Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Death of a Soviet Hero

February 19, 2010

Spotted this in the Guardian, the death of one of the three Soviet soldiers photopgraphed hanging the Red Flag over the Reichstag (the picture was of course posed as a replacement had to be put up after the original flag was shot down). Abdulkhakim Ismailov died aged 93 on Tuesday in his native village. After the war, he was in the Communist Party and was a chairman of a collective farm. As time moves on, and we are left with fewer and fewer of the survivors of the Great Patriotic War, it is always worth taking a moment to recall the enormous sacrifices required of the Soviet peoples and their allies in order to defeat fascism.

Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the fall of the Spanish Republic, and next year marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War. Already, commemorative events are being organised by left groups in Ireland, such as the Charlie Donnelly commemoration and The Workers’ Party is organising a trip for next year as well. The Spanish Civil War of course remains a matter of great debate and not a little bitterness on the left. No need to go into the arguments now, but there is no doubt that that war proved the vicious and brutal nature of fascism – the last ditch defence of capitalism – and was a warning that too many people ignored, especially in the west.

2011 also sees the 70th anniversary of the Nazi assault on the Soviet Union – Hitler’s attempt to kick in the front door of Soviet socialism in the fundamentally mistaken belief that what he called the whole rotten structure would collapse with it. Instead the peoples of the Soviet Union rallied in defence of Socialism and against the fascist barbarians who were slaughtering their comrades in the occupied territories, with the all too enthusiastic support of local ultra-nationalists, anti-semites and fascists. It took an unpredecented effort to halt the Nazi advance and then drive them back to Berlin, the Red Army crushing their resistance the only way possible – ruthlessly. With the death of Abdulkhakim Ismailov, another link to that past is broken. But their sacrifice, their bravery and their heroism will never be forgotten. The smears of the enemies of the Soviet Union, then and now, can never tarnish the glory of the soliders of the Red Army.


Hobsbawm’s Hero: or the Mistake that was Eurocommunism

December 12, 2009

Eric Hobsbawm is someone I have a great deal of time and respect for, even if I would disagree with his role in the Communist Party of Great Britain and his links to the crowd centred round Marxism Today. He has consistently sought to apply Marxism in a creative way not only in his historical writings, but also in modern politics. So I was very interested to see in today’s Guardian Hobsbawm discuss his own hero, an Austrian named Franz Marek (link to Google translate’s version of his wikipedia entry). Hobsbawm’s obituary notice in the November 1979 edition of Marxism Today can be found here.

Marek was a Communist; he joined the Party in Vienna in 1934 and was active in anti-Nazi resistance activity both in his homeland, where he headed the CP’s underground apparatus, and in France during the War, where he headed the PCF’s resistance organisation for foreigners. He worked among the Germans, and was caught and sentenced to death. He survived only because the Nazis fled the approaching Allied armies. He was an activist, a theoretician and author of several books, a senior member of the Communist Party of Austria and editor of its theoretical journal. He embraced Eurocommunism, and, following arguments over 1968, he ended up outside the Party, and subsequently edited an independent Marxist journal. He kept up links with other Eurocommunists, with the PCI sending a representative to his funeral.

This is a life which much to admire. Marek was born into great poverty, and it was his experience of the reality of exploitation of working people that shaped his politics. As Hobsbawm notes in the Guardian,

The Comintern had given him his first new jacket and trousers, for the childhood of education-hungry Galician Jews without money did not run to such luxuries. For the next 12 years he lived on false papers.

This was, therefore, the politics of experience. As with millions of others it was the cruel reality of the capitalist system and the oppressive ideologies of reactionary nationalism that Marek to embrace socialism. And Marek clearly understood the nature of the enemy he was facing. It was an enemy that had to be confronted at every level, with the proper mixture of theory and action. It was not an enemy that could be reasoned with. Without the ability to mobilise tens of millions politically, industrially, and militarily, the USSR would never have been able to inflict the decisive defeats upon Nazism. But Nazism was only the most extreme method of defence adopted by capitalism – part of a continuum with reactionary nationalism and imperialism, as well as less harmful forms of denying the class nature of society. That is a lesson we can never forget. Reading about Marek and his experiences brought to mind an example closer to home. In 1992, The Workers’ Party reprinted György Lukács What is Orthodox Marxism? with a dedication to its leading member and former Belfast City Councillor, the recently deceased Jim ‘Solo’ Sullivan. The dedication pointed out that it was his experience of exploitation and oppression in a deeply-divided Belfast that had led Sullivan to socialist politics. His life story may have been very different than that of Marek, but the factors shaping their consciousness, and their belief in the necessity to link the right theory and with the right action at the proper time were fundamentally the same.

Too many people today judging the actions of people like Marek forget these realities. This is a point that Hobsbawm himself often makes when critics from the right and left attack him for his adherence to the Soviet Union. As we survey the wreckage of European Communism two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seems to me indisputable, however, that Marek himself (and Hobsbawm) may have forgotten some of these lessons. Hobsbawm’s Guardian piece cites Gorbachev and the current president of Italy as the last survivors of the Eurocommunist tradition. Hardly inspiring, especially when we remember the role of many of those connected to Marxism Today in providing intellectual cover for Tony Blair’s abandonment of the basic traditions of the British labour movement. What all these people have in common (with the exception of Gorbachev who doesn’t really fit in my view) is the fact that they downgraded the centrality and inevitability of class struggle, and the primacy of politics, in favour of forms of cultural struggle. This is what lay at the heart of the Eurocommunist (mis)interpretation of Gramsci, where the concept of hegemony was deliberately twisted so as to justify a retreat from traditional forms of political and industrial struggle.

The result? The mass Communist Parties that led the Resistance in France and Italy and that were a major fact of life in each place are but a memory. The PCI no longer exists; there are no Communist MPs in the Italian Parliament. The French CP, meanwhile, has shrunk to less than 2% in the last Presidential election. Of course, we can point to the experience of the former socialist countries and elsewhere to show that those parties that didn’t abandon class politics for Eurocommunism are often doing much worse. But the two strongest CPs in western Europe – the Portugese and the Greek – remain vital parts of the political and general life of their working classes precisely because they have remained true to their principles and to unashamed class politics. This has given them the correct perspective and the confidence to meet the challenges posed by the fall of the USSR without wilting under the impact the way their Eurocommunist equivalents did. In Ireland, The Workers’ Party has severely struggled, but those who abandoned it inspired by the formation of the Italian Democratic Left have proven unable to maintain a separate existence, and the same is true of those who followed the blind alley of British Eurocommunism.

No western European Communist or Workers’ Parties could have altered the outcome of what happened in the eastern bloc states. However, their responses to those events, and the direction of their own politics, were in their own hands. It is only those who held tight to class politics and to the class analysis of the power structures of capitalist society that are providing opposition twenty years on. The Eurocommunists have shown themselves to have repeated the mistakes of the past as far back as Bernstein. When you downplay class politics, you surrender your political soul. Marek, in failing to remember the realities of power, allowed himself to be blinded to the fundamental realities of class struggle, at home and abroad. That is why, admire Marek though I do, I feel Hobsbawm has picked the wrong hero.

The Lost Revolution Book

September 2, 2009

I put the following up on Cedar Lounge Revolution yesterday, having read the new book by Scott Millar and Brian Hanley on the history of The Workers’ Party.

And so the wait is over. Having got my copy, I’ve finished the book within 24 hours, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. The book is extremely easy to read, and time flies by. Given the anticipation surrounding the book, and the amount of discussions we’ve had at CLR about it already, I had expected to write a long review of it (one of several that will appear here I’m sure), but to be honest I don’t really feel the need. That’s not at all to say that I agree with everything the book says. Far from it. So instead, I’ll just give a few thoughts on the book itself, and what it can tell us about the nature of Irish politics, past and present.

The book is extremely well-researched, and includes huge amounts of new detail on some of the major events in Irish history, and the history of the Irish left, in recent decades (I’ve already noted one of these issues, namely Fianna Fáil’s desire to split the IRA in 1969). The authors deserve a huge amount of credit for the research that has gone into this book, and for the attempt to provide a comprehensive account. At 600 pages, it’s massive, but you can see where sections have been edited from longer accounts, so there must also have been a lot left out. It is a strenuous attempt to tell the story as the authors see it of the political and organisational development of The Workers’ Party fully and impartially. The fact that the authors were granted access to Workers’ Party internal documents has made that job a great deal easier, and the authors have certainly taken full advantage of that opportunity. It is certainly not a hatchet job, nor does it sneer at the aims of the people involved the way much writing on the history of socialist republicanism tends to do. Every one interested in Irish politics or the left should read this book.

It seems to me that the bits that add the most to our understanding of modern Irish society, and the history of The Workers’ Party, deal with the political development of the Party as the Republican Movement undertook the process of transforming itself into a revolutionary party from the early 1970s. There is some really good information on the challenges faced by those driving this change, and the bases on which the successes that were achieved were built. I’m thinking especially of the sections on the PAYE protests and the success with which the authors communicate the dedication, effort, vision and sense of purpose that animated the transformation from Republican Movement to Workers’ Party. The feeling that there was an opportunity for changing the nature of Irish politics (in the south at least) and creating a serious party of the working class emanates from the page. If the book brings out some of the verve and positive aspects of being a member of The Workers’ Party, it also demonstrates the risks and dangers too, especially in the north. I suspect that the fact that the 1983 election produced gun attacks on Workers’ Party members’ homes in Belfast will come as a shock to some CLR readers. And yet that was the reality of trying to sustain socialist politics in a sectarian society with different sets of authoritarian sectarian terrorists. People ought certainly to bear that and similar events in mind when they are reading the other parts of this book. The attitude of The Workers’ Party to the northern state is something that can still raise a great deal of debate. It seems to me that many people outside The WP – especially those who have grown in the changed circumstances since 1994 – find it hard to fathom – why did The WP talk to loyalists, why was it so strong in its opposition to violence, how could it support the police, deeply-flawed as it was, etc. Page 311 of this book quotes from a debate in Mornington in 1975 that seems to me to capture the essence of thinking in the North. Three of the four pragmatic considerations listed there shaped policy in a society where workers were being killed for their religion:

(b) To save as many lives as possible (c) To save our personnel and the movement (d) To ensure the continuity of our political line

In terms of Irish politics and society more generally, the book makes clear the extent to which the working class and the poor were ignored, and were voiceless in Irish politics and society. The corrupt and venal nature of the Irish political elite, and the other institutions of society -especially the media and the church heirarchy – also comes across strongly. The book details – albeit without explicitly saying that this is what it is doing – the ways in which many of the scandals that engulfed the south’s ruling elites in the 1990s were brought to light by The Workers’ Party in the Irish People, in the Dáil and elsewhere, sometimes years before the compliant media finally chose to publish the truth. The extent to which the revolutionary socialist vision of The Workers’ Party terrified the establishment also comes across clearly in the book, whether it was the Catholic priests in rural Northern Ireland promoting the Provisionals, or Haughey meeting people from RTÉ on how to handle the “nest of sticky vipers”, or conservative trade union leaders seeking to deprive WP members of the chance to stand for election by refusing leaves of absence, or Fianna Fáil setting up a group tasked with rebuffing The WP threat. It’s clear that the pillars of Irish society since independence – in other words those responsible for the poverty, conservatism, and reactionary nature of a state and society that could not sustain its own population – rightly recognised that the success of The Workers’ Party would mean an end to Ireland as it existed; and that they mobilised their resources against it.

To go back to the book itself then. I have to say I was surprised at times at how little analysis there actually is. I suspect this is due to issues of space, but as I noted above the reader is left to make connections for themselves that might be obvious to people very familiar with this period, but not to everyone. Writing this type of book, where so much depends on anonymous sources, presents major challenges for any author. We need only look at the controversy over Peter Hart’s account of the Kilmichael ambush to see the potential pitfalls. In essence, a book like this involves the authors choosing to provide one or more of competing versions of the same story. In a book that is a narrative such as this one, that can be a problem, because quite often one version is given without much acknowledgement that there are others.

To those of us who are or have been members of The Workers’ Party, we will be able to place the names of those quoted in this book on the spectrum of the various splits, and judge the quotes accordingly. While a person’s politics is sometimes related, this is far from being always the case. And the consequence is that we are often presented with a version drawn from one side or the other, but presented in a straightforward manner. For example, it will be obvious to the likes of me that such and such a person is part of a group of people who decided in the late 1990s to reject the political development of the previous 20 years and who failed in an attempt to take over the Party, and that therefore anything they say about The Workers’ Party and its attitude to policing is deeply coloured by their hatred for the Party leadership; but without the affiliations of interviewees being given, it is not obvious to the average reader. I would have liked the authors to have at least commented on these difficulties somewhere and how they selected what to believe, or given the political affiliation of the named people quoted not only at the time, but subsequently. It is also often unclear when someone is described in the source notes at the end whether someone labelled a WP member is so now, or was at the period under discussion. I assume it’s the latter, but I’m not sure. The book is somewhat different to what I had expected. I had expected there would have been more explanation of people as to why they stayed or went at any given time. Again, I assume this is due to reasons of space and perhaps style. There is a wealth of fascinating material about the differences of opinion within the Republican Movement and Workers’ Party at various stages, and in these accounts, the authors do use their interviews to great effect.

For me, the book offers one overriding lesson. It shows that the only way the working class in Ireland has ever had an effective voice is when there has been a committed, disciplined and organised political party dedicated to the working class above all. As we know before the rise of The Workers’ Party, and since its collapse, the bourgeoisie in Ireland have run the state completely in their own interests, unchallenged. They have got rich on the backs of the workers. The book demonstrates how it was only a Workers’ Party active at the community, political, and social levels that was capable of threatening the consensus that shaped the state, and to which we have returned. Swingeing cuts, workers ripped-off to subsidise the rich, the failure of capitalism to provide sustainable economic growth and employment. Sectarian division allowing reaction to flourish. These were the consequences of an island without class politics. And these are the conditions we face now. The need for a militant party of the working class has never been stronger. The responsibility on those of us on the left to build it has never been greater.

The Ironies of History

June 6, 2009

Back last November, I posted up a review of the film The Baader-Meinhof Complex on Cedar Lounge Revolution. An excellent film it was too, and I think it will be on Sky Movies soon for anyone who has Sky Movies and hasn’t see it. The film recreated the shooting of a student protestor, Benno Ohnesorg, by a policeman in west Berlin during protests against a visit by the Shah. For many students in the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition, this was the moment that the repressive nature of the state was finally revealed, and it radicalised many, and contributed to the dynamic that led to the emergence of the Red Army Faction. And now it transpires that the policeman who shot the student, Karl-Heinz Kurras (who was twice acquitted of manslaughter), was a member of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, the ruling party of the GDR, and was working for the Stasi as an agent in west Berlin.

While some have claimed that this means the GDR was responsible, the director of the Federal government’s Stasi archives, points out that not only is there no evidence that the Stasi ordered the shooting, but that the Stasi cut contacts with Kurras afterwards. Presumably this was for fear of a revelation that he was an agent raising military tensions on the front line of the Cold War. While there will be those who construct a conspiracy theory around this revelation, it seems to me unlikely that this was anything more than what the Stasti called it – an “unlucky accident”.

Herr Kurras had a simple response when contacted by the press about these revelations

“And what if I did work for them? What does it matter? It doesn’t change anything.”

I admire his bluntness, and I’m inclined to agree.

How History and Myth are created: An Example

June 2, 2009

Lalkar 1

As we all know, 1989 saw the collapse of the socialist states in eastern Europe, as well as the Chinese state not collapsing but employing military force against a challenge to its authority. These events are popularly know as the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the memory in the west, based on reporting at the time, is of tanks rolling over and shooting students in the Square. The image above, taken from Lalkar for May/June 2009 (the paper has its own website if anyone wants to follow it up and read the whole thing), is of an article from its August/September 1989 edition that challenged this narrative, accusing the western media of fabrication, and which unambiguously supported the Chinese government. It comes, effectively, from the CPGB (M-L), whose main figure is Harpal Brar, formerly resident in Dublin and of whom more can be read in the Left Archive.

I have posted the above image only because of this story from the BBC’s Beijing correspondent of the time, James Miles. Miles openly states that he and the other western journalists are responsible for the creation of a myth of a massacre in the Square, based on false testimony from locals. He does however state that they got the story generally right. This is on the grounds that violence did take place elsewhere in the city, and that their description of the aims of the protestors were correct.

The whole thing is an interesting insight into the nature of journalism, political progaganda, and the formation of public opinion and memory. Worth thinking about for our own island when we see so much history being falsified and adjusted to current political concerns, especially in the north. At one level, this is fairly harmless, such as when Gerry Adams mistakenly recollects singing a song in gaol that had not yet been released while he was there. At another level, it is a lot more harmful, such as when the discriminatory practices of the unionist regime are whitewashed or when state brutality is covered up or the sectarian realities of many murders and bombings are denied, either by politicians or academics. Competing versions of Irish history will always exist, but they don’t have to be a poison sickening the body politic.

The Sunday Independent and Factual Inaccuracy

May 31, 2009

Also Posted at Cedar Lounge

The following comes from a story by Jim Cusack in today’s web edition of the Sunday Independent.

One of the key incidents in the outset of the Troubles in 1969 was the sectarian murder of a Protestant man, Billy King, who was kicked to death by Catholic rioters outside his home in the Fountain area of Derry.

Billy King, who was killed in September 1969, and Kevin McDaid, who was kicked to death last Sunday, were both aged 49 and both the fathers of four children. Neither was involved in any form of militancy and both were killed merely because of their religious backgrounds.

The killing of Billy King and several other Protestants by Catholics prompted the retaliatory violence by Protestants, who invaded Catholic areas of Belfast, leading to the British government’s decision to call in the British army as the then under-strength Royal Ulster Constabulary was on the verge of collapse.

Leaving aside the fact that the final paragraph makes no sense due to a grammatical error, this is utter nonsense. The British Army was sent onto the streets of Northern Ireland in August 1969 in response to attacks by loyalist and state forces on the Bogside and subsequent rioting elsewhere in the North, especially Belfast and Armagh. Cusack has a very bad track record on factual accuracy, but this version of events is so grossly wrong as to completely misrepresent reality, and in essence blames northern Catholics for the bigoted and vicious behaviour of reactionary unionism in this period. Frankly, someone who claims to be an expert on Northern Ireland who writes this nonsense ought to be sacked.

The End of History?

December 16, 2008


Couldn’t resist that title/groan-inducing pun for a post about the precipitous decline in the numbers of schools teaching history at A Level, and even at GCSE in Northern Ireland, as reported by the Irish News (link will probably soon require subs). In a country as obsessed with its history as Northern Ireland, it seems incredible that a quarter of all secondary schools are opting out of A-Level history, while 20 schools, around 10%, are not offering GCSE history. Although history remains a strong subject – about 8% of pupils sit it for A Level – its future (and the future of those who teach it at both secondary and tertiary level) is obviously endangered if schools continue to cut it. There is also a class divide emerging, with history weakest in the non-grammar schools, where it seems students are being encouraged to take vocational qualifications and perceived softer subjects, like media studies.

This raises a number of issues for the Left. The first relates to the question what is an education for – is it, or should it be, mainly for the production of technologically proficient and compliant workers who never think about broader societal issues, or should it be to create more rounded individuals who can function as good citizens. There is also the issue of how young people come to political consciousness. In this day and age, when politics is presented purely as managerialism, when political, let alone class consciousness is low, and the left has difficulty getting its message across in a culture saturated with the likes of Lindsey Lohan’s sex life and the X Factor, it is less likely than it has been for decades that young people will think seriously about politics. The study of history – of issues like the Russian Revolution, Hitler’s Germany, the French Revolution, and Irish history – exposes them to the ideas that have motivated progressive forces in the past, and often gives young people their first introduction to the political and social factors that have shaped the world they grew up in. If large numbers of young people – especially working-class young people – no longer encounter these ideas during their education, then the left will suffer for it in the long run. In a place like NI, where the left already struggles desperately, this is a very worrying trend.

Casement Questions

December 10, 2008

After one of my earlier posts on Roger Casement in November, some people have taken the time to write to me with more details, for which I’m grateful. They have brought to my attention a number of questions surrounding the tests that were carried out a few years ago as part of W.J. McCormack’s project on the Black Diaries, and which claimed to have definitively proven that they were genuine. Other forensic experts have challenged the methodology on which those tests were done. I am posting below a number of links where the arguments against the reliability of these tests is made, in the interest of full information, and so that people can make up their minds for themselves. The new information certainly is worth serious consideration, and I think it is also important to note that the objections to the diaries for many people are genuine concerns, and are not connected to other agendas, and certainly not homophobia.

Horan questions

Matley and Mannerings Questions are here (I can’t get a hyperlink to work for some reason, but it works when I paste this
in the browser)

An additional point that has been raised in correspondence is the fact that that the McCormack project claimed that Raman spectroscopy would be destructive of the documents, but that in fact a UK company called Foster and Freeman had produced a machine which it claimed would not be destructive before the tests were carried out.

Hope these are of interest to people.

Remember the Somme (but forget the GPO): Myers and Memory

November 15, 2008

As I was saying, the whole obsession with the poppy and the uncritical celebration of imperialist war around Remembrance Day drives me up the wall. Imagine then how delighted I was to see Kevin Myers demand we all remember those from Ireland who died serving in the British Army during the two world wars (though he ignores the fact the money from the poppy goes to the veterans of other, often nakedly colonial, conflicts). Myers cleverly picks people who died during World War II, and tells their stories. No-one in their right mind can deny the Second World War was a just one, so anyone who rejects his argument can be easily smeared. Utterly, utterly cynical. I’ll skip the extended rant this deserves, instead I will just say that I’ve never noticed Myers extend the same courtesy to those during the period 1916-23 who died in pursuit of recognition of the democratically-expressed wish of the Irish people for greater independence from Britain. I do wonder about some people some times.

Satanic Verses? Me on The Devil’s Whore and Ronan Bennett at Cedar Lounge Revolution

November 14, 2008

See here for a discussion of an article by Ronan Bennett on Channel Four’s forthcoming TV show The Devil’s Whore, set during the period 1640-1660.