Rewriting history is not a defence

Has the Irish Republican Socialist Party been in retreat from Marxism? Peter Urban, one of three US-based members who recently resigned from the organisation, gives his view of the recent controversy between the IRSP and CPGB

When several members of the Irish Republican Socialist Party in the United States recently resigned in order to protest actions and positions they ascribed to the political secretary of the party, the IRSP issued a statement stating that their resignations had been rejected and the three had been expelled. The statement would have been comic, had it not been so pathetic. It is understood by all that a resignation is a unilateral act, not requiring acceptance by anyone and it is likewise understood by all that one cannot be expelled from an organisation one no longer belongs to. Yet this is what the IRSP claimed, somehow believing that if it could simply ignore the actual history of events, it would thereby provide a defence against the charges that accompanied the resignations. Following an article in the Weekly Worker (August 4) criticising the IRSP's political secretary, and by extension the party as a whole, the IRSP has again responded with a rewriting of history meant to serve as a defence of their political secretary (The Plough August 9). It is the politics of illusion or of delusion and, whichever option it represents, it is not an approach worthy of the IRSP [The Plough response was carried in Weekly Worker August 11 - ed]. In its article 'Ireland needs Marxism', the Weekly Worker referred to a number of statements made by Gerry Ruddy [John Martin] to illustrate its criticism. In responding, Gerry Ruddy commented: ""¦ the CPGB did not have the courtesy to address their critique to the IRSP before they published it in their newspaper." So it seems fair to point out that the IRSP's statement claiming that it had expelled the ex-members referred to above was published in its electronic periodical The Plough before it was actually sent to the ex-members in question. In fact, it has still not formally advised the ex-members that they had been expelled, following their resignations. The Weekly Worker claims in the article that "on December 5 1998 the IRSP overwhelmingly voted at its conference [ard fheis] to abandon the only genuine basis for working class emancipation. It ditched its 1984 commitment to Marxism and the building of a Communist Party (described as 'premature')." The IRSP is correct in stating that this is untrue and the IRSP's statement in response that "The motion was withdrawn and a decision taken to hold a conference on the ideological direction of the party the following year" is correct, but it fails to give an adequate understanding of what took place at the ard fheis. The IRSP goes on to quote the Weekly Worker as saying: "Gerry Ruddy, political secretary and de facto main spokesperson, questioned the relevance of Marxism to the 21st century and in a coup de grà¢ce tellingly asked who had actually read Marx recently. Not one of the 100 or so delegates raised a hand." It is in its rebuttal to this statement it further misrepresents what took place. The IRSP says in refutation of the above statement: "What was actually asked was, 'Who has recently read the Communist manifesto recently?' None of our comrades had. This has to be seen against the following background. The 1998 ard fheis was the first to be held in over 14 years and came shortly after the party had suffered armed attacks from the Torney gang, which had killed Gino Gallagher, who had spearheaded the politicisation of the republican socialist movement. Those attacks had come only seven years after a previous effort was made by what became the IPLO [Irish People's Liberation Organisation] to wipe out the RSM. During that period of time politics had taken a back seat and indeed a previous leadership of the movement had tried to stop any political developments in the movement. Indeed the decisions taken by the 1984 ard fheis on Marxism had been used by some former comrades to justify the assaults on the movement." In fact what occurred was that the Dublin cumann [branch], who proposed the motion, were asked to withdraw it and chose not to do so, supported by other members of the IRSP. The political secretary was relentless, however, in pushing for them to do so and did, in fact, claim that the motion was "premature". The statement that "no one had" read the Communist manifesto recently is as much a misrepresentation of reality as is the emphasis on no comrades having raised their hand by the Weekly Worker. The question was taken by many to be rhetorical in nature, which is why there was no show of hands. In fact, the members of the Dublin cumann who proposed the motion had read the work in the recent past, as had this writer, who was present as an IRSP member at the time, and it must be presumed that a good many other comrades had read the work in the recent past. I say this because the IRSCNA had sent perhaps two dozen copies of the Communist manifesto into Portlaoise, Maghaberry and Long Kesh prisons over a number of years, so that there were multiple copies available in the libraries of all Irish National Liberation Army POWs. Given the large number of IRSP members who are former INLA POWs, therefore, it would be an insult (and was, in my opinion, and insult) to the membership to suggest that they would be unfamiliar with this core work of Marxism. After much brow-beating, the Dublin cumann were convinced to withdraw the motion, after being promised not only an ideological conference within the coming year, but a programme of political education for the party's membership. It is significant, therefore, that no such conference was held in the coming year and the motion passed on political education of the membership at the same ard fheis resulted in nothing. What should not be overlooked in the back-and-forth dialogue between the IRSP and the Weekly Worker are the ramifications of the political secretary of a party that had been declaredly Marxist since 1984 arguing that a commitment to the principles of the Communist manifesto were "premature", taking for granted that the membership was unfamiliar with the content of that work (despite compelling evidence to the contrary), and despite holding that belief not acting immediately to rectify the shortcoming through extensive political education of the party's members. Moreover, the political secretary did, in fact, question "the relevance of Marxism to the 21st century" - something that can hardly be held to be insignificant. Before addressing that further, however, let us clear up some other falsification of history. The 1998 ard fheis was not the "first to be held in over 14 years and came shortly after the party had suffered armed attacks from the Torney gang, which had killed Gino Gallagher, who had spearheaded the politicisation of the republican socialist movement". In fact, there had been an ard fheis held in late 1997. The political secretary should remember that ard fheis, as it was the one at which he put forward a motion calling upon the IRSP to declare a ceasefire, but which he withdrew when it became clear that the motion would fail if it went to a vote. Moreover, the IPLO attacks on the IRSP occurred in 1987, so it was nine, not seven, years later when the attacks which began with the murder of Gino Gallagher took place in 1996. Gino Gallagher had indeed "spearheaded the politicisation" of the RSM before his murder by individuals acting at the behest of British intelligence (to refer to them as a gang fails to render the reality of the attacks on the movement at that time and make the INLA's statement that it had confirmed Dessie McCleery's involvement with Brit intelligence handlers appear to be a fabrication). This politicisation had gone on for two years prior to Gino's murder and should have continued apace in the two years that followed it and some might believe that calling a motion endorsing the Communist manifesto "premature" represented an insult to that process of politicisation. When the IRSP goes on to say, "So in 1998 we were in the process of rebuilding the party and reuniting the movement. Rather than pass wonderful-sounding resolutions that signified nothing, the party rightly took the decision to postpone the discussion when it could be more thoroughly debated at a special conference to examine the roots of our politics", it raises additional issues. First among these is the claim that the movement was being 'reunited'. As any member of the IRSM at that time can testify, when Gino Gallagher was murdered, the entire IRSM was unified. Despite the attempts by Torney and the three others working at the behest of Brit intelligence to make it appear that there were rifts in the IRSM, the reality, as we stated over and over again at the time, was that there was no split. In fact, the individuals who engaged in these attacks had been publicly expelled from the IRSM well before they murdered Gino Gallagher (unlike the retroactive expulsions which are apparently now popular with the IRSP) and no section of the movement sided with them. However, to return to the matter of the motion at the 1998 ard fheis, the suggestion that a motion endorsing the Communist manifesto required thorough debate and an examination of the IRSP's political roots does more to support the charges of the Weekly Worker than to refute them. The charge of the Weekly Worker that the IRSP was not committed to Marxism seems (incorrectly in my opinion) fully justified by the statement that a resolution as basic as endorsing the Communist manifesto might no longer be valid once such examination of the IRSP's political roots was completed. If this were not the case, what harm, one might one ask, would have occurred in simply passing the resolution? Certainly it was not a concern for time, since this was the last motion to be voted upon at the 1998 ard fheis and more time was spent convincing the Dublin cumann to withdraw it than could possibly have been spent in voting on the matter. As a participant in the 1998 ard fheis, I can testify that the CBGB was not alone in being dismayed at the insistence that this proposal not be submitted to a vote of the IRSP's membership. Should it be said that I am misrepresenting the reluctance of the Dublin comrades to withdraw their motion, I simply refer to an article in the Starry Plough reprinted in the most recent The Plough, which stated: "The Dublin comrades refused to withdraw their resolution so it was referred back by a overwhelming majority to the incoming leadership." What the incoming leadership ever did with the matter was never made clear. In defending the IRSP against charges of being "left nationalists" by the Weekly Worker, the IRSP goes on to say: "This is just abuse from an organisation that sees it self as the centre of all truth and correctness when it comes to all things to do with Marxism. For the benefit of our readers we outline some of the resolutions passed by the organisation since 1998. In 2002 the following resolution was passed: "(a) That the IRSP is a revolutionary Marxist organisation, and that by this we mean that the IRSP believes: "(b) Class conflict is the motive force in human history; "(c) The IRSP stands unreservedly and exclusively for the interests of the working class against all others; "(d) Only the creation of a 32-county Irish socialist republic can provide the means by which Irish national liberation can be realised; "(e) That there can be no socialism without national liberation in Ireland, nor can there be national liberation without socialism; "(f) That there is no parliamentary road to socialism, because socialism cannot be forged by seizing the bourgeois state apparatus; nor is there a guerrilla road to socialism, because a social revolution requires the active participation of the masses; and therefore a socialist republic can only be established through the mass revolutionary action of the working class in the political, economic and social spheres; "(g) That socialism means the ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange collectively by the entire working class, with an end to wage labour, an end to production for profit and its replacement by a system of production based on human need; and "(h) That socialism must be administered democratically by the working class itself, recognising the class dictatorship of the workers, because the vast majority of society is formed by that class. This does not suggest the need for a political dictatorship of a single party. Rather it calls out for a class dictatorship, administered through new working class institutions created to permit the greatest degree of political freedom for all working people." The IRSP can justifiably take pride in having passed the resolution quoted above. However, it might be worth mentioning that this particular resolution was drafted by the three members whose resignation is referred to at the outset of this piece, and was, in fact, composed by the present writer. Moreover, the resolution was intended as an example of defining clearly the political positions of the party, rather than relying on the shorthand of referencing individual figures in history. Thus the motion from the 2004 ard fheis cited, which read, "Ard fheis reaffirms that the IRSP is a republican socialist party influenced by the writings of Tone, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Connolly, Mellows, Costello and Power" does not reflect well on the level of political education which might have taken place in the intervening period, had the leadership sought to have this take place. The IRSP's defence goes on to say: "It is sobering to think that an organisation like the CPGB, which seems to specialise in analysing the political errors of other leftwing organisations, could not take the time to do their research right. The above quotations can be found on the IRSP website. Indeed anyone who has read the Starry Plough and/or The Plough could never doubt the internationalism of the IRSP. At the least we accuse Manson of sloppy research. "The IRSP has held its hands up and admitted errors and mistakes. Indeed it has criticised past actions by the INLA, which itself held its hands up and admitted grievous errors in the past. We do not think we have the keys to the holy writ of Marxism. In historical terms we are a relatively young organisation that has just come out of a war situation over the past 30 years." It is certainly true about the self-criticism, though there are some of us who feel that the IRSP and INLA have spent more time having criticised the past actions of the INLA than was ever justified. However, it is reaching somewhat to claim that the IRSP is a relatively young organisation. Last year the IRSP celebrated its 30th anniversary and, in fact, it has every right to be proud of its history as long being the most advanced voice of the Irish working class. Some would argue that, were the party to devote more time to instilling in its membership an understanding of the party's programme over those three decades, rather than portraying Marxism as a hide-bound orthodoxy, it would be on surer political ground as a revolutionary socialist party. When the IRSP goes on to say, "We will take no lessons in Marxism from an organisation that not only retrospectively justifies the partition of Ireland but also would be happy with a repartition of the island", it is certainly correct. No one employing Marxist analysis could reach a conclusion in support of Ireland's partition. However, is it too much to ask, as did the Dublin cumann in 1998, that the IRSP take lessons in Marxism from Marx and Engels? In Liam O Ruairc's article 'Left republicanism' in the same issue of The Plough, the problem of the 2004 resolution quoted above is made clear [this article was published in Weekly Worker August 11 under the headline, 'Starting point for communism' - ed]. In response to Peter Manson's statement in the Weekly Worker that "the IRSP is first and foremost a left nationalist formation", Liam says: "Given the opposition between nationalism and republicanism, the term 'left republican' or 'social republicanism' is more adequate." Adequate for Liam, perhaps, but, were he to read through the past publications of the IRSP, he would find that the IRSP has long used "left republicanism" as a term of derision - it is a charge that the IRSP has often defended itself against. As resolutions quoted above have made plain, the IRSP has traditionally seen itself as a republican socialist party and has taken pains to distinguish republican socialism from simple republicanism, or left republicanism for that matter. To embrace 'left republican' as an apt description of the IRSP is to allow the IRSP to retreat from its tradition of revolutionary socialism. Restating the content of the 2004 resolution, Liam continues: "It stands in the tradition of Tone, Emmett, Lalor, Connolly, Mellows and Frank Ryan" - notably deleting the names of Marx and Engels, which were included in that resolution. Liam then writes: "Of all those, only Connolly was strictly speaking a scientific socialist. Liam Mellows wrote that to call his ideas 'communist' was 'silly' ... In the words of Tom Barry, Frank Ryan was a patriotic Irishman with leftwing sympathies." How should these statements be interpreted? They seem to say that the IRSP no longer considers itself to be a Marxist organisation and that the inclusion of Liam Mellows and Frank Ryan in the 2004 resolution were made for the purpose of making this clear. If this is not the case, why does Liam remove any reference to Marx and Engels in his description of the IRSP's tradition and emphasise the lack of Marxist or communist identification by others cited as influencing its programme? When Liam goes on to quote Ryan, however, his position is not at all inconsistent with the revolutionary socialist programme the IRSP has traditionally embraced. He writes: "In a letter to a newspaper, Ryan wrote: 'The future lies in working class rule. In my opinion not in the communism advocated today, but certainly in that direction. That explains, at once, why I associate on a platform with the CP and at the same time why I would not join the CP. And eventually the gap between CP policy on the one hand and the Fianna Fáil IRA policies on the other hand will be filled by a new movement. We will have to slog along for that." Certainly to distinguish oneself from the programme of the CP is not at odds with calling oneself a Marxist. If there had been questions about what Liam, a member of the IRSP's ard comhairle, is saying regarding Marxism and the IRSP, he then goes on to tell us: "However, left republicanism is the best starting point for those in Ireland who want to forge the vanguard and build a party of a new type. Where else can you begin?" One could begin with the revolutionary Marxism of James Connolly, which Nora Connolly O Brien said was best represented in contemporary Ireland by Seamus Costello. That has, in fact, been the starting point from which the IRSP has said it was proceeding since 1984, at least, but with which it apparently no longer identifies. Liam's criticism of the CPGB's 'two-nationist' posture that follows, however, is true to the traditions of the IRSP and correct in its analysis. He writes: "Peter would object that a left republican programme 'fails to embrace anything approaching a programme to win over the British-Irish population'. I have never heard the Ulster protestants refer to themselves as 'British-Irish' and very few would claim the status of a distinct nationality. However for reasons of convenience I will refer to them here as the 'British-Irish'. How does one challenge Orangeism and loyalism and win over the 'British-Irish', as Peter calls them? "One has to make a clear distinction between the 'British-Irish' population and Orangeism, loyalism and unionism. An ethno-national group should not be confused with a particular political ideology. Not all the 'British-Irish' are loyalists. Maintaining the distinction between the two is essential if one wants to encourage a 'British-Irish' break from the reactionary Orangeism, loyalism and unionism, and currents independent of them emerging amongst the 'British-Irish' workers." Sadly, he goes awry again when he continues: "A left republican programme would accept the right of the 'British-Irish' to define themselves as they want. Social republicanism does not have a problem with people considering themselves to be British or believing in the protestant religion. Everyone in Ireland has the right to hold on to his or her own identity, culture and perceived nationality. For example, there are Chinese people in Ireland who consider themselves to be Chinese and are holding on to their language and culture; the same with Polish or Nigerian people, etc. So if the protestant people in the north consider themselves to be British and not Irish, republicans should have no problem with it." I say he goes awry because he identifies this as what a left republican programme "would" do, rather than identifying it correctly as what the republican socialist programme of the IRSP has done since the 1970s. The Plough concludes its defence with a republication of a letter to the Weekly Worker written by Gerry Ruddy [John Martin] in January 1999. There is cause to review this letter in assessing the validity of the criticism that the IRSP is retreating from Marxism. For example, the letter, responding to a CPGB claim that, "A leading comrade questioned 'the relevance of Marxism to the 21st century', says: "Does John Bridge never question or critically re-examine his core beliefs? Or is everything from the great gods of Marx, Engels and Lenin above re-examination? Is Marxism a mantra to be chanted or a method to be tested? No doubt John will let us know." Certainly, as individuals we should periodically re-examine our beliefs, but this does little to answer the criticism of the CPGB. The issue they raised is that the political secretary of the IRSP (for it was he) questioned the relevance of Marxism to the 21st century. That is a very odd position for any member, but especially the political secretary, of a declaredly Marxist party to put forward. Frankly, it should have been addressed at length immediately, but instead the IRSP's members allowed themselves to be cowed by statements that such discussion was "premature". In fact, what was premature was calling into question the Marxism that the IRSP had embraced as its form of analysis prior to the party having altered its position. What it represented in objective terms was the position endorsed by the IRSP in the past being undermined by the very person whose title suggests should be responsible for ensuring adherence. If the political secretary is not responsible for ensuring that the political programme embraced by the party collectively at its past ard fheisanna is fostered among the membership, to whom would that responsibility fall? What the statement should have suggested was that the person making it was probably ill suited to holding the position of political secretary of a Marxist party, but there may have been room for considerable confusion over the function of a position not described in the party's constitution. The letter goes on to quote the CPGB as saying, "The standing orders were absurd for barring 'personal criticisms and bad language', and then replies: "The republican socialist movement has suffered in the past from fierce personality clashes that helped contribute to an atmosphere which eventually led to armed clashes. Political criticism is not the same as personal criticisms and if John Bridge thinks it is OK to engage in personal criticisms then he has learned little." This statement both supports the black propaganda that had caused additional injury to the IRSM that it was "feud-prone" and that the attacks by the IPLO and the murder of Gino Gallagher reflected internal divisions, both of which the movement had previously been at pains to refute. Moreover, this position against personal criticism was used at various times to deflect political criticism of the political secretary, while other leading members of the movement were subject to relentless character assassination. It should have been recognised for what it was long ago and not used to prohibit much needed criticism related to the direction of the IRSP. If the membership of the IRSP does not learn this lesson soon, it will find its party programme taken from what they collectively made it and turned into what can legitimately be called a 'left republican' organisation. History is subtly rewritten again when the letter, quoting the CPGB, goes on to say: "Rather than have a good fight, the IRSP leadership opted for bad peace; no lessons were learnt", before continuing: "This point emerges from the debate about the manner in which the INLA ceasefire came about. There were many lessons learnt from that experience and other experiences. Does John Bridge really believe that we would have engaged in public debate about the ceasefire, endangering the security of comrades, compromising our positions and letting the British have full knowledge of who all the key players are? Suffice it to say that the leadership of the movement acted decisively." On this point, it is worth pointing out that at the ard fheis under discussion, in fact the leadership of the IRSP was subjected to criticism from its own ranks. A resolution declaring that the ard comhairle was responsible for implementing the resolutions of the ard fheis which elected them, and not taking action in opposition to them, was passed unanimously, which had been clearly stated to refer to the IRSP's ard comhairle calling upon the INLA to declare a ceasefire when that position had been defeated at the prior ard fheis. In fact, there was healthy discussion and debate of this issue and the manner in which the comment was responded to misrepresents the point being made and the character of the ard fheis. Next the letter quotes the CPGB saying, "'Ruddy abstained on a motion on decommissioning!' What does this mean? Comrades are not allowed to disagree? Should there be a 100% vote on all resolutions? Or is this really a way of personalising the problem, as John Bridge sees it? Create a caricature of an opponent and thereby weaken his arguments. Set up leaders in order to knock them down. The leadership of this party is a collective leadership. The days of the cult of the personality are long gone from this movement." One would hope, but perhaps in vain. What is somewhat obscured here is that Gerry was the only one who abstained on that vote; just as Gerry was the person who submitted a proposal to the 1997 ard fheis calling for a ceasefire, which he was forced to withdraw or see go down to defeat; and Gerry is the person who put forward a proposal at the 2004 ard fheis seeking to have the IRSP call upon the INLA in the 26 counties to stand down, which he was forced to withdraw or would have seen go down to defeat. Gerry protests that calling his support for the armed struggle heroically waged by the INLA for all but the past few years is unfounded personal attack, but I think most would see a pattern in the facts as stated. The letter concludes by quoting the CPGB as saying, "Scientifically the IRSP can be characterised as centrist", and then responding: "Well, really! How naughty of us! There is really little to say on this." That Gerry should have succumbed to the end of his patience with the CPGB's criticisms is somewhat understandable. That being called centrists be taken so lightly is not. Far from being centrist, the IRSP often received criticism in the past as being 'ultra-leftist'. I hope I can be forgiven for thinking of those times as 'the good old days'.