one side and Russia on the other, revealed considerable chaos in the administration of the British army.
  3. Officials at Dublin Castle administered British rule, while the Dublin Metropolitan Police and the Royal Irish Constabulary policed the country.
  4. A Parnellite faction of Home Rule politicians.
  5. Timothy Healy, a leading anti-Parnellite Home Rule MP, edited the Daily Nation.
  6. Egan had served nine years in prison in England, accused of involve­ment with Fenian conspiracy.

Socialist Classics: N Lenin, ‘ “Left-Wing” Communism: An infantile disorder’

Joe Conroy examined the strengths and weaknesses of Lenin’s last book in Issue 35 in March 2009.

Lenin’s last book was written in April 1920 to be in time for the second congress of the Communist International a couple of months later. Its aim was to draw lessons from the Bolsheviks’ experience for the benefit of the communist parties then emerging across Europe. The burden of his criticism was directed at a trend to be found in many of them which he saw as going too far to the left.

Lenin’s intention was “to apply to Western Europe whatever is of general application, general validity and is generally binding in the history and the present tactics of Bolshevism”. He felt able to do this because “not a few, but all the fundamental and many secon­dary features of our revolution are of international significance… by international significance I mean the international validity, or the historical inevitability of a repetition on an international scale of what has taken place here”. While often acknowledging differences between Russia and the west, the book is based on the premise that the Russian experience could be applied universally.

But Bolshevism’s strengths arose from “a number of historical peculiarities of Russia”. Firstly, Marxism had won a commanding place in the battle of ideas which raged there in the late nineteenth century. Secondly,

Bolshevism passed through fifteen years (1903-17) which, in wealth of experience, has had no equal anywhere else in the world. For no other country during these fifteen years had any­thing even approximating this revolutionary experience, this rapid and varied succession of different forms of the movement —legal and illegal, peaceful and stormy, underground and open, small circles and mass movements, parliamentary and terrorist. In no other country was there concentrated during so short a period of time such a wealth of forms, shades, and methods of struggle…

Chief among these was the 1905 revolution: “Without the ‘dress rehearsal’ of 1905, the victory of the October Revolution of 1917 would have been impossible.”

All this Lenin intended as further proof of the general superior­ity of Bolshevik tactics, forged in the heat of numerous battles. But in fact it tends to do the opposite, to underline how specific and limited those tactics were, intimately linked to a certain set of circumstances unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. Socialists without this back­ground of revolutionary ferment would necessarily have to operate somewhat differently. Taking Dutch communists to task for mis­understanding how illegal revolutionary work is organised, he puts it down to the fact that they “had the misfortune to be born in a small country with traditions and under conditions of particularly privileged and stable legality”. But Lenin was born in a large country with particularly unstable conditions and practically no traditions of legality, and that proved a misfortune when he ventured to interpret political circumstances different to that.

He recognises himself that outside Russia “a certain amount of reactionariness in the trade unions has been revealed, and was un­doubtedly bound to be revealed much more strongly than in our country”: the labour bureaucracy “represents a much stronger stratum than in our country” and the fight against it “is much more difficult than the fight against our Mensheviks”. The fact that Lenin and the Bolsheviks never faced a reformism with such tenacious roots seriously reduced the validity of their experience when it came to tearing those roots up.

Some of his comments on Britain illustrate this. His unfamiliarity begins to show through when he reveals that his source on the strength of the British labour movement is a Swedish newspaper article. He proposes that British communists tactically support the British Labour Party “in the same way as a rope supports the hanged”. An electoral alliance with Labour would enable them to gain an audience, while the experience of Labour in power would dispel reformist illusions and pave the way for revolutionary growth.

While this is fine in theory and a quite innovative approach, it completely misjudged the position of revolutionary socialists in Britain. A propaganda group claiming a couple of thousand members attempting to form a united front with a Labour Party that had won two million votes at the last election would be laughed out of it. A more realistic and modest way of beginning to increase their support and win an audience would have made more sense. But the overwhelming and unquestioned predominance of the Russians in the Communist International left the tiny forces of British commun­ism chasing a tactic more appropriate to a mass party, and it increased their isolation rather than overcoming it.

Lenin rejects a left communist denunciation of compromise:

There are compromises and compromises. …the difference between a compromise which one is compelled to enter into by objective conditions (such as lack of strike funds, no outside support, extreme hunger and exhaustion), a compromise which in no way lessens the revolutionary devotion and readiness for further struggle of the workers who agree to such a compromise, and a compromise by traitors… It would be absurd to concoct a recipe or general rule (“No Compromise!”) to serve all cases. One must have the brains to analyse the situation in each separate case.

This is sound common sense, and a necessary refutation of any socialist who actually believed that all forms of compromise are im­permissible in principle. But did any of them actually hold such a position? When they rejected compromise, surely it was the bad, treacherous kind of compromise they meant, rather than reluctant forced concessions? Lenin sometimes seems to be scoring easy points off weak opponents here.

The central argument of ‘Left-Wing’ Communism is that a socialist party needs “to link itself with, to keep in close touch with, and, to a certain degree, if you will, merge itself with the broadest masses of the toilers”, do whatever it takes to get through to the working class:

it is imperatively necessary to work wherever the masses are to be found. Every sacrifice must be made, the greatest obstacles must be overcome, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently and patiently, precisely in those institutions, societies and associations—even the most reactionary—to which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses belong.

So socialists have no alternative but to work in trade unions, no matter how right-wing their leaders are. The alternative, to “invent a brand-new, clean little ‘workers’ union’, guiltless of bourgeois-democratic prejudices”, leaves them preaching only to the con­verted. It would serve not to win workers over but to “fence themselves off from them by artificial and childishly ‘Left’ slogans”.

The same went for the refusal to take part in parliaments or elections. Socialists may have realised that parliamentary democracy is a pathetically poor second to the genuine democracy of workers’ councils, but that is not the same thing as actually replacing one with the other. The left wingers

have mistaken their desire, their ideological-political attitude, for objective reality. This is the most dangerous mistake revolution­aries can make. …we must not regard what is obsolete for us as being obsolete for the class, as being obsolete for the masses… or naïvely mistake the subjective “rejection” of a certain reactionary institution for its actual destruction…

This is not a mistake that people stopped making in 1920. Left wingers who have personally rejected the political institutions of capitalist society sometimes act as if the rest of the world has done likewise and they can safely be ignored. Organising a petition to a government minister, for instance, can often be a useful and effective method of mobilising support behind a certain demand. Refusing to do so because you would rather be turning that minister out of his state car at gunpoint leaves you with little contact with the mass of workers who are currently far from such a position. But taking that step can actually play a part in bringing people towards a rejection of capitalism. And that rejection can only be implemented when the working class in its overwhelming majority is convinced of its necessity. The consciousness of socialists can do no more than help convince them to change the world, not change it on their behalf.

Most working-class people have some kind of a belief in parliamentary democracy, or at least can see nothing better on offer. Rejection of it is far more often a manifestation of apathy than of faith in an alternative. Therefore socialists should try and use what opportunities it can provide to argue for the real democracy of socialism. Participating in the parliamentary system on such a basis doesn’t reinforce it but “facilitates the process whereby bourgeois parliamentarism becomes ‘politically obsolete’”. Of course, the danger of falling into parliamentary reformism is always present, but that only means that socialists “must learn to create a new, unusual, non-opportunist, non-careerist parliamentarism”.

This is the proper response to all such dangers: to face them and work out methods to defeat them, not to evade them. All engage­ment with people who are currently indifferent or opposed to socialist revolution carries the potential risk of political dilution, but those who flee from that risk “are frightened by the comparatively small difficulties of the struggle against bourgeois influences within the working-class movement”. Real revolutionaries will not fear contamination but tackle the task in spite of everything:

It is not difficult to be a revolutionary when the revolution has already flared up and is raging, when everybody joins the revolution because he is carried away by it, because it is the fashion… It is much more difficult—and much more useful—to be a revolutionary when the conditions for direct, open, really mass and really revolutionary struggle do not yet exist, to be able to defend the interests of the revolution (by propaganda, agitation and organisation) in non-revolutionary bodies and even in downright reactionary bodies, in non-revolutionary circumstances…

Lenin’s main organisational conclusion is the necessity of “the strictest discipline, truly iron discipline in our Party”, to achieve “absolute centralisation and the strictest discipline of the proletariat”. To the question of whether the working class or the Communist Party or the party leadership should rule, Lenin replies that they all naturally go together. “Not a single important political or organisational question is decided by any state institution in our republic without the guiding instructions of the Central Committee of the Party.” The trade unions “formally, are non-Party” but their leaderships “consist of Communists and carry out all the instruc­tions of the Party”. In view of this, “all talk about ‘from above’ or ‘from below’, about the dictatorship of leaders or the dictatorship of the masses, cannot but appear to be ridiculous, childish nonsense, something like discussing whether the left leg or the right arm is more useful to a man”.

The problem here is that a left leg and a right arm are equally organic parts of a human body, both growing and developing naturally with it, both necessary to kick a ball, say. But a socialist party is not an organic growth of the working class. A working class can, and usually does, exist without a revolutionary party being part of it. Such a party has to constantly strive to win and win again active support in the class, rather than occupying a position within it as of right, and any other party could potentially do the same. A socialist party is neither a leg or an arm for the working class: it is more like a boot that can help it kick that ball more effectively, a boot that can be discarded or replaced if it ceases to do so. Lenin’s effective nullification of difference or tension between party and class ill fits socialists for their activity, and contributed to a situation where the Communist Party could proclaim itself ruler in the name of the workers.

So there was something to the left criticism of leaders taking the place of the working class. Of course, Lenin was right to note that attacks on leaders can often hide a desire for leadership: “new leaders are put forth (under cover of the slogan: ‘Down with the leaders!’)”. But he much prefers to detect the influence of enemy classes:

They encircle the proletariat on every side with a petty-bourgeois atmosphere, which permeates and corrupts the proletariat and causes constant relapses among the proletariat into petty-bourgeois spinelessness, disintegration, individual­ism, and alternate modes of exaltation and dejection. The strictest centralisation and discipline are required in the political party of the proletariat in order to counteract this… Whoever in the least weakens the iron discipline of the party of the prole­tariat (especially during its dictatorship) actually aids the bourgeoisie against the proletariat.

Undoubtedly the working class has its enemies who will endeavour to sow confusion in its ranks. But this is not the source of every disagreement with the party line, and disagreement in general cannot truthfully be portrayed as “actually” aiding and abetting the class enemy. There is such a thing as an honest difference of opinion among socialists. Insisting that such differences are invariably emanations of the diabolical spirit of the bourgeoisie, or un­knowingly doing the devil’s work, creates a heresy-hunting atmos­phere where party centralisation and discipline becomes nothing more than keeping your head down and doing what the leaders say.

Having all but anathematised his opponents, however, Lenin concedes that they do have a point somewhere. Left communism was particularly strong in Italy, and (while admitting his un­familiarity with it) Lenin admits that the toleration of parliamentary opportunism in the Socialist Party there “creates ‘Left-wing’ Communism on the one hand and justifies its existence, to a certain extent, on the other”. While criticising a British communist opposed to working in parliament, Lenin praises his contempt for the parliamentarians:

This temper is very gratifying and valuable; we must learn to prize it and to support it, because without it, it is hopeless to expect the victory of the proletarian revolution in England, or in any other country for that matter.… The hatred felt by this representative of the oppressed and exploited masses is in truth the “beginning of all wisdom”, the very basis of any Socialist or Communist movement, and of its success.

In fact, a more charitable translation of the book’s title would have called this left wing a ‘childhood disease’ rather than an ‘infantile disorder’, maybe even a ‘growing pain’. The appendix goes along with some of the left criticisms, and says that if the left were to leave the communist parties, “every effort must be made” to heal the rift. At the Communist International congress, while sticking to his guns, Lenin always maintained that the left communists belonged in the International.

This was because “the mistake of Left doctrinairism in Communism is a thousand times less dangerous and less significant than the mistake of Right doctrinairism”. This is a sensible con­clusion, universally valid: the mistakes of over-zealous or in­experienced revolutionaries are not in the same league as the policy of drawing socialism towards an effective accommodation with the relations of social domination characteristic of class society. But Lenin spoils this conclusion by qualifying it: the left communists are only less dangerous “at the present moment… only due to the fact that Left Communism is a very young trend”. This left wide open the possibility, even the likelihood, that the actual or imagined mistakes of real socialists could be used to make them into the main enemy. And that disorder should have been a far more worrying one to contemplate.

Poetry to save lives

Kevin Higgins reviewed a collection of politically engaged poetry in Issue 33 (September 2008).

Dave Lordan, The Boy in the Ring (Salmon Poetry)

In the small world that is the Irish poetry scene Dave Lordan is, to say the least of it, an unusual case. His poetic imagination is politically engaged in a way that sets him apart from the vast majority of his contemporaries. Lordan was born in Clonakilty in 1975 and now lives in Dublin. For Irish poets of the previous couple of generations, opposition to the political and cultural status quo (whatever form that opposition might take) was more or less a given. Until the 1990s there was, for most, no way to be a poet in Ireland and not be opposed to things as they were.

The Irish feminist movement of the 1970s and ‘80s had its poetic counterpart in Eavan Boland’s 1982 collection Night Feed, the Catholic church was pretty wickedly satirised in poems such as Paul Durcan’s ‘Priest Accused of Not Wearing Condom’, and the brave new Ireland of the late 1970s was starkly taken to task in poems such as ‘Cuchulainn’ by Michael O’Loughlin: “At eleven-fifteen on a Tuesday morning / with the wind blowing fragments of concrete / Into eyes already battered and bruised / By four tightening walls / In a flat in a tower-block / Named after an Irish Patriot / Who died with your name on his lips…”

Suffering poverty is one thing: poets have a long history of being fairly okay with poverty, both their own and other people’s. But living under the then very real yoke of the Catholic Church—the constitutional ban on divorce, homosexual acts between consenting men illegal until 1993, the sale of condoms completely illegal until 1979—was bound to provoke opposition from artists. I think it was Trotsky who wrote that artists are petit-bourgeois in revolt against the role society is trying to force them into, or words to that effect. Until at least the late 1970s all Irish writers had to worry about censorship, and Irish women writers had to constantly fight against the silence which had been imposed on their mothers and grand­mothers. In the Ireland of the recent past if you were a poet, or artist of any sort, what you were for may not have been at all clear, but you typically knew what you were against.

In the past twenty years many of these issues have either ceased to be or been greatly ameliorated. The church is nothing like the force it was. Censorship is a distant abstraction to young writers starting out now. These days a poet is far more likely to draw the wrath of the left, for not toeing some ‘party line’, than he or she is to be condemned by the powers that be, who are, to be frank, so secure in their position of ideological supremacy that they don’t care what poets say about them. Yes, free market capitalism has, with im­punity, put its hands into pretty much every area of Irish life over the past decade or so. Most artistic types don’t like this, or at least think it has gone too far. But they are not alone in not having a clue what is to be done about it.         

Voting for Enda Kenny (with a bit of Éamon Gilmore thrown in) seems unlikely to change much. And to the bulk of artists, as to most people, the existing far left seems to be more about the past than the future. Even the most apolitical poet knows about what Stalin did to artists, and no-one wants to revisit that. Those few who do loudly engage with political issues tend to follow the formula of writing a stream of vituperative letters to the editor (everywhere from the Irish Times to the Longford Independent) in which they often conclude by sniping at their fellow scribes for not being similarly engagé. For most, excepting those tragic few on the far left who are impressed, it is clear that this sort of ‘political engagement’ is more about death than life. ‘Notice me!’ the sad scribe shrieks. ‘Before they screw down my coffin lid!’ But the world has more important things to attend to. And so the scribe shrieks all the louder. The value of the politically engaged writer has rarely been more open to question than in Ireland right now.

In this context Dave Lordan’s explosion on to the Irish poetry scene over the past couple of years has been a revelation. Towards the end of 2005 he won the Patrick Kavanagh Award. This March he won the Strong Award for Best First Collection, and was also shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award, which was won last year by a little known Co. Derry poet by the name of Séamus Heaney. Lordan’s rise is also proof that what is sometimes called the literary establishment is very open indeed to good political poems, however revolutionary they may be. It would perhaps have been more politically advantageous for his comrades if, when his first book appeared, instead of Lordan being brought to Dún Laoghaire to be given a big award, all copies of The Boy in the Ring had been seized in an early morning Special Branch raid on Salmon Poetry’s headquarters in Clare and Lordan himself exiled to Inisboffin. But it was not to be.

In his poetry Lordan is open about his politics. His point of view is usually that of participant rather than bystander, as in the case of ‘Migrant’s March, Genoa, July 19, 2001’:

The slogans surging up the back of fifty thousand throats
to greet them in our provisional republic.

Free-Free Kurdistan.
So-So-Solidarité.
A- Anti- Anti-capitalista.
Un altro mondo é possible.
Noi siamo tutti clandestini.

A language we all understand.
Is there any such thing as Ireland?

The closing couplet well brings to life the way participation in big political movements can help us transcend the apparently common­sense realities around us. The experimental five-page ‘Excerpt from Reflections on Shannon’ and ‘The hunger striker sings his death’ also both overtly engage with politics in a way that your typical poet believer in all things Irish Times would not:

I ask you again
What the fuck is silence;
And who ever heard
The dead requesting it?

I have, on occasion, heard Lordan’s poems criticised for being somewhat bombastic and more than a little relentless. It’s important to know that Lordan considers the ‘stage’—i.e. reading his poems aloud to an audience—to be more important than the page—i.e. having his poems quietly read from a book by solitary passive readers. When he is on form, he is one of the best performers Irish poetry has to offer. I once saw him perform ‘The hunger striker sings his death’ to a Galway audience which included a woman from a Protestant unionist background in the North who up to that point had more or less believed that the H-Block hunger strikers were just a bunch of guys who had starved themselves to death years ago to make some obscure political point. After the reading this same woman turned to me and said: “Now I get it.” As a poet Lordan has an ability to animate a subject in a way that far outstrips most of even the better public speakers on the left.

He gives his reader/listener the feeling that the people he writes about are not simply pawns in the political argument which undeniably does underpin many of his poems: he also cares about them as human beings. Lordan is an engaged witness to what is going on, rather than a propagandist trying to fit the world into some pre-conceived scheme. It is true that some of his poems are better heard aloud than read on the page but, as I’ve said, that is part of his plan. Lordan is one of a group of younger poets emerging in Ireland right now for whom reading their poems to live audiences is at least as important as being read on the page in the quiet of the reader’s living room. Others would include Cork poet Billy Ramsell who was shortlisted for the same Strong Award which Lordan won. One blogger commented that this year’s Strong Award seemed to represent the arrival in Ireland of “some sort of performance poetry”. And they were, in a sense, on the button. Many of the old boundaries have been eroded or kicked away, and the Irish poetry world is undeniably a more open, less snobbish place than at any other time in its history.

There have, yes, been one or two old guarders keen to pour ignorant scorn on the open mic and poetry slam scene which has sprung up in most of the key urban centres in Ireland over the past five years: they are the sort of people who would no doubt amend Yeats’s exhortation to future generations from “Irish poets, learn your trade” to ‘Younger poets, know your place’. A professor of Irish Studies based at a major American university—a pillar of the literary establishment, if you will—recently likened the aforementioned naysayers to those old men who like to whinge away to themselves about how ‘There’s never anything any good on the telly these days!’ Sadly, they have had some (albeit ineffectual) encouragement from those who should know better. In 2006 a poet member of a many-initialled Trotskyist group published an article in which it was argued that young poets would be better off going along to hear an elderly socialist playwright read his work in a small provincial hotel than wasting their time constantly reading their own work to audiences. Controversy ensued in the pages of The Irish Times, Poetry Ireland News and elsewhere. It is true that young poets should read the great poetry of the past: absolutely. But when a member of a Trotskyist group starts running around trying to stir up deference among the young, we have, to paraphrase Evelyn Waugh, ended up in a very queer street indeed. But I suppose we all make mistakes. In contrast, Dave Lordan has been a staunch advocate of the new poetic openness, even when this has meant not exactly toeing the party line.

And his best poems seal the argument. His ‘Explanations of War’ is one of the finest anti-war poems I have read in years:

See all those bright lights whizzing around in the sky—
They are only the stars throwing a party.
And the shaking you feel beneath you,
The shaking that jars your teeth and your bones—
That is only the way the earth dances.
And the bangs and roars, the cracks and blasts and booms—
These are only the sounds of little spirits tuning their instruments…

But by far Lordan’s greatest quality as a poet is his empathy. George Orwell once wrote that he found it hard to imagine that the typical “polysyllable-chewing Marxist” of the 1930s could possibly have been motivated by a love of anything, let alone the working class. He came to the conclusion that capitalism offended many of them not because it was unjust but because it was untidy. Lordan is a different sort of Marxist, and one rarely spotted in the English language poetry world. He has a genuine anarchic love of those who, as your Auntie Mary might put it, ’give us all a bad name’. His ‘Ode on de winning of de Entente Florale’ ironically and viciously celebrates Clonakilty’s win in that competition by giving voice to the at times Waffen SS-like prejudices of the organising committee: “Told ye so. Told ye we could win it / ’Spite de filth o’ de likes o’ ye / With yere baseball caps and yere baggy pants, / Yere ghetto blasters and yere nigger music…/And de trainee hoors hangin’ offa ye.” Lordan’s use of the demotic brings to mind the work of poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and Tony Harrison. And indeed, if English as it is spoken by the Afro-Caribbean community in London and the white working class in West Yorkshire can be brought into poetry, then why not Clonakilty? I trust the committee who master­minded the town’s Entente Florale triumph are suitably proud of Lordan.

His empathy is at its sharpest when dealing with the issue of suicide, which a number of the poems here do. Far ahead of unaffordable house prices and traffic jams, youth suicide has been the real curse of Ireland’s Tiger years. ‘Mail for a dead guide’ is written in the form of a letter to a friend who killed himself. Lordan is the first Irish poet to seriously and credibly engage with this subject. He is breaking new poetic ground in the way that, say, Cathal Ó Searcaigh was when he began publishing poems about being a young gay man growing up in rural Ireland back in the late 1970s. Lordan’s empathy is born of the fact that he is never an outsider to the issues he writes about, and has clearly done near deadly battle with his own demons in the past.

I finally get to this morning
but cringe at thoughts of my father
at the front door explaining
my mother’s Antigonian wailing…

In true Irish martyr fashion
I’ve decided not to give a warning.

‘Dying for Ireland’

Lordan has until recently been best known as a fairly brash political poet. But there is a huge vulnerability there too, which will, I think, be the making of him as a poet. It has enabled him to take his poetry into the until now uncharted terrain of modern Irish loneli­ness and despair at their worst. Every secondary school in Ireland should, as a matter of urgency, book Dave Lordan for a visit under the Writers in Schools scheme. We all know the old Auden cliché about poetry making nothing happen, but in this case it might actually save lives.

When was Labour?

Noel McDermott reviewed a book on the Labour Party’s disappointing history in Issue 30 in December 2007.

Niamh Puirséil, The Irish Labour Party 1922-73 (UCD Press)

It turned out timely that a new book on the Labour Party’s history was published just as that party was putting a new man in the saddle. Not because it feeds into a lively debate on Labour’s contem­porary political role—let’s face it, there is no such debate—but because Labour’s past is still far more interesting than its present or its likely future. Niamh Puirséil has produced a seriously researched study which is not afraid to debunk the myths of previous historians, and is written with a sense of humour which is still too rare in labour history.

Asking how and why Labour abandoned the revolutionary socialism of Connolly and Larkin is to “begin with the wrong question” (p 6), because Labour never had it to begin with. The book rightly insists that the party begins, not with Connolly’s 1912 Irish Trades Union Congress resolution for the independent political representation of labour, but at the 1922 Free State election. In the meantime the Irish labour movement moved in sympathy with the postwar revolutionary wave—although it is unfair to write that off as only a “lurch to the left for a time” (p 9)—but only took to the electoral field as that tide was going out, and the birth marks of that counter-revolutionary period never faded.

While documenting Labour’s early activities internally, the author doesn’t really step back and locate them in the wider political debate on the 1921 treaty and what followed. Labour’s self-perception of being above it all is false, but so is the traditional republican characterisation of 1922 Labour as Free State stooges. They wanted to put the national question behind them, but could only do so by convincing themselves that the treaty more or less resolved it, that it allowed the people of the 26 counties “to govern themselves in respect of ninety-nine hundredths of their individual day to day affairs”, as soon-to-be deputy leader Cathal O’Shannon told the party conference: “no small achievement”. They adopted a position of critical support towards the new state, proving to be embarrassing critics of its brutality in the civil war, but never essentially doubting that its cause was a just one. Their role as loyal opposition was an important factor in that state’s survival.

Labour’s unexpected success in its electoral debut turned out to be a false dawn, as half its vote disappeared a year later. Puirséil blames some of its TDs, in part, for not being cute enough players of the game. She quotes O’Shannon’s reply to a constituent looking for a start: “It is not part of our job to assist individual men to get posts [but] to secure the all round improvement of the conditions etc. of any and every section of the workers” (p 18). If Labour TDs had established themselves as clientelist middlemen before Fianna Fáil cornered the market, they may have secured a better electoral foothold—but saying a working-class party can get more votes without its principles is like saying you’ll get to the laundrette quicker if you don’t bring your bag of washing with you. Cathal O’Shannon should get the biographer he has long been crying out for, and in the meantime his letter should be framed in the office of any socialist who gets elected to anything.

More profitable is her speculation that the party would have set itself going better under Jim Larkin, who would have given de Valera a run for his money in the inspirational leader stakes. The party was founded on accepting the Free State he intuitively rejected, however, and tied to union leaders he was in a state of civil war with. It is true that his individualistic self-importance would have caused migraines all round, but the labour movement’s rejec­tion of the instinctive militancy he represented hampered it polit­ically as well as industrially. Separating the Labour Party from the ITUC in 1930 failed to win it a wider membership. (Inexplicably, the author seems to have missed the party’s previous move in that direction in 1926, when it allowed for individuals as well as unions to join Labour, with Archie Heron appointed organiser to set up local branches on that basis.)

With politics in the 1930s revolving largely around pushing the envelope of the 1921 settlement, “Labour’s tendency towards rigid constitutionalism” (p 29) ill fitted it to prosper. But there were other voices in the party, such as the short-lived TD Gilbert Lynch who made the oath of allegiance to the British crown an election issue in Galway, and fell out with his leader Tom Johnson over repression of republicans. While this book doesn’t go into his dissent from official policy, it does a little to rescue Lynch from his undeserved obscurity. However, under the leadership of William Norton from 1932, Labour got a bit greener, and even opposed the oath “in class terms as well as nationalist ones” (p 42).

The party took a clear shift leftwards in the 1930s with a corres­ponding increase in activism, and in 1936 came out and declared the workers’ republic to be its objective. This book argues that this was “adopted as an opportunistic measure” (p 73), and Labour’s vote did double in the next election. But we are also told that “in fact its gains came in spite of” the workers’ republic (p 64). That doesn’t really add up, but if it was a vote-getting exercise, it is evidence of a high level of class consciousness within the party’s target constituency—which makes it look less like cynical opportunism than an honest recog­nition of a real change in political attitudes.

It’s well known how Labour dropped the workers’ republic like a hot brick in 1939 because the bishops didn’t approve, with the party authorising the leadership to change anything else in its constitution that might cause offence. This was a case of self-flagellation rather than a belt of the crozier: “The Church rarely mobilised against Labour, but only because Labour was assiduous in ensuring that it was never given cause to do so. The degree of self-censorship was enormous” (p 310). At around the same time they closed down the party’s paper, at great financial loss, for publishing material that could only offend the most pious of priesteens.

All the same, Labour reached unprecedented heights during the second world war on the back of militant opposition to Fianna Fáil’s plans to freeze wages and force small unions out of existence. A demonstration of 20,000 in Dublin not only testified to that oppo­sition, but moved one Labour TD from respectfully disagreeing with the measure to advocating that the law be broken. Jim Larkin was finally brought into the party fold, and it won a majority on Dublin Corporation. There is intriguing evidence in the book of co-operation with the small farmers’ party Clann na Talmhan and with some republicans. It was all thrown away, however, with Labour’s dismal participation in two desperate coalition governments with Fine Gael and others, after which “Labour was certainly not socialist, but it was no longer labourist either… having lost all semblance of a recog­nisable labour identity” (p 201).

The reaction was to swing leftwards throughout the 1960s, ruling out coalition and embracing the S word. Puirséil is quite correct to insist that this was fundamentally “a vague socialist ethos” (p 249) subject to varying interpretations rather than a practical socialist policy, but calling it “meaningless” (p 240) misses the point. Irish society did change immensely in that decade, and it breathed fresh life into left-wing politics. Many sincere activists flocked into Labour, organising to try and change it into a socialist vehicle—something the party’s leaders had to go along with or keep quiet. While their slogan “The seventies will be socialist” now sounds like the English weatherman who forecast a calm day just before a hurricane hit, at the time it was far more than a tale of sound and fury signifying nothing. A real political movement was underway, Labour was brought with it, and this opened up greater possibilities than it had ever known.

The honeymoon ended with the 1969 election: expecting big gains, the party actually lost four seats, and returned to the coalition­ist mindset it has basically held to ever since. Rather than interrog­ating the conclusion they came to, the author recapitulates it: all the socialist talk came across “as jargon spouted by bearded dilettantes” (p 310) which just had to go. But how come Labour did extremely well in Dublin, winning 29.5 per cent of the vote and six extra seats? After all, people in Dublin North East are not known for having more time for bearded dilettantes than people in Cork North East. The thing is that they didn’t hear the left-wing message in Cork North East, or in many other areas where the local candidates dumped the campaign literature that came from head office. It wasn’t that Labour’s socialism—such as it was—had been tried and failed, but that it was never properly tried.

The book stops at 1973 after Labour’s half-century, and anyone with a passing knowledge of what happened next may be grateful for being spared a particularly depressing chapter. Labour today has less of a spring in its step that you would expect of a party with a new leader. Having tried two versions of coalitionism with the same electoral outcome, it looks perplexed. In today’s Labour Party, you qualify as a left-winger if you’re open to doing business with either right-wing party rather than just the one. The idea of scrapping coalitionism altogether, an independent party determined to push Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael aside, seems too far outside its terms of reference to be a runner—even though, as this history shows, Labour’s biggest successes have come about when it looked like standing out for itself.

Labour will undergo changes, of course, but “the party was more of a pendulum: sometimes it swung leftward, and sometimes to the right, but it always returned to a dull equilibrium” (p 82). Whenever it has moved to the left, wherever there have been left-wing spaces within it, the centre of gravity has always been elsewhere and has always exerted itself. The once fierce debate over whether socialists should be in the Labour Party has quietly resolved itself. Few socialist activists now give the party a go, and those who do are honest enough to admit how little they have to show for it. This study’s conclusion may come across as harsh (p 311): “Offering little and delivering less, Labour received the support that it deserved.” The fact that such a judgment is not in the least unfair, however, says a lot.

The Hidden Connolly 29

Issue 29 in September 2007 brought another article by James Connolly unpublished since his death, calling for workers’ unity in Belfast.

Belfast Notes

[The Irish Worker, November 25 1911]

Labour in Belfast had the offer of a rare treat on Tuesday in the shape of a lecture by Tom Mann,1 but unfortunately it did not take advantage of it in anything like the numbers expected. Evening meetings are awkward for the seagoing brothers, engaged as most of them are on cross-channel ships which leave Belfast about 8 or 9 p.m., and many of the Irish Transport members were working late. That is the most that can be said in extenuation of the meagre attendance; but when that is said it still leaves the ugly fact that Labour had the opportunity of a treat, and missed it. Those who did turn up were anxious to arrange for another meeting, and all hands pledged themselves that when next our brother visits Belfast he will have an audience worthy of his abilities.

The Belfast Trades Council had a rather stormy scene on Saturday, November 11th, in the course of the election of a delegate to the Conference of the British Labour Party. The stormy scene was entirely due to the intervention of Mr William Walker JP against the candidature of Mr D R Campbell, President of the Trades Council.

Mr Campbell had spoken at the Irish Trades Congress in favour of an Irish Labour Party, and Mr Walker made this the excuse for an attack upon his candidature, arguing that a man in favour of an Irish Labour Party ought not to go to a Conference of a British Labour Party.

Contrary to all parliamentary procedure the vice-chairman allowed Mr Walker to speak in support of his motion nominating Mr Greig, and then refused the same right to any other delegate. This led to a questioning of his ruling, and to his retiral from the chair as a result of the adverse vote. Many bitter speeches followed as a direct consequence of the bitterness imparted to the debate by Mr Walker, and to whom also was due the fact that the division practically took place between those who favoured an Irish Labour Party and those who opposed it. The result was a pleasant surprise to the writer, Mr Campbell being elected over Mr Walker’s nominee by 22 votes to 10. Mr Campbell goes to the British Labour Party Conference as a delegate favourable to a Labour Party in Great Britain, and equally favourable to a Labour Party in Ireland, recog­nising that the one is the complement, and not the rival, of the other.

The newly-established Irish Textile Workers’ Union (textile department of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union), established as a result of the recent strike in York Street and Mile Water Spinning Mills,2 is forging ahead. Premises have been secured as club rooms in 50 York Street, with two front windows on this—the main—thoroughfare of the city, and a small hall in the rear, which is intended for the recreation of the members. A committee of women has been elected, consisting of delegates from every room in the two mills. At its first meeting this committee appointed delegates and shop stewards, and struck a levy of one penny per month per member for social and educational purposes. It is now generally recognised in Belfast that this union has come to stay, and, outside of a small official clique of stick-in-the-muds, this fact is welcomed.

There are signs of a revival of trade unionism amongst the labourers in the coal yards, most of the labourers from Milligan & Co. and the Antrim Iron Ore Company having been ‘persuaded’ to join the Irish Transport Workers’ Union in the past week. There are no worse treated labourers in the city, but the fatal sectarian and political divisions which are the curse of Belfast have hitherto conspired to keep them unorganised and at the mercy of their employers.

Some time ago a body of slaters’ assistants approached us with a view to organising, but although welcomed and given every encour­agement, could not apparently summon up courage enough to carry out their intention. We shall go after them in the near future, and would be glad to hear from them at any time.

The workers of Belfast have long been rent asunder by consider­ations of creed and party; they were divided whilst their masters were united. The time is coming when the pressure of a common oppression will find them united in a common bond of brotherhood in the common struggle for freedom.

Instead of divisions along the lines of creeds we will see union along the lines of industry, and instead of all the petty unions we will see the Irish Transport and General Workers gathering all into

ONE BIG UNION

of Irish workers against the united front of the employers.

That, at least, is the hope and aim of

Séumas

Notes

1      A leading socialist and militant trade unionist in Britain.

2      See Connolly’s article ‘Belfast Mill Strike’ (October 28 1911) in the last issue of Red Banner.

Socialist Classics: Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’

In Issue 27 in March 2007, Colm Breathnach discussed the relevance of one of Marx’s key works.

On rereading The Eighteenth Brumaire, what is most striking is that it is packed with insights that are relevant to contemporary struggles. The pamphlet describes and analyses the events spanning the period from the overthrow of France’s Orleanist monarchy in February 1848 to the coup d’état of Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew, in December 1851. What is there to learn from a study of such a distant historical period, one might ask. The American socialist Hal Draper wrote of The Eighteenth Brumaire that “an outstanding characteristic is its painstaking dissection of the complexity of the historical situation”, and it certainly reveals Marx at his best, teasing out the intricate interaction of the individuals, parties, classes and class fractions operating within the overall socio-economic context of a capitalist society.

In fact Marx sees politics as complicated and constantly changing in its relationship with the economic base. As Draper noted, he pays particular attention to the state, never abstracting it from its roots in the socio-economic structure of society but recog­nising that it can have a certain degree of autonomy, a certain dynamism that cannot be reduced solely to bending to the will of one class or another. Marx realised that this was a complex relation­ship, and rather than hide behind simplifications, he attempted to tackle this complexity.

So he grapples with the question of the state, for example locating the origin of the centralised and bureaucratic structures of the French state, what he calls “this appalling parasitic body”, in the development of absolutism and the original French Revolution. In relation to the state bureaucracy, Marx implies on the one hand that this is an outgrowth of the bourgeoisie, a means to absorb its surplus members and to line its pockets with state salaries: an explanation that might well account for the senior ranks of the bureaucracy but not the vast army of petty officials and clerical workers that staff most states’ civil service. On the other hand, in a later reference to the bureaucracy under the second Bonaparte, he seems to suggest differently, seeing it as an “artificial caste” conjured up to maintain the Imperial regime, formed alongside the ‘normal’ class structure, arising out of a preponderance of small property owners and a surplus population of unemployed. In a similar vein, the question of the army acting autonomously of the ruling class is considered, and Marx comes to the conclusion that “barracks and bivouac” some­times tire of rescuing the bourgeoisie and suppressing popular revolt, and decide to “play state of siege in their own interest and for their own benefit and at the same time besiege the citizens’ purses”. It’s obvious that Marx is not proposing total autonomy for the state apparatus, but that he is of the opinion that, although these institutions generally serve the interests of the current ruling class, there are complicating factors which tug at that connection and sometimes sever it, if only temporarily.

There have always been two Marxisms: Marxism as faith, and Marxism as method of analysis. Marxism as faith is more Marxist than the man himself, because it allows for no flaws or weaknesses in his writings and thought. Marx, like all humans, was fallible, and while the thrust of his analysis and methodology are an invaluable starting point, there are some points on which he got things wrong. One of these was an occasional lapse into determinism (along the lines of “the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the prole­tariat”), evident here in the expect­ation that the replacement of the polit­ical rule of the bourgeoisie by an authoritar­ian regime would inevitably clear the way for a successful prole­tarian revolu­tion. Yet before we get carried away with the idea that Marx saw his­tory as a gigantic conveyor belt leading in one direction, let us pause to look at what he actually writes.

When describing proletarian revo­lution, Marx makes it clear that it is not a linear process always heading on­wards and upwards, but one that often faces setbacks and forced retreats as the workers ”throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again”. Now he does conclude that this erratic path to victory continues “until a sit­uation has been created which makes all turning back impossible”, but this is not the same as saying ‘when a situation has been created’. In other words, the final destination is left somewhat open. Marx acknowledges the possibil­ity of defeat, and even gets around to discussing what happens to the workers’ movement in those circumstances: “In part it throws itself into doctrinaire experiments, exchange banks and workers’ associations… and seeks, rather, to achieve its salvation behind society’s back, in private fashion, within its limited circumstances, and hence necess­arily suffers shipwreck.” How reminiscent of the many private sal­vations, including the ‘community development’ sector, the ‘alternative lifestyle’ scene etc., on which many a good activist has ended up shipwrecked!

“Men make their own history,” Marx writes, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encounter­ed, given and transmitted from the past.” Yet generations of both fans and critics have simply ignored the first five words of that statement, inventing a pseudo-Marx who sees humans as puppets dangling on the strings of structure. What he’s actually saying is just common sense: that we have some room for manoeuvre in our lives but that this room is constrained by the structures of the society we exist in. Indeed, few could doubt that this was Marx’s approach after reading this account of the rise of the arch-opportunist Louis Bonaparte, manoeuvring his way through the structures of French society until he stood at its head—for here, if ever, was a man making his own history, but not exactly as he pleased.

If The Eighteenth Brumaire is about the relationship between state and class, it also has a lot to say about the related matter of party and class. Obviously, political parties are not what we are taught to believe in our civics classes, that is, simply free-floating associations of people joined together on the basis of adherence to a common ideology or policies. Even bourgeois political scientists will acknow­ledge that parties represent different interests than just their mem­bership or voters. Marxists on the other hand try to look deeper: What class, classes or class fraction does a party represent? Does its voting base or membership reflect its class orientation? How do other factors, such as the individual party leaders, gender, ethnicity or relationship with the state, interact with this class orientation and base? Marx’s portrayal of political parties (in the looser nineteenth century sense of the word) in the pamphlet is certainly centred on their location in the class structure, but it does not follow that he reduces everything to a simple formula of Party A = Class B, though that may sometimes be the case.

Indeed, he posits the general theory that, far from always belonging to the class they represent, politicians “according to their education and their individual position may be as far apart as heaven from earth” from that class. “What makes them repre­sentatives…” Marx tells us, “is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter [class] do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically.” Sometimes it is even the politics that loops back and influences the class: “instead of gaining an accession of strength from it, the democratic party had infected the proletariat with its own weakness”. Yet he also reiterates (when explaining the division of monarchists into two factions) that there really is a binding and ever-present relation between politics and class:

That at the same time old memories, personal enmities, fears and hopes, prejudices and illusions, sympathies and antipathies, convictions, articles of faith and principles bound them to one or the other royal house, who denies this? Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed senti­ments, illusions, modes of thought and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundation and out of the corresponding social relations. The single individual, who derives them through tradition and upbringing, may imagine that they form the real motives and the starting point of his activity.

Once again, we come across men and women making their own history but not as individuals floating free of the ties of class.

It is especially in describing the Party of Order, that conglomer­ation of monarchist politicians who attempted to rule France between the end of the revolutionary period of 1848 and the victory of Bonaparte, that Marx explores the complicated class/party relationship. He draws a picture of dissonance, of representatives being out of synch with those they represent, of various fractions of the bourgeoisie turning away from their political leaders, for very different reasons, to look to Bonaparte as their saviour. These reasons include the specific material interests of the various parts of the bourgeoisie, but also a plethora of inter-related factors, as is obvious from the depiction of the defection of a chunk of the conservative/monarchist majority in parliament to Bonaparte’s camp in early 1851. They deserted “out of fanaticism for conciliation, out of fear of the struggle, out of lassitude, out of family regard for the state salaries so near and dear to them, out of speculation on ministerial posts become vacant… out of sheer egoism, which makes the ordinary bourgeois always inclined to sacrifice the general interest of his class for this or that private motive”. The point here is not that Marx is saying that class isn’t the major factor in party politics, but that it plays itself out in a variety of ways, some of which are quite unpredictable. At the same time he is anxious to strip away the ideological veils that hide raw class struggle behind them, and he makes no bones about it that the great currents swirling under the surface of party politics are those of class struggle. What should not surprise anyone familiar with Marx’s writings is that he can see both the wood and the trees.

Marx’s cutting descriptions of Bonaparte and his populist antics may seem like some comic farce, but they show a solid grasp of the phenomena of authoritarian populism. Rereading these sections with an eye on modern Ireland, the late Charlie Haughey comes to mind again and again. Indeed, Haughey and Bonaparte had much in common as political outsiders who clawed their way to the centre of power, posing as men of the people but always intent on living the high life, courtesy of the state: “And in Bonaparte the imperial pretender was so intimately bound up with the adventurer down on his luck that the one great idea, that he was called to restore the empire, was always supplemented by the other, that it was the mission of the French people to pay his debts.” Marx’s character­isation of Bonaparte’s proposal to set up an ‘honour system loan bank’ for workers brings today’s SSIAs to mind: “Money as a gift and money as a loan, it was with prospects such as these that he hoped to allure the masses.” This type of populist mass bribery was Bonaparte’s speciality, something that obviously tickled Marx, as can be seen in this reference to the president (soon to be emperor) plying the troops with goodies: “As a fatalist, he lives in the conviction that there are certain higher powers which man, and the soldier in particular, cannot withstand. Among these powers he counts, first and foremost, cigars and champagne, cold poultry and garlic sausage.” Like Haughey, Bonaparte wanted to be seen as the “patriarchal benefactor of all classes”, but just like Haughey, he could not “give to one class without taking from another”.

In a passage at the end of the book Marx details the complicated relationship between Bonaparte and the various classes: he has broken the political power of the middle class, but he protects its material power. Yet, given his support base amongst the peasantry, he wants to, and needs to “make the lower classes of the people happy within the frame of bourgeois society”, but in the final analysis his true loyalty lies with himself, his clique and the army who keep him in power. Such is the shifting sand upon which populism bases itself and these glaring contradictions are its fatal weakness.

In chapter VII, Marx attempts to define class, not in an abstract way but in reference to the situation of the French peasantry. Although his entire works are imbued with the concept, he rarely gets as close to a precise definition of class as he does here:

In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among the small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no commun­ity, no national bond and no political organisation among them, they do not form a class.

Now most socialists will be familiar with the idea of a ‘class in itself’ versus a ‘class for itself’, with the implied importance of class-consciousness arising out of struggle as the key element of the transition from the former to the latter. Marx clearly had this idea in mind, since he goes on to state that, because of the lack of class consciousness and organisation, the peasants saw the “unlimited governmental power” imposed by Louis Bonaparte as their repre­sentative and saviour. But a closer glance will reveal a more layered view of class. Note that while class is firmly grounded in the economic base, what glues people together as a class, in the objective sense, is not only their relationship to the means of production but cultural factors that arise from the mode of production and the opposing interests of other classes. Marx rarely misses a chance to tease out the contradictions, to spell out the dialectic: it is not that classes are like popcorn lying inert in their kernels waiting to be popped by the heat of the struggle (or the all-knowing vanguard!) but that they exist and do not exist at the same time. What is stunting the maturity of the class, Marx contends, is a lack of awareness of a broader, as opposed to a local, commonality with people of the same class. They may well be an ‘identity of interests’ but it has not resulted in a sense of being part of a wider class community. Political organisation is clearly seen as an important factor in the emergence of a class, though not the sole one.

Traditional far-left organisations are notorious for the ‘education’ they force-feed their new members: usually a few un­appetising morsels of Lenin and Trotsky taken with a large dollop of the truth according to the guru. They rarely prescribe raw Marx, as opposed to their authorised summaries. Derivative of Marx these tracts may be, but they bear little relation to the depth and breadth, the clarity and the contradictions, the incisiveness and complexity of the man’s work. Reading Marx is incompatible with the dictatorship of the leading few, because the ideas swirl round, the interpretations are manifold, the lessons varied, the party line missing, and most of all, the Holy Book dissolves into the grand messy multiple thought of a real human being, brilliant, flawed and committed as he was. Marx is still essential reading for serious socialists, and for those approaching his work for the first time, where better to start than with The Eighteenth Brumaire?

Drawing the line

In Issue 25 (July 2006) Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh argued for clarity and unity on the left.

Before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first of all firmly and definitely draw the lines of demarcation.

Lenin

Revolutionaries are from Venus: reformists are from Mars. A gaping fault line runs through history between those who want to demolish the capitalist edifice and build anew, and those who want to make it more habitable by rearranging the furniture. Reformism works within the parameters laid down by the framework of capitalist society. Even in good times, these only stretch far enough to accommodate relatively generous welfare systems and extensive state intervention in the economy; in bad times, reformists are left with a diminishing quantity of crumbs to distribute and often find themselves shoring up the worst aspects of the system they wanted to ameliorate. The words of Luxemburg echo truer than ever: “Those who proclaim themselves in favour of the way of legal reforms instead of and as opposed to the conquest of political power and the revolutionising of society do not in reality opt for a smoother, surer, quieter way to the same goal, but a different goal: instead of bringing about a new system of society, just a quantitative change in the old.”

That is not to say that reformism is no more than a heinous conspiracy got up by the bourgeoisie to befuddle the proletarian masses who otherwise would rise up the day after tomorrow and cast off their chains. When working people look for a change in social conditions, that is usually expressed as a desire for reform in the existing system. When capitalism is incessantly presented to you as a god-given eternal way of life—and especially when no alter­native presents itself with any serious force—it is only natural to call for a remodelling of that system rather than its replacement. Reformism corresponds to, and reinforces, this state of mind. This is why there is a far greater history of workers voting for, supporting and joining reformist organisations than revolutionary groups, which have been confined for the most part to the political margins.

So folding our arms and sneering at reformists from a safe distance is not an option for socialists. Unless we are actively involved in struggles led by reformists, it is highly unlikely that any but a tiny minority of workers will be won to a socialist position. Unless revolutionaries are prepared to work wholeheartedly in united campaigns with reformist workers, and the leaders they support, we have no opportunity to vindicate socialist politics in practice. This doesn’t mean biting our lip and keeping our head down, but the exact opposite: openly and unashamedly arguing for our point of view. This in turn can only be done properly by understanding the real chasm that exists between the politics of reformism and the politics of socialism.

At first glance, there would seem to be a similar difference between the Labour parties of this world and the Communist parties. What could be further apart than the social democratic rose on the one hand, and the hammer and sickle on the other? But the similarity is greater than the difference. Crucially, when they talk of socialism, both see it as something to be handed down from on high, a blessing bestowed upon a grateful but passive working class. Marx’s insistence that the emancipation of the workers can only be brought about by the workers themselves means nothing to them.

When Stalinism has achieved power, it has presided over a system that differs from capitalism only in appearance. The exploit­ation of the workers takes place under state rather than private tutelage, but comes to the same thing. As with reformism, Stalinism has aimed at a restructuring of capitalist social relations rather than their abolition. The idea of a society and its economy being under the real democratic control of working people is foreign to both conceptions.

Where it hasn’t taken over, Stalinism has usually been another version of reformism with a different look to it: a Pepsi next to Coca-Cola. Communist parties have entered coalitions with capitalist parties, advocated trade union collaboration with employers and their state, rowed in behind advocates of ‘progressive’ capitalism. Since the Berlin Wall was knocked, those that haven’t clung to a mixture of Stalinist nostalgia and chauvinist bigotry have mostly gone further down this road. As with classical reformists, socialists need to fight alongside them where they have a following, while always recognising the basic difference between their politics and revolutionary socialism.

Another category not quite so radical as it might appear is that of left sectarians. ‘Sectarian’ is usually no more than a term of abuse on the left; it is not meant as such here, but as a frank description of a type of politics that does exist. It is a term Marx employed to describe those who put their own agenda before that of the working class, who didn’t believe as he did that “The communists have no interests separate from those of the proletariat as a whole.” There may be a word with less offensive connotations, and if so it should be used, but it is more important to understand the species than to label it.

Groups in this category act according to the self-interest of their organisations rather than the interest of the working class. Or worse still, they convince themselves that whatever suits themselves must be in the interest of the working class. If doing the right thing seems likely to lose them potential or actual supporters or members, then they will do the wrong thing, or do nothing at all. Their political engagement takes place under their own control whenever at all possible—sometimes directly under their own steam, often under cover of a wholly-owned subsidiary outfit or, better still, an enterprise in which they hold a 51 per cent stake: others can do half the work while they retain the final say in how it’s run. The un­democratic internal regime of sectarian organisations is no accidental phenomenon: if the party’s interest is paramount, why waste time discussing other points of view? Success is judged by membership figures, paper sales or media exposure, not by advances in the position or consciousness of the working class. Opportunism, and occasionally breathtaking opportunism, is always the other side of the sectarian coin.

These organisations can occasionally occupy a relatively prominent position and draw significant numbers behind them. In such a case, socialists have to be ready to work in united fronts alongside them—as long as these are genuine united fronts allowing for honest co-operation, and not empty shells under sectarian management. Even when working side by side with them, we should always remember that we are effectively in competition with them, arguing for a very different conception of socialism. The gap between their attitude and a truly socialist one is immense, as great as with reformism or Stalinism. It is not a minor difference of tactics, but a major difference of principle.

In fact, in the kind of struggles socialists engage in, standing against sectarianism is usually more relevant and necessary than standing against reformism or Stalinism. In the fight against the bin tax in Dublin, for example, campaigners wanting to leave everything to a future Labour government have been rare, and campaigners hoping for a invasion by North Korean tanks rarer still. But fictitious local campaign groups have proved a real pain, groups that have far less to do with anti-bin tax activism than they have with sectarian organisations inventing a platform of their own to artificially crowbar themselves into position. If only because sectarianism rears its ugly head more often on our part of the political landscape, an uncompromising opposition to it is crucial for socialists. Far too many of us take sectarianism in our stride, accommodating to it as if it were only to be expected, all part of the game. There can be no acceptable level of sectarianism, though: it is always a corroding influence that eats away at honest working-class politics, and as such socialists shouldn’t tolerate it.

Bemoaning the latest sectarian shenanigans can sometimes be a source of idle amusement, but is ultimately as futile as blaming the Pope for being Catholic. The problem is that many expect them to somehow behave differently. Acting as unselfish socialists taking their part alongside others in open, democratic activity is just not in their nature. Instead of blaming the cat for stealing the milk, we should get on with proper socialist politics in spite of them.

Comparing and contrasting these groups with each other is another common pastime. It is especially popular with members of these same groups seeking self-justification: whatever about us, we can’t be as bad as that other crowd! Of course some differences exist, but what unites them is way more significant than what divides them. One of the first things every Irish socialist learns is that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, for all the very real historical and contemporary differences between them, are both the same as far as the working class is concerned. It is high time we drew the same lesson for the Tweedledums and Tweedledees of the sectarian left.

Some believe that those in this category can be won round. Of course, individuals, groups, and on the odd occasion even whole organisations can break from their moorings and chart a different course. But this involves a clean break with their past, not a gradual internal evolution. Reading the tealeaves of sectarian minutiae to divine some process of change from within is a particularly bad way to waste your time. Hoping for a change in the party line is pointless when the line can always be changed back: what the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.

Just like those involved in reformist or Stalinist groups, people in sectarian groups are capable of breaking out and coming around to radical socialism. But this is usually as a result of external pressure, above all pressure that draws them towards a clear alternative. As long as they remain inside the whale, their energy is dissipated and smothered. Most long-term members of such groups are frankly beyond redemption, having been schooled in the ignoble art of agreeing with whatever their leaders say and knowing no better. While potentially decent socialists within them should of course be won over, looking for groups with such a perverted conception of socialism to provide the revolutionaries of the future is a vain hope.

This attitude could be called sceptical, but if it is, then those who aren’t sceptical just haven’t been paying attention. Experience, now and for years back, points to the conclusion that lions will convert to vegetarianism before the sectarian leopard changes its spots. Medieval alchemists spent entire lives trying to make gold out of base metal, with nothing to go on but blind faith. Those who persist in hoping that the sectarian left will play a positive role display a similar determination to defy the obvious. If, in spite of everything, some socialists still see them as potential partners, then it begs the question asked by militant trade unionists in another context: What do these people have to do to not be our partners?

Such an attitude is largely based on the belief that it would all be so much easier, and save a lot of bother, if only pre-existing organisations with hundreds or thousands of members could be made to see the light. Many a socialist has entertained the fond hope that reformist, Stalinist or even nationalist organisations could be made to serve their purpose, but this short cut has usually led them up the garden path. While socialists can work as a tendency within such organisations in certain circumstances, unless they work clearly as socialists, the organisation ends up transforming them rather than the other way round. Tolstoy is one Russian rarely quoted on the left, but we could do a lot worse than heed a warning of his: “In order to lift others out of a quagmire one must stand on firm ground oneself, and if, hoping the better to assist others, you go into the quagmire, you will not pull others out, but will yourself sink in.” The same applies here.

The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made machinery and wield it for its own purposes. Pulling at the sleeves of sectarians can only end in tears. When socialists engage in joint activity with them on their terms and under their control, we end up merely holding the ladder for them. As the fifth wheel on someone else’s wagon, you only make a bad job look a bit more respectable than it is in reality. If you find yourself in such a position, com­plaining is of little use: just move out and move on.

Subtracting reformists, Stalinists and sectarians from the equation thankfully leaves a far from negligible quantity. Time was when socialists in Ireland had a very limited choice of places to go, but the market domination of that cartel has broken down in recent years. Groups rejecting what has passed for left-wing politics have attracted more people, new groups have come into being, and independent socialists have managed to stand on their own two feet effectively. Meanwhile the old organisations have hit a wall and got stuck in a rut. Their boasts of strength on paper ring increasingly hollow, and while the same old faces try and reassure each other that things are on the up and up, at least some of their members are facing the realisation that their party card is limiting their political activity instead of facilitating it.

No one could honestly say the prospects for revolutionary socialists are rosy, but in some ways they are better than they have been for years. To capitalise on them, however, we will have to be confident enough to strike out on our own, without relying on the goodwill of forces with a different agenda. In many struggles of late, we have proved our commitment and staying power and punched above our weight. Too often, we are guilty of underestimating the impact we have made, and can make in the future. Where we have had the stomach to get on with the job instead of looking over our shoulders, we have surprised people with the way socialist activity can be carried on free of the constraints imposed by the tired old methods.

There are of course different opinions amongst us, different approaches and different emphases. These can and should be the subject of full, open, broad-minded debate. What they cannot and should not be are excuses to avoid common activity. There is no reason in the world that we cannot fight shoulder to shoulder while discussing our differences sharply and cordially. This kind of pluralist unity, respecting the opinions of socialists and coming together to fight capitalists, should extend to creating common organisational formations wherever feasible.

Important as it is to bring together actually existing socialists, more important is to win over new socialists coming into fresh battle with capitalism, and to learn from them. There is no substitute for the hard and patient work of developing socialist politics indepen­dently from the ground up. In the long run, it is a surer and swifter route than any other. There is no shortage of work to be done, and not a few victories to be won, by revolutionaries willing to get their feet wet and hold their heads up. Socialism is above all else the self-liberation of the working class: sticking to that principle, and rejecting those who have taken a different direction, is the pre­condition for building up a socialist movement worthy of the name.

Socialist Classics: György Lukács, ‘History and Class Consciousness’

A great if flawed work of Marxist theory, argued Maeve Connaughton in Issue 23 (November 2005).

This collection of essays written between 1919 and 1922 is one of the best fruits of the re-flowering of Marxist thought brought forth by the capitulation of reformism in the first world war and the Russian revolution of 1917. Lukács notably highlighted the “reification” inherent in capitalist society—the way relations between human beings are turned into abstract things—and thus reclaimed a forgotten dimension of Marxism. Nowadays no one can get away with denying or dismissing Marx’s critique of alienation, and this aspect of Lukács’s work doesn’t seem quite so groundbreaking. But there is plenty more besides in History and Class Consciousness that is well worth thinking about.

Lukács rejects both ‘common-sense’ empiricism and academic detachment: Marxism “is inseparable from the ‘practical and critical’ activity of the proletariat… to adopt it leads directly into the thick of the struggle of the proletariat” (History and Class Consciousness, London 1971, p 20-1). This is because a true understanding of society coincides with the interests of the working class, whose fight for liberation entails the end of all oppression. Recognising this connected social totality is what gives a deeper meaning to everyday battles (p 22, 71):

the ultimate goal is not a ‘state of the future’ awaiting the proletariat independent of the movement and the path leading up to it. It is not a condition which can be happily forgotten in the stress of daily life and recalled only in Sunday sermons… The ultimate goal is rather that relation to the totality (to the whole of society seen as a process) through which every aspect acquires its revolutionary significance.… Only when the immediate interests are integrated into a total view and related to the final goal of the process do they become revolutionary, pointing concretely and consciously beyond the confines of capitalist society.

Capitalism always seeks to split the world up into separate ‘issues’ with little or no relation to one another. Even its opponents often go along with this approach, each choosing to fight their own corner. What capitalism dreads above all is a determination to oppose all its various injustices in a unified way, to raise these disparate struggles to a higher level that challenges the foundations of the capitalist way of life itself. Bridging that gap, relating every individual battle to the war as a whole, has to be a constant imperative for socialists. Each individual brick has to be handled carefully and laid correctly, but unless it is properly connected to the other bricks to form a building, its purpose is severely limited.

It is all about class consciousness, how far the working class understands its own real interests and the role it can play in bringing about a new society. For all its contradictions and crises, capitalism will not decay of its own accord: unless the working class believes in itself and its capacities, and acts on that belief, there is no other way of putting an end to the system.

The proletariat cannot liberate itself as a class without simul­taneously abolishing class society as such. For that reasons its consciousness, the last class consciousness in the history of mankind, must both lay bare the nature of society and achieve an increasingly inward fusion of theory and practice. ‘Ideology’ for the proletariat is no banner to follow into battle, nor is it a cover for its true objectives: it is the objective and the weapon itself. Every non-principled or unprincipled use of tactics on the part of the proletariat debases historical materialism to the level of mere ‘ideology’ and forces the proletariat to use bourgeois (or petty bourgeois) tactics. It thereby robs it of its greatest strength…

p 70

Their class consciousness is the workers’ greatest strength because it embodies the crucial conviction that they can indeed overthrow capitalism and live a different kind of life. “Even in the very midst of the death throes of capitalism broad sections of the proletarian masses still feel that the state, the laws and the economy of the bourgeoisie are the only possible environment for them to exist in” (p 262). Anyone brought up in capitalist society has it almost wired into our brain that this is the way things are and the way things have to be. Things can be modified here and there, the government can be replaced with another government, but the basic framework more or less stays as is. Very few workers are over the moon with capitalist society, but likewise, very few really feel there is any other way of running things that would work. To break out of this and realise that it’s all a lie, that the world can run in a different groove altogether, is a big step. Even many who think they have taken that step have in reality gone no further than a more radical version of reformism.

The inertia generated by acceptance of the capitalist ground rules is more powerful than all the armies the system can muster (p 262):

the strength of every society is in the last resort a spiritual strength. And from this we can only be liberated by knowledge. This knowledge cannot be of the abstract kind that remains in one’s head—many ‘socialists’ have possessed that sort of knowledge. It must be knowledge that has become flesh of one’s flesh and blood of one’s blood; to use Marx’s phrase, it must be “practical critical activity”.

This activity, properly understood, teaches and proves the potential of the working class: “that it can be transformed and liberated only by its own actions” (p 208).

Lukács’s masterly treatment of the socialist attitude to the law—a treatment relevant to discussions on direct action in our own day—illustrates this. For him, the use of legal or illegal methods is “a mere question of tactics”. If the right thing to do is illegal, it should be done anyway; if it happens to be legal, that doesn’t make it any the less revolutionary. The attitude that illegality is a virtuous thing in itself, that the law should be broken for its own sake, “suggests that the law has preserved its authority—admittedly in an inverted form—that it is still in a position inwardly to influence one’s actions”. Instead of either obeying the law purely because it is the law, or disobeying the law purely because it is the law, we should deal with it “In the same way a yachtsman must take exact note of the direction of the wind without letting the wind determine his course; on the contrary, he defies and exploits it in order to hold fast to his original course” (p 262-4).

The job of a socialist party is to stand up for the class conscious­ness of the workers, even when that consciousness is clear to only a minority of them. It has to prove that the attitudes and actions it proposes coincide with the interests of the working class, to persuade workers that it is only a vehicle for what they need (p 42):

The true strength of the party is moral: it is fed by the trust of the spontaneously revolutionary masses whom economic conditions have forced into revolt. It is nourished by the feeling that the party is the objectification of their own will (obscure though that may be to themselves), that it is the visible and organised incarnation of their class consciousness. Only when the party has fought for this trust and earned it can it become the leader of the revolution. For only then will the masses spontaneously and instinctively press forward with all their energies towards the party and towards their own class consciousness.

So it is not a question of setting up your party and then calling workers over to it, but a process of socialists developing towards a position where their aspirations become those of the working class in general: “the organisation is much more likely to be the effect than the cause of the revolutionary process” (p 41).

Lukács praises Rosa Luxemburg for recognising this, but goes on to criticise her organisational attitudes. She should have split from the social democrats earlier, he writes, setting up a clear-cut revolutionary organisation like the Bolsheviks did in Russia. The same case has been made many times since, but it remains a doubtful one.

As Lukács notes himself, “in comparison to the western nations the situation in Russia was relatively simple” (p 312). Capitalism, being less rooted, had taken less of a grip on workers’ consciousness, and the Tsarist regime left little if any room for reformism to take hold. In Germany, on the other hand, capitalism was well established, and the Social Democratic Party occupied an overriding place in the political culture of the working class. Luxemburg and her comrades being part of a recognised left wing within that party gave them political access to workers that they would never have had outside the party. That left wing broke away from the party as significant sections of the German working class were beginning to see the need for such a break. Whether a more ‘Russian’ approach would have brought better results is far from probable, and attempts to implement such an approach in Germany after her death brought little success.

Unforgivable, though, is Lukács’s attack on Luxemburg’s criticisms of Bolshevik policy in Russia. Where she insists that the working class needs full freedom to build a new world, he maintains (p 292) that

it must not allow itself to be pinned down on the whole complex issue of freedom.… Freedom cannot represent a value in itself… Freedom must serve the rule of the proletariat, not the other way round.

Lukács here manages the feat of getting the truth absolutely back to front. The working class takes power exclusively in order to liquidate capitalism and pave the way for a society where freedom is indeed an end in itself. If freedom is only a means to some other end, a tactic to be used and discarded at will, then this temporary workers’ rule turns into its opposite. Such a process was underway in Russia as Lukács was putting the book together, and he was already fitting himself to bow down before it. A desire to bring about socialism, he writes, “must entail the renun­ciation of individual freedom. It implies the conscious subordination of the self to that collective will that is destined to bring real freedom”, and of course—surprise, surprise—“This conscious collective will is the Communist Party” (p 315). All this proto-Stalinist drivel did not flow from the genuine political insights Lukács had revealed, which is why the powers that were in Russia demanded that he renounce History and Class Consciousness. He obliged, and blunted for decades an intellect that had the potential to offer powerful contributions to the international workers’ movement. Reclaiming his major work, and freeing it of the outlook that contradicts its central thrust, can help make such a contribution today.

Come back Ilyich, all is forgiven

In Issue 20 (November 2004) Joe Conroy reviewed an assessment of Lenin’s politics in 1917.

V I Lenin, Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917, edited and with an Introduction and Afterword by Slavoj Žižek (Verso)

Karl Marx is almost accepted in polite society these days. Guardian journalists write books about him and conclude that he was a decent old stick after all. But Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: he’s a different proposition. You can draw a picture of Marx—albeit a profoundly false one—scribbling away for himself in the British Museum, harmlessly working on his eccentric theories. But playing down actual involvement with revolutionary activity is virtually impossible in the case of Lenin, what with 1917 and all that. If the fact that “Marx was before all else a revolutionist” got covered up not long after Friedrich Engels said so at his graveside, Lenin has always, as György Lukács put it, symbolised “the actuality of the revolution”.

So you have to admire an academic who writes a book arguing that Lenin is far from a discredited dead dog, but a figure to learn from. Although the title page describes this as a selection of Lenin edited by Slavoj Žižek, there’s far more Žižek than Lenin. The cover of this edition (the hardback came out two years ago) is adorned with pictures of both men, and “Žižek on Lenin” is the most prominent legend. Žižek’s contrib­ution to the book is easily longer than Lenin’s. His mammoth afterword ‘Lenin’s Choice’ often has little to do with Lenin at all. When he asks “So where is Lenin in all this?” (p 292) it reminds you that he has wandered off the point for a hundred pages or so. Some of these ramblings are interesting ramblings, but they don’t really butter any parsnips as far as Lenin is concerned.

His selection of Lenin’s writings needs to be argued with. While he writes that “It is impossible to overestimate the explosive potential of The State and Revolution” (p 5), it’s not possible to estimate it at all when he decided not to include this, the best thing Lenin ever wrote. If consider­ations of space were at play here, some of his own musings could have made way for it. The pamphlet Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? has more right to be in there than some of what has been included. New translations would have been preferable to the Collected Works renderings, complete with the dull Muscovite footnotes that give you too much information on the ideological trend of some forgotten Russian periodical or other.

The predominant feature of Lenin in 1917 is his determination to seize the time, to take the opportunity to seriously go for all-out revolution. Others on the left, he wrote, “picture socialism as some remote, unknown and dim future”, unable to see the chance of realising that future in the present, when “socialism is now gazing at us from all the windows” (p 100). Against these, not to mention a considerable wing of the Bolshevik leader­ship, he insisted that unless the workers took over, the Tsarist generals would establish a dictatorship, and the working class internationally would be left in the lurch: “History will not forgive us if we do not assume power now” (p 116).

But this was no solo run, with the revolution emerging from Lenin’s bald head:

Indispensable as Lenin’s personal intervention was, however, we should not change the story of the October Revolution into the story of the lone genius confronted with the disorientated masses and gradually imposing his vision. Lenin succeeded because his appeal, while bypassing the Party nomenklatura, found an echo in what I am tempted to call revolutionary micropolitics: the incredible explosion of grass-roots democracy, of local committees sprouting up all around Russia’s big cities and, ignoring the authority of the “legitimate” government, taking matters into their own hands. This is the untold story of the October Revolution, the obverse of the myth of the tiny group of ruthless dedicated revolutionaries which accomplished a coup d’état.

p 6-7

Lenin spent much of 1917 trying to convince socialists that the workers knew better than they did, telling them they should listen

for the initiative of the revolutionary people to begin expressing itself as something majestic, powerful and invincible.
Let all sceptics learn from this example from history.… Don’t be afraid of the people’s initiative and independence. Put your faith in their revolutionary organisations… Lack of faith in the people, fear of their initiative and independence, trepidation before their revolutionary energy instead of all-round and unqualified support for it—this is where the SR and Menshevik leaders have sinned most of all.

p 109-10

It wasn’t just the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks who needed convincing. The Bolshevik party and Lenin himself had to change course. Faith in popular initiative and independence was a radical break with Lenin’s earlier theory that socialist consciousness had to be imported into the working class from outside by the revolutionary party. Many of Lenin’s followers still haven’t made that break, continuing (as Žižek puts it) “to dream that Revolution is round the corner: all we need is the authentic leadership which would be able to organize the workers’ revolutionary potential”. We need to realise that “This mysterious working class whose revolutionary thrust is repeatedly thwarted… simply does not exist” (p 307‑8).

The working class has to draw its own conclusions and work out its own salvation. The arguments and proposals put to them are one—very important—factor in this, but the actual victories and defeats that workers go through teach lessons in themselves. Lenin always maintained that it was the concrete experience of the 1905 revolution that gave the Russian working class such a head start in 1917. The Bolshevik party that succeeded in 1917 wasn’t bringing socialism to the workers from outside: it had essentially fused with a working class that had set out upon a revolutionary road.

And this only happened after Lenin had fought for the Bolsheviks to abandon what had long been their defining standpoint, their interpretation of the nature of Russia’s revolution. They, and Lenin most of all, had always believed that it wouldn’t be a socialist revolution, only a radical capitalist one that would clear the way for socialist struggle. Not only did he now argue for this position to be dropped, he wanted socialists outside the party who had disagreed with it brought into the Bolshevik leadership. Imagine any of today’s far-left organisations ditching its definition of Stalinist Russia, and then inviting members of an opposing group to make up half of its central committee!

The transformation of the Bolshevik party in 1917 bears comparison with a similar process taking place in Ireland around the same time. Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin party had spent a decade advocating a dual monarchy: a self-governing Ireland linked with Britain by the one king. The 1916 rising was linked with Sinn Féin’s name despite the party’s lack of involvement with it. When the upsurge in republican sentiment later swept the country, thousands took over the existing Sinn Féin organisation and essentially changed its policy to a republican one. To some extent, the revolutionary workers of Russia did the same with the Bolshevik party, pressuring it to fit their own aspirations. By October Lenin could write: “the Bolsheviks, i.e., the representatives of revolutionary proletarian internationalism, have now embodied in their policy the idea which is motivating countless millions of toilers” (Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?).

Amidst today’s movements for global justice, Žižek sees a role for the party (p 296-7):

How do we invent the organizational structure which will confer on this unrest the form of the universal political demand? Otherwise, the momentum will be lost, and all that will remain will be marginal disturb­ances, perhaps organized like a new Greenpeace, with a certain efficiency, but also strictly limited goals, marketing strategy, and so on. In short, without the form of the Party, the movement remains caught in the vicious cycle of “resistance”… the last thing we want is the domestication of anti-globalization into just another “site of resistance” against capitalism.

He has a point here. The various aspects of capitalism can’t be overcome in splendid isolation: a broad, generalised assault on the system as such is needed. And like any form of political activity, that assault will need to organise itself as effectively as possible.

But, firstly, building a movement to get rid of capitalism is not all—or even mainly—a matter of organisation. The desire to have such a move­ment, and the belief in its practical possibility, will have to take shape first, and that comes down to political argument and experience before it comes down to taking organisational form. Secondly, if we “invent the organiz­ational structure”, it is unlikely to resemble previous structures, least of all “the form of the Party” with or without a capital P. The horrible experience of “the Party”—Stalinist, Trotskyist or otherwise—has discredited the name so much that we need to find another name for what we want. As Lenin wrote in 1917, when calling on socialists to abandon the name ‘social democrat’, “it is time to cast off the soiled shirt and to put on clean linen” (The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution).

The Lenin of 1917 is not all of Lenin: there is a Before and an After. Up to a few years before, he had more often than not been an advocate of elitist and arrogant party-building, of a workers’ revolution that would shrink from taking a socialist direction, of a deadeningly static interpretation of Marxist philosophy. A few years after, he was more often than not an advocate of party dictatorship, of compulsory obedience to the party line, of reducing socialism to featureless economic construction.

But the honeymoon period in between was something else. In 1914 the international socialist movement collapsed as war engulfed Europe. Lenin’s response was to go back and rediscover the emancipatory heart of Marxist thought, to discern the revolutionary possibilities created by capitalism at its height. Lenin was a new man by 1917, someone determined not to let the prospect of socialism slip by.

This is the Lenin from whom we still have something to learn.… The idea is not to return to Lenin, but to repeat him in the Kierkegaardian sense: to retrieve the same impulse in today’s constellation. The return to Lenin aims neither at nostalgically re-enacting the “good old revolu­tionary times”, nor at an opportunistic-pragmatic adjustment of the old programme to “new conditions”, but at repeating, in the present world­wide conditions, the Leninist gesture of reinventing the revolution­ary project…

p 6,11

Half the power of Lenin, says Žižek, is in the name, “the extent to which the signifier ‘Lenin’ retains its subversive edge” (p 312). That name stands for the harsh reality of revolution in flesh and blood, which is why it still enjoys the contempt of the intellectual prizefighters for the powers that be. Even people committed to overthrowing those powers are ignorant of Lenin’s revolutionary inspiration, his commitment in 1917 to win a world without classes or states, a socialism where “all will govern in turn and soon become accustomed to no one governing” (The State and Revolution). If the things this Lenin stood for are the same things we stand for, we would be mad to spurn his help in the fight.

The Hidden Connolly 19

More writings of James Connolly, unavailable for over a century, appeared in Issue 19 in July 2004.

Landlordism in Towns

[The Workers’ Republic, November 18 1899]

In an early issue of the Workers’ Republic we pointed out that the Corporation of Dublin had it in its power to sensibly mitigate the sufferings of the industrial population in the City by a wise and intelligent application of its many powers as a public board. Among the various directions we enumerated as immediately practical outlets for corporate enterprise, there were two allied measures which, were they applied, might do much to at once relieve the most odious and directly pressing evils arising from the congested state of our cities. Those two measures were:—

  • Taxation of unlet houses,

and

  • Erection at public expense of Artisans’ Dwellings, to be let at a rent covering cost of construction and maintenance alone.1

The wisdom of the proposal to increase the funds and utilise the borrowing powers of the Corporation in this manner cannot be questioned. The housing accommodation of the Dublin workers is a disgrace to the City; high rents and vile sanitary arrangements are the rule, and no one in the Corporation seems to possess courage enough to avow the truth, or to face the storm of obloquy which would be directed upon the head of the councillor who would take the opportunity to expose on the floor of the City Hall the manner in which the interests of house landlords are protected, and the spirit of sanitative legislation set at naught.

The so-called philanthropic companies which profess to cater to the needs of the workers by providing cottages, etc., in reality charge higher rents than do most individual house owners elsewhere. We all remember how the owners of the Coombe area property attempted to raise the rents on their cottages, because they were compelled to undertake the construction of some necessary drainage, which they culpably neglected to supply when their property was being built. Now the Dublin and Suburban Artisans’ Dwellings Company have in like manner initiated an attempt to raise the rents on their Cork Street buildings by another sixpence a week, in spite of the fact that the property has lately been allowed to get into a most dilapidated condition—roofs leaking, footpaths all broken up, roadways full of holes and pitfalls, and lamps never lit in the darkest nights of the year.

We are glad to record that this attempt at extortion is being met by the tenants in a most spirited fashion, and that it is likely to prove successful. Councillor Cox has also stood by the tenants in this matter, and has used his position on the Corporation to stop the rebate of taxes which this company usually obtains on the score of its philanthropic character.

This action of our friend, Councillor Cox, shows how much influence for good can be exerted by our representatives when imbued with the proper spirit. What a Socialist Republican could do in the way of remedying grievances, and pushing forward measures for the benefit of the workers, can be easily surmised by those who have observed the keen grasp of public questions which at all times distinguishes the Socialist above his fellows.

But, lacking the measures spoken of at the beginning of this article, all other measures must be only of a partially remedial character. Each proposal bears the stamp of a truly practical measure; each can stand the test of rigid economic analysis, and may be put into operation whenever the working class democracy are enlightened enough to demand it.

The taxation of unlet houses would compel the owners of property to accept rents much lower than they now demand, in order to avoid the disagreeable necessity of paying taxes upon unremunerative property. But the erection of houses to be let at cost of construction and maintenance would place in competition with the speculative house landlord, dwellings which, not needing to yield a dividend, could easily beat down his rents to a point more within the compass of the working man’s purse. One point more needs to be noted. It is that a large proportion of the houses in Dublin are owned by persons too poor to keep them in a habitable state. When this is the case such houses should be taken over by the Corporation and made habitable at public expense, or where this would be too costly, razed to the ground. The owners could be compensated according to the condition of their property when taken out of their hands.

It must be remembered, however, that all those measures are merely tentative. Our cities can never be made really habitable or worthy of an enlightened people while the habitations of its citizens remain the property of private individuals. To permanently remedy the evils of city life the citizens must own their city.

Home Thrusts

[The Workers’ Republic, December 9 1899]

A Close Season.

During the Boer war the English Jingo press will observe a close season for the sport of making game of the German Emperor.

He is a great man, is the Kaiser. When Dr Jameson raided the Transvaal, and Kruger defeated his little game, the Kaiser sent a telegram of congratulation to Paul.2 Then all the Jingo press of England went for the “mad Emperor,” and called him all the pet (?) names they could think of.

There was peace at that time. But now there is war, and as the mad Emperor, if he chose to take a hand in the game, could successfully humiliate the British Lion, that animal is now down kissing the ground at his feet, and all the Jingo crowd who a few months ago were howling for his blood are now prowling around on the hunt for his photograph.

His photograph. Yes, for he wouldn’t condescend to gratify them with a look at his imperial person.

Now observe, ye workers, that this crowd of swashbucklers are our masters. And if you have any contempt for the crowd who spit upon a man one day, and crawl for a smile from him the next, what sort of feeling must you have for yourselves, who are lorded over by such a pitiful crew?

And don’t make the mistake of lauding the Kaiser, either, as our so-called nationalist journals do.

He has always proven himself to be a most determined enemy of the working class, and longs for the day when he may drown in blood their hopes for freedom.

He, only the other day, introduced to his Parliament a bill which would have made it a penal offence to ask a workman to go on strike, had it not been defeated by the determined opposition of the Social Democrats.

He is continually rallying all the conservative classes in Germany against the demands of the workers, and striving by his speeches to his soldiery to familiarise them with the idea of firing upon their own countrymen.

He is your enemy, as the English governing class is your enemy, as the Irish propertied class is your enemy, as all the classes who live upon your labour in all the nations of the world are your enemy.

And the same law of self-preservation which makes the propertied classes stand together throughout the world, ought also to make you realise the necessity of studying the position and prospects of the revolutionary working class opposed to those classes.

That is part of the aim and purpose of this paper. To present to our readers a brief resume of the important advances made by the Socialist forces along the lines of the Class War.

You meet this Class War everywhere, but do not always recognise it. It is our duty to label its every manifestation, in order that you may recognise it.

This you have been told by most of your public speakers on the Transvaal War, that it is a capitalist’s war. So it is. It is one manifestation of the Class War.

So is the war in the Philippines.3 So are all modern wars; all manifest­ations of the struggle of Capital to enlarge its domain of exploitation.

And in like manner all efforts to beat back those forces of capitalism are of a kin to the efforts of the working class to rid themselves of the burden of capitalism.

In fact the capitalist has so far extended his powers that every political movement of the present bears a direct relation to the class war, and desires to be keenly watched for that very reason.

The effort of the British Governing Class to impose its rule upon the Transvaal is simply an exemplification of capitalism fully grown and developed; the efforts of the Irish master class to retain its hold upon public power in our corporations and other boards is an exemplification of the same unclean animal’s attitude when too weak to dare show all its teeth.

As soon as the Irish master class attains the strength of its British brother it will develop all his brutal traits; at present it can only exercise his sneaking proclivities.

The English master class bullied the Boer, and grovelled before the Emperor; the Irish master class in Ireland denounces the Englishman, and in England grovels before every English politician who winks his eye in the direction of Home Rule.

Brothers both.

Spailpín

Dogma and Food

[The Workers’ Republic, December 9 1899]

At a meeting of the Sacred Heart Home in Dublin the other day a most powerful and impassioned appeal was made by the Archbishop of Dublin for funds to provide proper care and training for the Catholic children who, from the poverty and carelessness of their parents, frequently fall into the clutches of “proselytisers” who make their misery a weapon of warfare against their religion. We do not propose now, nor at any other time, to enter into the disputes of rival religions, but we do think that the occasion merits at least a passing notice on our part, helping as it does to illustrate the truth of our contention that the social question, or the bread and butter question, is the root question of all, and until it is settled no other question of fundamental importance can be grappled with in any but an incomplete and unsatisfactory manner.

For what is the position upon which the appeal for funds to carry on the charitable work of the Sacred Heart Home was based? That owing to the poverty-stricken condition of large masses of the people the Catholic faith of the children was at the mercy of those missionaries and other Protestant agencies who come with charitable contributions to the parents and make of their charity a means for obtaining control of the education and bodily person of the child. Here then we have the statement clearly made that the manifold dangers against which we are so solemnly warned spring from POVERTY. Reasoning on this matter from the standpoint of a mere layman we would be inclined to say that the first line of attack along which the Archbishop should direct the forces of his eloquence, and the attention of the world in general, is that of poverty and the institutions which create it. If you destroy the social institutions which create poverty, if you lift the working class from their present position of economic dependence, and in so doing assure to all men and women a sufficiency of the good things in life in return for a moderate amount of labour, then the insidious work of the “souper” is ended and all religious denominations will require to stand or progress by their inherent truths alone.

But nowhere in all the passionate exhortations of our clerical leaders do we find this point ever noted; instead we are to have appeals for funds to be applied for the purpose of saving Catholic children from the temptations of “proselytisers;” and as said temptations usually take the form of food and raiment, to supply food, raiment, and if necessary, shelter through Catholic sources. In all this there is no question of whether it would be a subject worthy of consideration to consider what means should be taken to abolish the poverty which degrades the workers so much that they are ready to traffic in their children in such a manner.

Yet until this question is dealt with all the efforts of the Sacred Heart Home, and such-like institutions, will be of practically no avail in com­batting such degradation. The place of the children rescued today will be filled tomorrow by the children of other parents hurled into the abyss of slum life and misery by the ceaseless working of our unjust social system. We on this journal, or in this party, are not allied, nor opposed to, any particular creed or Church—seeking the emancipation of the working class from the unholy trinity of Rent, Interest and Profit we require the aid of men of all religions and of none—but we consider it our duty to point out that if the speakers at the Sacred Heart Home at Drumcondra were really in earnest in their desire to save the children, they would find in the Municipal Programme of the Socialist Republican Party a plank, that of the Free Main­tenance of Children, which, if applied in practice, would prevent effectually all that hopeless misery out of which such degrading incidents as those complained of spring.

But it is at all times more congenial to a certain class of minds to nibble at consequences rather than to strike boldly at the root of the evil; that, and the unpopularity sure to be the reward of the political party which, despising cheap methods of gaining sympathy, instead of whining over the sufferings of the poor, calls upon them to rebel against the oppressive institutions which cause it, explains why our public men in general are chary about touching a reform, be it ever so practical, which appeals to manhood rather than to wealth.

But all such admissions of timidity coupled with an admission of the degrading nature of capitalist society, such as that the assembled clerics treated us to on Monday last, only tend to confirm the faith of the Socialist Republican in that uncompromising course of action which rests all its hopes in the right arms and clear brains of the disinherited—the working class.

Notes

  1. In ‘Home Thrusts’ in the October 8 1898 Workers’ Republic Connolly wrote: “The Corporation can provide dwellings for the working people at a rent to cover the cost of construction and maintenance alone, and can procure money for the purpose by a stiff tax on unoccupied houses.”
  2. At the end of 1895 L Storr Jameson, an official of the British South Africa Company, led an unsuccessful armed assault against the Boer government of the Transvaal, led by Paulus Kruger. Kruger also led the Boers in the war with Britain that had broken out in October 1899.
  3. Having taken the Philippines from Spain in the war of 1898, the United States were now attempting to suppress a guerrilla movement for independence.