Left Unity: Keeping disagreements hidden
Left Unity’s press release about Gerry Adams illustrates the fragility of its political method, argues Paul Demarty
We confess we are not sure what to make of Left Unity’s new-found habit of issuing short, banal press releases. For the most part, they seem to be rather shallow attempts to piggyback on the ephemeral outrages that grip liberal opinion now and then.
“Sack Jeremy Clarkson!” squeaks Salman Shaheen - drowned out, of course, by the din of more or less everyone else calling for the same thing. Perhaps comrade Salman has a distinctive and subtle argument to add to the discussion? “This is not about free speech. Clarkson has brought his employer, the BBC, into disrepute and it should sack him immediately.”1 As another big-mouthed, filthy-rich, rightwing buffoon might put it - crikey. LU calls for Clarkson to be sacked on the same basis that the NHS persecutes whistleblowers!
Of course, it is depressingly easy to see how our ‘moderate’ spokesman collapses into such finger-wagging banality - it is the complaint of least resistance. It is exactly the sort of thing you would see on the lips of Daily Mirror leader writers, or (alas) Labour front-benchers who want to see Clarkson’s good friend and neighbour, David Cameron, squirm. Perhaps this is designed to slip, unnoticed, down the gullet of some overworked journalist in the modern ‘news factory’. Perhaps it is an exercise in internal cohesion - in LU, we disagree on all manner of matters, great and small - but surely we are united on the matter of whether, on balance, it is better for Jeremy Clarkson to be on TV?
The trouble with avoiding controversy, however, is that people have different ideas about what is motherhood and apple pie. See, for example, a rather official looking statement, expressing concern at the arrest of Gerry Adams, signed by a good handful of leading LU members. He “has been one of the key figures in driving forward the peace process” and “resolving the conflict in the north”; moreover, “Sinn Féin [is] a party which is opposing austerity and inequality across Ireland”. The arrest is therefore “politically motivated” and “we call upon the British and Irish governments and all political parties to positively engage in the peace process”.2
The statement is obviously dreadful. It is of a piece, above all, with the LU right’s desire to reach out to all political forces that can be painted as fighting austerity - like the Greens, for instance - regardless of what they actually do when in power (ask the Brighton binmen about the Greens’ anti-austerity credentials), never mind anything as dull as their class character.
Sinn Féin is not the Green Party, however. Its history is a rather stubborn spectre to exorcise; the supposed glories of the ‘peace process’ cannot be separated from the whole history of the Provisional IRA’s military struggle. So, inevitably, there was a comment thread shitstorm; with endless arguments about the innocence or otherwise of Jean McConville, and the bitter legacy of ‘the troubles’. Complaints vary. Bringing up the more ‘traditional’ left perspective was Liam Mac Uaid, who excoriated a text which reads like a “Sinn Féin press release” (which, indeed, it does). Somebody by the name of ‘Mozzer’ immediately withdrew their support from Left Unity without explanation.
The fun really begins with our old friend, Felicity Dowling, chief architect and evangelist of LU’s amoeba-like, ever expanding, draft safe spaces document, for whom the key issue here is … violence against women (and children).
Comrade Dowling’s intervention, of course, is wrong-headed on many levels. “It is more dangerous to be a woman in conflict than a soldier,” she writes, which you would think would depend on the war, but who knows? In any case - is this why we prefer peaceful means? Would war be just ducky if one could guarantee that only men of combat age would die?
“The death of a woman should never be regarded as collateral damage,” she pompously intones. But this is truly laughable. Bad things happen in wars - including just wars. Let us accept, for the sake of argument, that Irish republicans were morally justified in launching an armed campaign against the British state. If we accept that, then it would be hypocritical to pontificate about the inevitable bloodshed of a guerrilla war.
From here on, everything depends on whether McConville was an informer or not. If she was, as the Provos claimed, then she was not - indeed - collateral damage, but a combat casualty. If she was not an informer, then she was … collateral damage. In wars, especially when one belligerent is unable in practice to allow due legal process, people are sometimes forced to shoot first and ask questions later.
Leon Trotsky, writing about military discipline, makes the ‘elastic’ ethics of armed conflict characteristically clear: “So long as those malicious, tailless apes that are so proud of their technical achievements - the animals that we call men - will build armies and wage wars, the command will always be obliged to place the soldiers between the possible death in the front and the inevitable one in the rear.”3 The notion that McConville’s fate, a pure function of military expediency, had anything to do with her sex is laughable - she is merely the most famous of 16 people alleged to have been ‘disappeared’ by the IRA on suspicion of grassing. All the others were men.
What is more, in order to turn this affair into a story about violence against women, Dowling necessarily demeans women. The random violence of war can only be specifically male if women are incapable of voluntarily participating in war - that is, if we accept in classically sexist fashion that women abhor conflict and violence as a factor of their womanhood. Women (and children) are thus victims to be protected; but ‘protecting’ them in this way entails denying their agency, just as neglected children are coerced into the care of the state.
Responses to Dowling’s tirade vary from the supportive to the foam-flecked. It turns out - who knew? - that Left Unity contains many people with residual Provo sympathies. The arguments back and forth are, to a point, about fighting old battles. Paeans to the ‘peace process’ are fatuous, given that the current set-up in the Six Counties, while comparatively peaceful, has merely frozen in sectarian aspic the underlying antagonisms; nevertheless, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party are now in government together. Their respective dissident fragments may blow up a cafe every once in a while, but they are - in the grand scale - unserious.
What is notable is that these comment-thread blow-outs still happen; in spite of the uneasy but lasting peace in Northern Ireland, the politics of the Irish war remain a topic of violent, passionate disagreement on the left. It is not, moreover, just the far left that has the baggage of historical argument to deal with. Our moderate leaders are at pains to argue that LU is a party for “disaffected Labour voters”. But what disaffected Labour voters are these? Those who admired Ken Livingstone’s support for the hunger strikers, or good British patriots who despise Irish republicans as terrorists?
The trouble is that - as well as being an excuse to water down the politics of LU - the quest for the “disaffected Labour voter” also legitimises the reduction of those politics to soft focus. We are supposed to be finding things on which we agree with this phantom rightwing: that means we have to ignore and skip over matters of controversy between ourselves.
That this blow-up should happen over the legacy of the Irish war is quite poetic. After all, as noted, the outcome of the peace process has been of this character. The population of the Six Counties remains divided; except now those divisions are conceived as a matter of coexisting ‘communities’ rather than in a political fashion. The division is rendered permanent - repressed rather than resolved - and administered by a coalition composed of the two formerly most violently opposed political forces.
This is, however, peace, as in ‘the absence of war’ - as periodic explosions like the flag riots remind us. And likewise, the ‘agree to disagree’ political method dominant in LU bumbles along just fine until a matter of controversy rumbles up. Heaven forefend our good spokespeople should try to say something about Ukraine, or some other matter of live political import to which no nice, pat pseudo-answer is easily available. The organisation would halve in size overnight.
LU’s officers, it seems, would be best served by sticking to matters of absolutely no controversy at all in future. It is surely only a matter of time until Clarkson opens his mouth again. Alas, even that statement seems to annoy people. “Hyperbole without substantial content or citations,” chides ‘gkw’ in the comments. “Down with this sort of thing! Is this where we’re at on the left? Is this what it’s degenerated to? Jesus wept,” wails ‘MickyD’. “Honestly Left Unity is digging its own grave with this sort of nonsense. Clarkson is a twat, everybody knows he’s a twat, so what is the point of this statement?” wonders Mark Reeves.
Perhaps there is hope for us after all.