From 1986 to, oh I’m not sure, about 1995 or so, I was a member of Militant (later Militant Labour, later again the Socialist Party) in Northern Ireland. This was a small group of about 99 nominal members when I joined ("99 Red Balloons" as a music savvy wit dubbed us). We were a Trotskyist group dedicated to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. We would nationalise the top 200 monopolies (a slogan strangely immune to the impact of deregulation and competition legislation) under democratic workers’ control. This latter meant that enterprises would be run one third by the shop-floor, one third by government nominees and one third by the wider trade union movement. It was never detailed (I think) how this would dovetail with the "overall plan of production", also our aim.
We were content to operate through the democratic process, but assumed that a socialist government would be stymied by the establishment in the manner of Allende’s Chilean Government (we seemed to assume that Allende’s 30% or so of the vote was sufficient mandate for revolution). Thus parliament would pass an "Enabling Law" (originally Cripps’ idea, I seem to remember) to side step the constitution. This would be backed up by a workers’ militia etc.
We accepted the notion of the "dictatorship of the proletariat", i.e. that this class should have a disproportionate political weight during the revolutionary transition. This was held not to contradict democratic norms in advanced capitalist countries as the proletariat were in the majority. Our proletariat were those who lived primarily by selling their labour. (I remember some dissident ideas I once spouted were rejected as irredeemably petit bourgeois as I was a student. My accuser was a "wage-earning" consultant doctor!) However, we did counsel banning "bourgeois" parties in China, in the event of "political revolution" there, for fear of the peasant majority swamping the proletariat. We also critically supported the violence of Romanian miners against petit-bourgeois students in the aftermath of the revolution there, though the miners were mobilised by old commie apparatchiks.
As you can see, our adherence to democracy was a bit shaky. This was even more evident in our unstinting praise for Lenin / Trotsky. The Russian Revolution was held to have degenerated only from about 1924, long after the faintest whiff of proletarian autonomy, never-mind representative democracy, had been snuffed out. Even then we characterised communists countries as "deformed workers’ states" that required not social revolution, but political revolution, an objectively easier task. We hated Stalinism but concurred with some of Trotsky’s more repulsive conclusions drawn from his characterisation of Stalinism, such as his support for the Soviet Union in the war against Finland in 1940. "Capitalist restoration" was seen as virtually impossible.
We never gave any verbal support to the IRA, as did other ultra-left organisations like the SWP. We called for the trade union movement to organise both a labour party and a "workers’ self-defence force" as the way forward in Northern Ireland. When I joined, our aim was a Socialist United Ireland. This was seen as the only way to overcome the sectarian divide in the province. It was never specified whether it would be the socialist movement or a socialist government that would break the back of sectarian division.
In Britain we denied that we existed as a separate organisation (we did, revelation fans) and claimed to be the Marxist tendency in the British Labour Party. This "entrist" tactic gained considerable success, and from about 1984 to 1986 we controlled Liverpool Labour council.
There was no Labour Party worthy of the name in Northern Ireland, but nevertheless we denied our true identity and operated through a front organisation called The Labour and Trade Union Group (L&TUG). This was a faction dating from the early 1970s of the long defunct Northern Ireland Labour Party. In reality, the L&TUG had no independent existence. Formally our secret organisation was called the Irish Section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (the Northern Ireland section had no formal status). Most knew us as Militant. We normally referred to ourselves as "the Organisation" (as members of the old Fenians also called themselves).
We were a very "workerist" organisation. Of all the ultra-left groups, we were easily the most working class in membership. Our leader, Peter Hadden, was (and is) a very clever political commentator and tactician, but there was only a very superficial hold on Marxist theory in the Organisation. Generally or "perspectives" were based upon impending capitalist crisis (for which we chucked together the gloomiest predictions we could scour from the "serious bourgeois press") and a radicalisation of the working class. As one document put it, "The 1980s: Socialism or Barbarism". Revolution was confidently predicted in "five, ten or fifteen years time". I was concerned when I joined (aged 15 I think) that I would be too young to be able to properly participate in the revolution.
This is an account of my time in Militant. Autobiography is an inherently egotistical enterprise, so I want to emphasise my essentially middle-ranking position. This relied upon my zealotry more than anything: I had no leadership qualities, and I spoke very poorly in debates. My impact on the Organisation was deservedly minor.
Sorry about the rather dreary presentation so far. I need to set the scene. This account from here on in will be mostly anecdotal, though I will avoid metaphorical "kiss and tell". The members of Militant generally were a good bunch who, I should stress, had no desire to impose tyrannies or whatever. Particularly in the context of Northern Ireland, they were a benign, if ineffectual bunch.
Tomorrow I speak about my early days in Ballymena Militant – the most productive and fun time I had in the Organisation.
Though the circumstances of Northern Ireland produced in me a inchoate dislike of the "establishment" – in this case Britain and the US – I did not make my own way to revolutionary socialism. Most of all, as was often observed in future years, I had no real feeling of "class anger", or much passion at all really. I did, in Spanish anarchist style, once try to burn a church down in a drunken iconoclastic rage. Unwilling to break and enter, I put a fluttering lighter to the granite clad exterior. Somehow, perhaps protected by God, the temple resisted my assault unscathed, for which I’m very grateful.
Intellectually, in so far as I can construct it in retrospect, I found "meta-narratives" and systematising theories very attractive. I liked the idea of big analyses that made sense of the world.
Certainly the Miners’ Strike had a huge impact on me. I still remember a televised scene of a picket line when some police charged protesting miners off screen. Some other strikers wordlessly mouthed their outrage, pointing to the brutality taking place before their eyes, but the camera slowly panned the opposite direction.
Militant was a family concern, with all my older brothers being members (my sisters were immune and fairly apolitical). One of them acted as my political tutor. I used to accompany him as he shotgun hunted crows and other vermin in Portglenone Forest, where I grew up. These were tremendously exciting and stimulating excursions for a fourteen year old. I suppose it led me to identify socialist politics with worldly wisdom and adulthood, the way other kids found listening to their older brothers’ Ska collections a rite of passage.
I was fairly resistant to "recruitment" (as it was always called in the Organisation). It was a slow process as, no doubt, I was fairly silly. It was doubly laborious as inductees, at least in the outer reaches of rural County Antrim, were only slowly introduced to the reality of Militant as a secret revolutionary cadre, rather than a mere Tendency (see yesterday’s entry). There was a marvellous frisson that came with the idea of a secret organisation. As its esoteric mysteries were progressively revealed, one felt an elevation as if through Masonic orders. The Organisation was presented as a world-historic elite, a band of "comrades". (This is how we always referred to members. It was never a personal greeting – "hello Comrade so-and-so" – but an imprimatur for the elect. "So-and-so is a Comrade", one of us).
Revolution, it was explained would explode at any time. Much was made of the nominal membership of Militant in Britain – 8000, or the same number of Bolsheviks as in February 1917. In the turmoil to come, one might fall on the barricades, one would face repression. It was heady stuff. A Northern Ireland twist was the approaching Anglo-Irish Agreement. Militant was predicting that this would produce a "carnival of reaction" that could endanger us all. Fear only challenged my youthful strivings for audacity.
"Normal" politics – which I though of as essentially British politics (Northern Ireland struck me as atypical and, in a weird way, somewhat distant – I grew up far from the centres of disturbance and my sheltered upbringing meant that I was in no traumatising way a "child of the Troubles") – seemed irredeemably dull. If one were to plunge in politics, it had to be to change the world. Anything else seemed not worth the bother.
But, as I’ve said, I was fairly passionless, and was most attracted to the idea of coherent and logical explanation for, and alternative to, the world as it is. When I was formally recruited (no oaths – one simply agreed a "sub", i.e. a weekly money contribution, all that was necessary to maintain one’s membership, if not reputation, within the Organisation) I insisted that this was a step that I could, if I ever saw fit, reverse. Of course I was honestly be given that assurance. Members were always allowed to leave unmolested though, revealingly, such an eventuality was almost always explained by "demoralisation", not disagreeing or disillusionment. It was explained that an upturn in class struggle would reactivate the bulk of lapsed comrades. (I’m sure now that I would find myself strenuously opposed to Militant / the Socialist Party in the unlikely event that it ever challenged for power.)
The local branch was in the medium sized (small by British standards) town of Ballymena. There were about ten members, a good proportion being Mulhollands. Our local "theoretical leader" then was an older bloke (mid-30s maybe) called Ken. He seemed very real world, working in a local industry and living in his own house. Most of the rest of us were school students (we never used the demeaning "pupils") or unemployed. He had what seemed then to be an encyclopaedic knowledge, and owned a large collection of books. Ken had the enviable ability to take any, I mean any, issue, and immediately come up withy the correct "marxist" position on it. The "closed system" of Militant ideology, was perfect for this. It was a mode of irrefutable logic in the Popperian sense, and very seductive.
A meeting would begin with a political "lead-off", on historical or current issues or a matter of theory. These lead-offs were extraordinary in retrospect, often lasting over an hour. The discussion, as we were in awe of Ken, were truncated affairs dominated by his "contribution". Then we would discuss activity (where to leaflet or poster, the possibility of organising a public meeting), the paper (we would do "estate sales", a dreary trudge around working class housing, street sales and personal sales to sympathisers; we rarely sold more than 30 to 40 in a month) and finance.
One day Ken, without warning, upped stakes and left for England, never to be heard of again. This hit us all very hard. At the centre (Belfast) he was not merely "reduced" from the ranks (a sort of honourable discharge for those who were "demoralised" and no longer paying subs) but actually expelled, I seem to remember. As Ken was a cadre of high standing (though he had always shied off activity) his "betrayal" was a great shock to us. In fact, his departure inaugurated the glory days of Militant in Ballymena, of which more next time.
When an existing leadership of a political organisation is lopped off, it either disintegrates or falls into the hands of radical young Turks. The British found this to their cost in 1971 when they introduced internment against the IRA. Something similar happened to Ballymena branch of Militant when Ken left for England (about 1987 maybe?). Suddenly new young blood took over. We had learned to associate ridiculously long lead-offs, even by Militant standards, with revolutionary seriousness, so these remained. But other than this, there was suddenly a new élan and enthusiasm. This spiralled as young people joined the branch, some of a fairly defiantly non-conformist nature very unlike the normal proletarian stolidity of Militant generally.
Off in the "sticks", far from Belfast, we had a great deal of autonomy from the Belfast "Centre". We only really heard from two "full-time" comrades from the centre. (Full-timers were those who, whilst seeking work, committed themselves more or less whole-heartedly to running Militant. They were invested with huge authority in the Organisation. The full-time "apparatus" had much in common with a priesthood. Their sacrifice of time and money, often taken to competitive extremes, was held up as the very model of revolutionary selflessness. They had a stifling moral authority.)
Benny, who hailed from Ballymena originally, would come down periodically to dispense an engagingly cynical good cheer. He was amused at our youthful enthusiasms, but remained indulgently avuncular. He remembered well his own youthful anarchist inclinations. Benny was considered to be a "technical" full-timer, working mainly on the Militant newspaper, and was not part of the inner circle of "theorists". A very fine classical guitarist, he was unusually bohemian. He inclined towards witty deflation, at least when not loyally asserting the "line" in contributions to political discussion.
We also heard fairly regularly, by phone, from Ciaran, the full-timer who handled the organisation’s finances (most of which went on paying the expenses of full-timers). Ciaran was equally perceived as being something of an administrative full-timer, not quite one of the inner circle. He was interested in the sayings and doings of other ultra-left organisations, a hobby much deprecated as "sectology" by the leadership. For a small coterie including myself his semi-samizdat circulation of ultra-left publications became, over time, an attractive source of pluralism in the ideologically unadventurous Marxism of Militant. Ciaran, who always called his interlocutors "squire", affected a gruff, no-nonsense manner. But he had an interest in and concern for we young uns otherwise not conspicuous from the leadership.
Generally, however, we were left alone. Heated arguments would rage in branch meetings, with ultra-leftism often ripping wild. I was very much on the conservative wing, and fiercely loyal to the national leadership. Passions often ran high, and I remember one unfortunate member, on his way out, who had his door kicked in so that some leaflet-making equipment could be recovered. This was hardly commendable, of course, but there was a high energy and urgency about everything we did that made people sit up and notice. The good people of Ballymena noticed us, most scoffed, many were quietly impressed, a few – but a fair amount by national standard – joined us or were openly sympathetic.
Experimentation in activity was constant. The best I remember was a picket on the Northern Bank in Ballymena, closely connected with Willie-John McBride (he was a manager I think). McBride was a local Rugby hero, an International in his time, who became associated with a rebel rugby tour of South Africa that defied sporting sanctions. The picket split opinion down the middle in Ballymena in a way that made our intervention seem genuinely controversial and exciting.
We were always trying new ways to spread our revealed truth. I wrote and photocopied a pamphlet on socialism specifically for my school. It included a hand-drawn title page, complete with school crest. (This no doubt ground-breaking, publication had the smallest of circulations). We would leaflet shopping centres, school buses, even workplaces, a rather risky enterprise in loyalist Ballymena. Our techniques were haphazard and amateurish. One leaflet condemned "Apartheid", causing much hilarity amongst the unconverted; one poster announced a "Pubic Meeting". Every Thursday I would literally sprint from school to try to sell papers at the bus-station where all out of town school students converged. The authorities were anxious not to have politics seep into school, and one amused teacher was put in charge of keeping an eye on me.
I don’t wish to overstate our impact, though we made Militant very well-known locally. And I shudder to think about our ultra-left politics. But our members were real characters, and for an earnest teenager (who didn’t drink, smoke or have any facility at chatting up the opposite sex) it was exciting and genuinely stimulating. However, I always saw Belfast, where resided the leadership we were literally in awe of, as the place to be. Even before leaving for Uni I increasingly made my way to the "centre" at weekends. I’ll talk about this next time.
[There is a load of material about the internal life of Militant, or the Socialist Party, these days – about which now I have no direct knowledge – atIrish Indymedia. There you can find some comments on these memoirs, plus a lot more.]
When the family was young, our parents were loath to bring us to Belfast, for fear of losing us in bomb scares or worse. Our holidays were day excursions to various churches and graveyards, soporific to the ungrateful young me. This meant that, in my mid-teens, the city was a place of exotic mystery. It had about it the whiff of cordite missing from Portglenone. (In retrospect I appreciate how militarised and polarised even our backwater was, with armed troops, the fortified RUC barracks, separate catholic and protestant school-bus runs, ubiquitous paramilitary graffiti, random sectarian punch-ups and the occasional bombing, shooting and riot. I remember watching both Orange parades and hunger-striker Francis Hughes’ funeral cortege passing by our front gate. Once troops swamped the forest my dad ran in an attempt to ferret out an IRA man on the run.) Belfast had a glamorous fear for me. I remember on an early train journey up to the city I seriously unsettled myself by reading Martin Dillon’s The Shankill Butchers. What sort of place was this? Belfast seemed an impressively serious place for a committed revolutionary.
When I went up it was to go to centrally organised events. Mostly these were "youth" activities and meetings, in which enthusiasm and a sort of cod agitational style were at a premium. Though I participated in events with gusto (though no finesse) I always found them a bit jejune, and much preferred the "serious" political meetings. Compensation was the arrival of Michael as youth full-timer, a bizarrely inappropriate appointment. I got on with him very well, partly because we shared a certain pretentious intellectualism (once we sat through a video of Bertolucci’s four and a half hour classic 1900, about the era of Italian fascism. We feigned rapt absorption and only much later confessed our stupefied boredom). He was also interested in classical and revisionist Marxisms much beyond the vulgarised version generally current in Militant. One day, finding the demands of full-time life too much, he absconded to England, much to my regret.
One early fun event, before I moved to Belfast as a student (1989), was a rally that marked Militant’s peak. Derek Hatton and Peter Taaffe came over to address a meeting that we actually charged people into, such was our confidence. I was rather disappointed by Hatton, bowled over by Taaffe.
Best of all was to visit the Militant centre, and to hear talks from the general secretary and leading theoretician, Peter Hadden. There was no doubting Peter’s charisma. He was tall and solidly built, with uncommonly big hands that, when speaking, he would hold before his navel, palms inward, thumbs stretched and touching, as were his index fingers, to form a diamond shape. Somehow this unconscious pose bespoke concentration and self-control, as well as a certain defensiveness. Occasionally he would jab the air with his finger to make a point.
Peter was no "rabble-rouser". His speeches were logical and forceful, perfectly constructed in paragraphs, though he spoke not from a text but notes. Militant argued that revolutionary opportunities had occurred frequently, but were always transient. History was filled with revolutionary opportunities that would quickly disappear without a revolutionary party to take advantage of them. Journees could last a matter of days and (this was key to our defiance of electoral reality) transform consciousness. A typical Hadden speech would point out some such opportunity and conclude with the burning "need for a revolutionary party" (a phrase so common that it became a bit of a joke, even if respected). Imagine, he would say, if even a small cadre had been in place in Germany 1918, Hungary 1956, Northern Ireland 1968, etc — "what a difference that would make!" Our relatively small size was rendered less problematic. We needed only maintain a sufficient force to take advantage of the upheavals to come.
Peter scorned petit-bourgeois politics and particularly other ultra-left "sects". (I was genuinely astonished when, in 1999, Peter wrote a lengthy document,The Struggle for Socialism Today, given over to a polemic against the SWP. He would never, I think, have condescended so when I was a member. The SWP was an irritant to be ignored as much as possible. While the SWP harangued us for our unwillingness to join them in various broad fronts, we dismissed this a sour grapes from a smaller organisation that wished only to ride on our coat tails. From what I can gather now, the position has been exactly reversed). Peter had a genuine commitment to "proletarian" politics, particularly in the trade union movement, and set great store by our building a base there. He was knowledgeable about such politics, and was a genuinely talented tactician, even if most of his advice necessarily fell on stony ground. He impressed me enormously with his lack of hysteria and his remorseless logic.
Peter, and others, insisted that our trade union work in particular could not be opportunist or fly-by-night. We were true to our word in the instance of the Chelsea Girl strike. A city centre clothes shop had sacked all their staff when they formed a union, under the softly-spoken but formidable Geraldine. I remember coming across their picket in 1988 and, terrified in my school uniform, sidling up to throw money in their box and try to sell them a Militant paper. In fact, the centre had been in contact already. We ended up fighting with the strikers for over a year, before they agreed that victory could not be achieved. The RUC at this point got seriously interested in Militant, and one Saturday arrested most of the picket line. I was ordered to remove myself by Militant leaders as I was an out of town school student. It was a heroic struggle, and a credit to the strikers, as well as the Organisation.
I made my way onto the Central Committee of Militant aged 16 (appointed, really, rather than elected, as national conferences simply voted for a slate – indeed I may have been co-opted). I was the youngest member ever at that time, and I was proud to note that I became a certified revolutionary "leader" even before I could vote. CC meetings took place alternately in Belfast and Dublin, and the latter meant sleeping on comrades’ floors over a weekend. The agenda was exhausting with long lead-offs and the much disliked "financial discussion". Our bloated full-time apparatus, held intact as a sort of officer class for the day when recruits would swell our ranks, cost a fortune to support and meant a demoralising merry-go-round of fund raising. (My "sub" — financial contribution — as a student was proportionately the highest in Ireland, and genuinely impoverished me as an undergrad — luckily I was a non-drinking nerd). But CCs were a highlight for me, as I saw Peter in full swing and, given the ultra-centralist nature of the Organisation, was privy to whatever secrets reached the CC level.
More tomorrow, when I talk about my laughably ineffectual dissidence. In connection with this, and for those who prefer politics to anectodage, I’ll talk a bit about Militant’s views on the "National Question".
I was always a slight dissident. I took my A Level History seriously and in studying the French Revolution became convinced that the vulgar Marxist view of this as a bourgeois revolution inaugurating capitalism could not be correct. My heresy on this grated with the comrades, but was put down to a petit-bourgeoisie concern with respectability, a passing fad. More generally, I was annoyed with Militant’s ignorant dismissal of "bourgeois" historians, who were always being accused of believing that the origins of World War One, for example, were adequately explained by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. I found this silly arrogance embarrassingly insular.
Over time, I grew increasingly doubtful about Militant’s take on the "national question". I’ll have to fill in some detail here. It’s worth noting that, as far as I can tell, only really Peter Hadden developed Militant’s position on this while I was a member.
Militant ostensibly based our analysis of the national question on Trotsky’s theory of "Permanent Revolution". We argued that the bourgeoisie were incapable of solving the problem of the border. Only socialism could do this. First and foremost, this would be based on the massive impetus given to the forces of production we assumed socialism would unleash (with no demonstration that would impress an economist). No "want", no "crap", to borrow from Marx. Secondly there would be a "socialist united Ireland" (I seem to remember the "united" was later dropped) in federation with a socialist Britain. So as not to frighten the horses, "federation", in so far as it was defined at all, was corrupted from the common-sense ("bourgeois") understanding of the term (domestic parliaments subordinated to a superior parliament responsible for foreign affairs, only the latter enjoying sovereignty) to mean a free and equal association between sovereign entities – what we might normally mean by a treaty relationship. The substance of such a "treaty" was not spelt out.
Militant’s position was a pseudo-radical repudiation of "stages theory" – the idea that national democratic revolution was a prior condition for socialist revolution. It was based on a misunderstanding of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent (better translated as "uninterrupted") Revolution. Trotsky argued that, unlike their Jacobin forebears, the modern bourgeoisie (where they were politically subordinated to imperialism or semi-feudal reaction) preferred to compromise with reaction rather than struggle resolutely for national democratic demands. National democratic "tasks" include the consolidation of a sovereign state based upon a fairly homogenous people sharing a consciousness of common ethnicity or citizenship. It stands opposed to fractured semi-feudal assemblages (the Tsarist Empire, Habsburg Empire, etc) or foreign "imperialist" rule.
Trotsky argued that the unwillingness of the bourgeoisie to struggle for a modern liberal nation state stemmed from their fear that a mobilised working class would escape their control and move towards the seizure of power on their own behalf. Trotsky did not argue that national democratic demands were somehow only capable of resolution through the socialist transformation of society. A nation-state, if there existed a sufficiently popular basis, and even the establishment of democracy, could well be sustained by capitalist society.
For Trotsky, the "stages" theory was incorrect only in that a resolutely national-democratic revolution would necessarily be led by the working class rather than by the timid bourgeoisie (as in the February Revolution, 1917). The working class would not artificially limit itself to national democratic demand but would push forward to achieving power in its own class interests (October 1917). This in turn would generate a process of international revolution, pulling in its train countries where advanced nation-states had been consolidated and which were thus ripe for socialist transformation (Germany, France, Britain). Thus "uninterrupted" revolution.
Trotsky did not see working class power as necessary for the completion of the national democratic stage of revolution. In fact, they were opposed, one transcending the other. He simply argued that if the working class led a national democratic revolution it would tend to push on to workers’ state (though, without a poised revolutionary party, this was likely to be abortive). Without the Bolsheviks, or even in the absence of Lenin, the Kerensky regime might arguably have consolidated (it is a pity it didn’t). There was indeed a revolutionary wave with workers in the lead in Western Europe, in the period 1944 to 46, but here the drive towards regimes based upon working class power was arrested, and national democratic regimes did (thankfully) consolidate.
Furthermore, forces other than the bourgeoisie or the working class could construct modern nation-states, as with the Bismarckian unification of Germany or the Mejia Restoration in Japan. Nation states could even be imposed in democratic form by exterior military forces (Japan and Germany post-1945, Iraq now?). [For more, see my Daily Moider, ‘No More Permanent Revolution’, 14 August].
Trotsky condemned "two stages" if this meant socialists imposing a self-denying interregnum between national-democratic revolution and "proletarian revolution", as the Mensheviks had counselled. He did not mean that socialism was necessary to carry through national democratic demands (clearly a nonsense if he had).
The point is, national-democratic demands clearly are, in Marxist and classical Trostkyist theory, a "stage" preceding socialism (socialism, after all, is supposed to see the gradual dissolution of nations and states, to be replaced by "associated producers", whatever is meant by that). It might require a working class revolution to overthrow a regime (semi-feudal or imperialist) inhibiting national democracy, and this might "grow over" into a workers’ state, but this does not make the construction of a nation state a "socialist" task. If history has produced peoples unwilling to combine in a nation, it is not for socialism to cajole them into so doing.
Militant argued the contrary. They held that capitalism itself, not just the bourgeoisie, was incapable of sustaining national democratic revolution in Ireland. Capitalism could not provide the material incentives that would draw protestant workers into the Irish nation. This could only be achieved by socialism. It was not just that the bourgeoisie were too timid to fight for Irish national self-determination, as Trotsky might have argued, rather that only socialism could convince protestants in Ulster to demand all-Ireland self-determination. (Why socialism requires protestants to do so was not made clear).
For Militant, it became a socialist aim to actually create a nationalist consciousness rather than to find structures to express existing consciousness. This flew in the face of classical Marxism (which does not, a priori make it wrong, but the novelty was unacknowledged).
This was pseudo-radical because it meant that Militant ducked the reality of the Irish "national question". Militant did not seriously attempt to construct demands to cater for the actually existing competing identities in Northern Ireland. (Other groups did brave this difficult territory. Social republicans, such as People’s Democracy, candidly argued that protestant unionism was reactionary and a transient non-national minority dependent on British imperialism. A united Ireland, preferably but not necessarily socialist, was appropriate. It was not dependent on minority protestant approval. The British and Irish Communist Organisation, on the other hand, insisted that Irish protestants in Northern Ireland were a nation and, as such, they had a right to democratic self-determination. Partitioned Ireland, preferably but not necessarily a socialist Eire and socialist UK, was appropriate. It was not dependent on minority catholic approval). Militant’s answer to the "national question" was simply: "socialism".
Militant set an impossible standard for "capitalist solutions" – they were all equally failures if they did not eliminate sectarian or national tensions. By this standard, no act of national self-determination has ever been legitimate. Self-determination for the 26 counties, for example, left an embittered protestant minority in the south and a sundered nationalist minority in the Six counties. Thus, by Militant’s logic, Irish Independence should be considered no more progressive than unmitigated Union with Britain.
This sounds hyper-radical, but in fact, Militant’s position on partition was an enormous evasion of thorny questions. Socialism, somehow, would overcome "sectarian" division in Ireland (but not, curiously, the national division between Britain and Ireland, otherwise why not argue for a Socialist Union of Great Britain and Ireland?). Until then, any capitalist solution (Partition, Unification, Joint Authority, Power-Sharing, or whatever) was equally fruitless. There was, in truth, no "transitional programme" (much beloved by Militant otherwise) on the national question.
In fact, Militant’s "socialist" solution was actually conservative. Any attempt to re-balance the competing claims of the nationalist and unionist communities in capitalist Northern Ireland (the dreaded "two-stages") was likely to provoke sectarian discord. As the priority was always to maintain maximum working class unity, all the better for achieving that "radical" socialist solution to the national question, any thing which rocked the boat was reactionary.
Given that historically the unionists had the upper hand in Northern Ireland, such boat rocking could only really come from nationalist self-assertion. Any perceived dilution of the Union understandably provoked protestants and split the working class. Indeed, it is the case that the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) vote always peaked when catholics were quietly subordinated. If they asserted themselves, the working class cleaved on "sectarian" lines. (Had Militant the courage of its convictions, it would have agreed with the NILP’s arm’s length relationship with the Civil Rights Movement, or with Communist Betty Sinclair’s disavowal of street confrontation with the state, as inevitably leading to sectarian polarisation).
In effect, the catholic minority had to subordinate themselves to the demands of working class unity, which meant not challenging protestant unionism until such a time as a sufficiently strong socialist movement eliminated the very psychology of protestant unionism. (For some reason it was never explained why the process might not work the other way, i.e. a united socialist movement would eliminate catholic nationalism. This, on the face of it, seems much more plausible).
Thus, when I joined Militant, the Anglo-Irish Agreement was deprecated because it would provoke an explosion of unionist anger and thus be a blow to working class unity. Consideration of whether it might have improved institutional recognition for Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland, or indeed if it unfairly diluted British identity, were not weighed and balanced to determine whether the Agreement was progressive or not. The Agreement provoked unionists, thus it had to go. Militant ideology was a pseudo-radical variety of Labourism, and as Labourism must in Northern Ireland, it leant towards the unionist status quo (again, not indefensible, but not acknowledged by ever-so-radical Militant). There was to be no rocking the boat until socialism (in effect Militant) led the working class.
Okay, a bit of a diversion from anecdotage here. I’ll get back to it next time. This will be useful as, in truth, Militant ideology on the National Question was incoherent. The Organisation never openly repudiated positions it had covertly abandoned. For example, the dropping of "For a Socialist United Ireland" from the crest of the Militant newspaper was explained (after I pointed out its disappearance and one leader had denied it ever existed) by the polarisation of the working class since the 1970s. As if protestant workers toyed with all-Ireland nationalism in 1972! Thus, a diachronic approach will give some idea of the obfuscating accretions that served to obscure Militant’s evasions.
Only brief today, as time is not ample. BTW, for those bored senseless, I hope to conclude this series in about 10 parts.
There was a tendency in Militant to characterise Northern Ireland politics as simply "sectarian", with all politicians roughly equivalent in their iniquity. There is something to this, certainly, but the blanket approach tended to flatten out complexity and to avoid the difficulties of balancing the "national" rights for both communities. It would be as if to dismiss the Irish War of Independence as merely a "racist" spat between two peoples, and to affect a lofty disregard.
My first written "dissidence" was in Ballymena branch, when I wrote criticising an article in the Militant newspaper that had attacked the Provos as sectarian. My intention was not to defend the IRA, nor to deny a substantial sectarian drive in their mentality, nor to deny their "objectively" sectarian impact in Northern Ireland, but to argue that the IRA expressed, fundamentally, the frustrations of a denied nationalism. I was unhappy at the populist identification as all protagonists in Northern Ireland as sectarian opponents of workers’ unity. At least, this is how I remember it. I have since lost the handwritten (in red pen, for some reason) text.
The response of a local comrade was to discuss my concerns with the chap who had written the article, and then discuss with me. I was convinced of the error of my ways. My written material was not sent to Belfast, I was not encouraged to write a letter to the paper. There was, at that time, no party journal seeking contributions to debate. The whole thing was pretty much squashed.
The letters page in the paper was really a con. Only agitational letters were published, along the lines of a sort of socialist "Thought for Today" ("I saw a sectarian bourgeois politician buy a hat from Hats’R’Us, where the workers are paid only £3.50 an hour. … I realised again the Need For a Revolutionary Party.") Often letters were effectively commissioned, or were articles simply re-shaped. Submissions debating with the editorial line were not countenanced. (I see today that Militant / The Socialist Party’s new paper has no letters page at all).
Mostly my objections to Militant, as they developed, were political rather than organisational. I did, however, once run into some flak over finance.
We were at a peak of numbers — about 100 — when I joined in the mid-eighties. By the early 1990s membership had declined considerably, yet our "full-time apparatus" was much the same size. The idea was that this precious cadre was an investment to be maintained for the next up-turn in class struggle.
The result was an increasingly frantic search for money, and enormous pressure on members to contribute. This caused much grumbling. At a CC I proposed that, rather than chase endlessly after money that was not there, we should bite the bullet and "sack" full-timers.
Peter Hadden’s response in such crises was always to put his opponent on the spot. "Who would you sack, Marc? You have to be specific." So I was, and I named a full-timer widely considered to be dead weight.
That was the end of it. Hadden acted outraged, enumerated the full-timer’s manifold qualities and, as ever, won the subsequent vote with everyone against me. No-one wished to be seen as personally attacking the full-timer in question (who, of course, was present at the meeting).
Afterwards another full-timer berated me. I was right, he said, but I should have refused to specify a full-timer to be sacked. This was a task for the executive "Political Committee". He was correct that I had been caught out by Peter’s ploy, but I was annoyed at the trap, and frustrated with the timidity of other CC members who I knew agreed with me, but who wouldn’t stand up to the Hadden storm.
Of course, the inexorable logic of money cannot be denied. Full-timers drifted away anyway, with my nominee for redundancy amongst the first to go.
But, as I say, politics was my main concern. Peter Hadden had written a book in the early 1980s, of canonical status, called "Divide and Rule". This dealt with the history of partition, more or less blaming it on British machinations to split an Irish working class otherwise coalescing around socialism.
Quite clearly to me, this was a travesty of history. I decided, in 1993 I think, to write an article, for circulation in the Organisation, attacking Hadden’s thesis. Partition happened, I thought, primarily because Ulster protestants were irreconcilably opposed to forced inclusion in an "Irish Ireland".
I went on to argue that there was no "One Nation" in Ireland. Socialists had no obligation to jolly protestants into a united Ireland. I argued, as a response to the "National Question", that we should propose a form of Joint Authority in Northern Ireland to reflect the two conflicting and equally legitimate identities. (I’m not altogether sure whether I developed all of these points in this draft, though they were certainly in my second draft mentioned below. I do not have copies anymore).
I handed the piece of work in to the Centre, where it was ignored. The document was not circulated. It was dismissed as unworthy of consideration. One did not wish to appear vain, and I accepted this.
Many months later, Peter Hadden produced a new pamphlet called Beyond the Troubles. I was astonished, on reading this, to find a hefty section clearly directed against my article (though it was not referred to directly). I was gob-smacked. My article had been buried and I had been effectively told to get off my pompous ego-trip and shut-up; in the meantime Hadden had busied himself moulding a counter-blast. This was typical of Peter’s tactic of dealing with opposition by only entering debates after he had controlled the run-up (preparatory discussion or, in this instance, suppression) and had readied an annihilating counter-blast for the final "open debate".
I immediately re-fashioned my article, and this was circulated. A conference was held. The night before the debate I got pissed and had a huge argument with my girlfriend (the fault was all mine). I was in some state the next day! This did nothing to improve my already crappy debating technique. I was duly hammered.
Comrade after comrade got up to assault my thesis (I was most irked by one comrade who agreed with the standard "socialist united Ireland in federation with Britain" line, but then said that after the Revolution we would encourage citizens to identify with Britain or Ireland as they liked, with institutions to express these identities. This was close to my argument and not at all what the leadership were actually arguing, but he, of course, was not corrected on the point by the leadership. If incoherent, he was speaking against me, and that was all that mattered. The point was not to have a free-ranging debate; it was to stamp out opposition).
I think no one else voted with me. We had democratically approved not definite agreed aims or demands, but an entire pamphlet, complete with historical analysis. This was the point, I think, where, in open propaganda, Militant effectively abandoned "united Ireland" rhetoric. More than ever the solution was "workers’ unity" and "socialism"; largely meaningless but best calculated, in Labourist fashion, to avoid confronting the totalising claims of either nationalism or unionism.
(Rubber-stamping multi-thousand word theses as "the line" was standard in Militant — "Perspectives Documents" would be approved as an indivisible whole. It appears ridiculous to me now, to approve every word, dot and comma. And this is literally how it worked. In another document, for example, I disagreed with Peter’s characterisation of an anti-Red Hand Commando backlash in loyalist areas after they beat a protestant woman to death with snooker cues. He argued that this meant that loyalist communities were becoming less sectarian.
I believed it meant no such thing, sadly. A few months before snooker-cue wielding loyalists had beaten a catholic woman to death, and there had been no important negative reaction in the loyalist ghettoes. When I argued this in the pub, Peter worked up into a storm of righteous indignation. If the paragraph was amended in any way he would (Lenin style) resign from the CC and take his opposition to the rank and file. Little wonder that document was stamped with customary unanimous approval. It was now what we had to publicly defend).
To have a party line on "what happened in history" was a nonsense, inhibiting of normal intellectual freedom (imagine if Labour had a party line on, say, whether Harold Wilson had been a good or bad PM, that all members had to sign up to).
From here on in, I was regularly, and with varying foundation, opposed to the leadership. A later controversy had me arguing that an IRA ceasefire was most unlikely without a covert or overt British offer of Joint Authority at least. This, it seemed to me, was the watered down IRA price. I thought it would lead to a huge protestant backlash. Peter argued, on the contrary, that the IRA, in a cul de sac, were moving away from armed struggle even in the absence of very radical British concessions. There is no doubt that Peter was right in this controversy, and I was wrong.
On this and other issues, I was roundly defeated every time. I felt I was little more than a cipher, proof proffered by the leadership of healthy internal debate. I was the token loose cannon (in so far as I was noticed – I had not the authority or charisma to command any great amount of respect).
In fact, real debate was always met with a phalanx of leadership unanimity. The leading bodies would, in sequence, agree a line. If you then argued otherwise outside the meeting where the line was agreed, you "put yourself outside" that body. (There was one extraordinary occurrence when Peter Hadden heckled a dissident, Finn Geany perhaps, who had just lost a vote on the CC. He could either swear to keep his opinions to himself outside the CC, or he could resign immediately. He was forced to do the latter, in front of the slightly shocked meeting. It was a grotesque sight, open bullying, which, to my shame, I do not recall objecting to). The line was always agreed from above and transmitted with regimental efficiency downwards. As far as I can tell, Peter Hadden was the real originator of all important positions, unless they came from the "International Centre".
More generally, I knew I was drifting from Militant’s "Revolutionary Socialism" philosophically. The leadership was increasingly correct to suspect me of being a renegade from Marxists tenets. More on this tomorrow.
I feel it’s time to draw this thread to a close. Of course, I’ll reply to any substantive points raised in posted comments.
To conclude, I want here to re-produce my reply posted to a comment on yesterday’s Daily Moider (for which, see below):
"One can, of course, overdo enthusiasm for democracy inside political parties — their function is to be effective within a political system, not to reflect the pluralism of society as a whole. Political parties should not be microcosms of they entire system; they are components of the system, interacting with other parties, voters, non-voters, the media, pressure groups, churches, business, trade unions (at least in the old days), protesters, even intangible inherited tradition (e.g. royalism in UK & Oz, republicanism in the Republic of Ireland).
For a party to be effective requires a top down management to some extent (as British Labour found to its cost in the 1980s). Without effective, and thus relatively authoritarian political leadership, electoral democracy cannot work (Burke — Ireland’s greatest political philosopher — made interesting points along these lines, though with less enthusiasm for enfranchising the swinish multitude of course).
On the other hand, political parties in this Burkean sense are more coalitions defined by general orientation than cadres of strict ideology. To some extent, parties work best in democracies if they act as poles of attraction for possibly ineradicable human tendencies. There is always a constituency for change, always a constituency for preservation. The party label is secondary.
For most of C20th British history, Labour has been the party for change, the Tories for preservation; arguably this reversed in the mid to late 1970s when Thatcherism became the radical alternative to the post-war settlement.
(I’m not arguing, by the way, that this psychological analysis for political allegiance is sufficient in itself. We also have to bear in mind factors such as class identity).
Those who bring the party into disrepute, or pinch money, or diminish effectiveness in situations where collective responsibility is crucial for making an impact (in a cabinet, for example, or a parliamentary party) are reasonably liable for discipline. Moreover, one can probably define some core, discrete policies as mandatory. (Though, actually, in mainstream political parties, it’s hard to think of many examples.) In general, there should be maximum latitude, and a healthy party can survive quite a lot of formal rule breaking by members without recourse to expulsion or splits.
I think groups like Militant do go too far, and have a cultish element, when they move beyond enforcing discipline around minimum requirements for effectiveness. It is corrupting to be required to subscribe to a "correct" view of history, or general perspectives.
Indeed, to require members to sign up to "Marxism" is unhealthy. Revolutionary Socialism might make sense as a general orientation, but to require largely uncomprehending members to agree with the twists and turns of Dialectical Materialism, or the Labour Theory of Value, or Lenin’s definition of Imperialism? That’s not tradition, that’s ossification. The Tories don’t require members to define themselves as Hobbesians, or Adam Smith-ites, much as most of them appreciate their contribution. (Even in the nominally Marxist 2nd International, the great French leader, Jean Jaures, was never a Marxist).
The problem with Militant was dogma. The most depressing thing was not the "shock and awe" tactics of the leadership against dissidents (a very appropriate phrase I’ve pinched from Indymedia). Rather, it was the slide into a schematic mode of thinking on the part of members. Members were groomed, or "armed with theory" (in effect, party documents and a very narrow selection of "Marxist classics"), to come to largely pre-determined conclusions. Militant was a very good example of Marcuse’s "repressive tolerance".
A turning point for me was one day sitting on the bus from Ballymena to Portglenone and realising that, more or less, I could work out the "correct" position on virtually any political, social or moral question you might care to mention. From this epiphanal moment, I rediscovered the joys of doubt, ignorance, scepticism and agnosticism (secularly I mean, of course). Suddenly non-Marxist books became a means of exposing myself to criticism rather than sources to be mined for self-reinforcement. My view of the world became permanently provisional.
To return to an earlier point, it is my impression that people join Militant because they want change. The murder-machine (a debt here to Padraig Pearse — look it up my Aussie friend) turns many of them into conservatives of the most unshiftable and frankly boring stripe."
I’m not sure when exactly, but one day (maybe 1995 or 96 or something), when walking home from the Public Records Office in Northern Ireland, I thought long and hard about my relationship with Militant / the Socialist Party. (I’m pretty sure I was no longer on the Central Committee — or National Committee as it had become — but I have absolutely no recollection of when or how I left this august body). I had been becoming increasingly detached, but still felt a loyalty to the idea of a socialist organisation. I had, of course, friends in the party too. But upon reflection, I realised that my enthusiasm for democracy and openness as a governing principle of society had out-stripped that for "revolutionary transformation".
I had long thought Militant politically unsophisticated. In truth its Marxism was superficial, though this had the beneficial impact of making it in reality a rather pragmatic outfit. Its drumbeat re-iteration of workers’ unity may have been bland and ill thought out — see previous Moiders — but it was hardly objectionable. Its view of socialism was unconvincing. I couldn’t see demonstrably inefficient command economies being much improved by romantic notions of democratic worker’s control ("hands up who wants to be on the three-inch bolt supply committee, comrades!"). But Militant’s version of socialism was so unlikely ever to be put into practice that it did not seem immediately important.
I believed that history would carve a path to a fairer, post-capitalist world, but not inexorably. Political action, a political party, was necessary. But this party need not contain within itself a blueprint for post-capitalism. The "revolution" might dance to the music of the past, but it would be self-creating if allowed.
But thinking about it, I realised that I no longer believed in such a wager on the revolution. Revolutions devour their own children. Revolutionary zealotry, in an open society where "revolutionaries" are neither real nor rational, castrates them. Imaginative political thinking degenerated into tediously spun out slogans. Activity was soulless, even cynical, driven by a need to recruit to the party.
Sight was lost of the real world. The cadre talked only to other revolutionaries. I remember arguing for liberal democracy, as against dictatorship of the proletariat or some such, with one comrade. Slightingly, she dismissed me — "You think you’re being original Marc, you’re not." Of course I was not being original! Our world is built on liberal and democratic values. To the Comrade, exposition of representative democracy seemed academic point scoring. It was just another "bourgeois" ideology, indeed one she rarely came across in "serious" political discussion.
As I thought about it, I found that I had allowed the cocktail of dream and machismo characteristic of revolutionary socialism to corrupt me. In truth, I felt more for the Trotskyist martyrs of Vorkuta than the nameless dead of the Russian Civil War, collectivisation or forced industrialisation. I had been sick at heart that the revolutions in the communist world in 1989 had reinforced capitalism; why had I not whole-heartedly celebrated one of the great liberations of history? I had allowed myself to hope for economic crises, for the exposure of the "facade" of bourgeois democracy, for wars, for cruel mid-wives of revolution. I had fixated on a vision for a great new dawning, and my moral sensibilities had shrivelled.
My greatest regret now is that I did not detest communism as a morally foul system in its own right, as I should. Rather, I regretted it most of all as a betrayal of the revolution. Communism was, in fact, a grotesque experiment on humanity, and if the original sin is to be found in Bolshevism, or Marxism, or even revolutionary fervour, then I was obliged to draw conclusions from that.
The adherents of revolutionary socialism, of course, argue that they do not welcome human suffering, even if they bank on it as an engine of struggle. Formally I can accept this argument as logically legitimate. I knew what the ideology had done to me. For this I, and I alone had responsibility. But I honestly feel that, to one degree or another, this subordination of people to vision, truth to program, eventually creeps into the soul of all those who live for the revolution.
Of course, callusing of our sympathies is unavoidable, to preserve our sanity never mind take any sort of political action. And utopianism is legitimate, indeed necessary as a sort of audit on the world in which we live. We have no real refuge in moral simplicities, whether they are religious or secular. Life is about balance and effectiveness and dialectic, not moral agonising. But I felt that I’d long reached a point where Militant, the "revolutionary party", had become an incubus, morally and intellectually crippling.
On reaching the quad of Queen’s University Belfast, I wrote a letter to the party’s Executive Committee. In this I declared that I would no longer be bound by the discipline of the Organisation. I would speak and act publicly as I chose. I did not resign, rather I left it up to the Organisation to respond as they saw fit.
How did it? I don’t know. The letter was never mentioned. It was not acknowledged. It was never brought up in discussion. Happy with this, I drifted away and, at some point, slipped moorings altogether. When this happened, precisely, I didn’t notice. Nor, I’m sure, did the Socialist Party.
From Marc Mulholland’s blog, Daily Moiders, 21-29 August 2003