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'Screamingly Funny in its Absurdity'

Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution, Alan Woods
London: Well Red Publications, 2005

Book Review


Liam O Ruairc • 9 March 2006

More than twenty years ago, every group on the British left used to publish books outlining their position on the Irish conflict. However, very few bothered to do so since. So it is significant that Alan Woods, one of the leaders of Ted Grant's Committee for a Marxist International, recently published a book on what he calls the "revolutionary dialectic of republicanism". Also significant is the space he devotes in it to the IRSM, as many groups tended to ignore that organisation. The IRSP has been in contact with Alan Woods' political tendency for a few years, and our Political Secretary has written a foreword to this book. But unfortunately the book is very weak.

The first problem is that in terms of analysis Woods is often crude. For example his analysis of the causes of partition (66-67) or alleged moves towards integration of North and South during the 1960s (83, 108) is highly questionable (For a more sophisticated approach of those issues see Paul Bew and Henry Patterson The State in Northern Ireland: political forces and social classes, Manchester University Press 1979, pp.62-70 and 129-133).

His analysis of class divisions during the war of independence, treaty and civil war has been undermined by historical research. (See Richard English, Nationalism and the Class Question in his Radicals and the Republic: Socialist Republicanism in the Irish Free State, Oxford University Press, 1994, pp.1-66) Alan Woods would probably defend himself by saying that he is not a professional historian or expert on Ireland, but is writing as a Marxist militant, and that his book should be judged in terms of its contribution to the debates within Irish Marxism. But here again, he is on weak grounds.

He shows no familiarity with the various debates on Ireland within the different schools Marxism (he should check: John Martin, The Conflict in Northern Ireland: Marxist Interpretations in the journal Capital and Class). And his knowledge of Connolly, and the various polemics his work gave rise to, is weak. For example, Woods writes:

"In the First World War, Connolly pursued a consistently internationalist line. Although he had no direct contact with Lenin, the two men instinctively adopted the same position from the outbreak of the hostilities." (53)

But this is simply not true. Whatever the internationalist propaganda written during the first six months of the war, or the initial slogan of serving neither King nor Kaiser, Connolly's position rapidly moved from a declared stance of neutrality to an intensely partisan, pro-German position. Connolly welcomed German victories because the weaker Britain became, "the stronger became every revolutionary force". German victories for Connolly were the victories "of the most enlightened nation in Europe...whose democracy is most feared by the cunning capitalists of the world." The German working class "had advanced nearest to the capture of the citadel of capitalism" (Irish Worker, 5 September).

Connolly's opinion did not change later. In the Workers Republic (9 February 1916) he published an extraordinary article by an American, Frederick C. Howe, which ran two full pages of the paper praising the virtues of "German State Socialism". It was this 'State Socialism', Connolly claimed in his article, Secrets of Germany's success-state socialism, that explained Germany's successes in the war. In one of the last articles written by Connolly, he argued that the German Empire was 'a homogenous Empire of self-governing peoples' which contained 'in germ more of the possibilities of freedom and civilisation' than the British (Workers Republic, 18 March 1916).

Indeed in the final issue of the Workers' Republic a week before the Easter Rising, (in an article included in Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh's Connolly: Lost Writings), Connolly hailed "the wonderful fight being made by the Germans against odds" and inclined to the conclusion that "the German Nation is incomparably superior to any nation in Europe." It was not Lenin who appealed to Connolly, but rather Lenin's life long opponent, the Polish Socialist leader Joseph Pilsudski, who also had allied himself militarily with Germany and Austria and against Russia in order to fight for an independent Poland. Connolly applauded Pilsudski's Polish Legion for fighting alongside Germany against Russia as a contingent on the Austrian army. (see Workers Republic, 15 April 1916) This illustrates the fact that Woods' grasp of Connolly and debates within Irish Marxism is clearly limited and insufficient.

Alan Woods' understanding of the dynamics of Republicanism in general, and Provisionalism in particular, is unsatisfactory. His argument is based on the distinction between "left and right republicanism" (75). However this is inadequate as the fundamental opposition is that between revolutionary republicanism and reformist constitutional nationalism. This was Peadar O Donnell's point, when he opposed De Valera not because he wasn't a socialist, but because he was pretending to be a republican while really being a constitutional nationalist.

Alan Woods is extremely hostile to the Provisionals, who are the 'villains' of the book so to speak. For him they are a "bourgeois right-wing trend in Republicanism" (111). However the fundamental problem with the Provisionals is that they belonged more to the tradition of Catholic defenderism and nationalism than that of Republicanism. According to Woods, the Provisionals are a product of a bourgeois conspiracy:

"It was the Southern state intelligence services that set up and organised the Provisionals. The money and the guns of the Provos were supplied through the agency of two right-wing ministers in the Dublin government." (86)

Woods's understanding of the arms crisis is approximate and superficial. There has been considerable debate about the role of Fianna Fail in financing the Provisionals and the extent to which the former was responsible for the development of the latter (See Justin O Brien, The Arms Trial, Dublin: Gill&Macmillan, 2001 for the most serious treatment of the question). This remains highly speculative and cannot displace defence as the primary determinant in the formation of the organisation, and offers a conspiratorial distinct from a structural rationale for the formation of the Provos. August 1969, not Fianna Fail machinations was the central reason for the formation of Provisional IRA (Point made clearly by Anthony McIntyre, A Structural Analysis of Modern Irish Republicanism 1969 - 1973: thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Faculty of Economic and Social Sciences, Queens University Belfast, 1999).

Woods omits to mention that the Officials also benefited from the financial backing of the same two "right-wing ministers in the Dublin government". Cathal Goulding asked them for £50 000 and was promised £1500 on account in 1969 (See Henry Patterson, The Politics of Illusion for more details). Woods reduces the Republican armed struggle to acts of 'individual terrorism' (pp.117ff). For all his opposition to the 'individual terrorism' of the IRA, Woods should take note that Trotsky said that "under conditions of civil war, the assassination of individual oppressors ceases to be an act of individual terror" (Leon Trotsky, Their Moral and Ours, New Park, 1968, p.46). The conditions in the six counties were those of open conflict. In that context, the armed struggle is qualitatively different from individual acts of terrorism. As Connolly put it: "we believe that in times of war we should act as in war".

Woods also mentions on three occasions that the Provisionals engaged in the burning of left-wing books (pp 15, 87, 111). This looks apocryphal given that there were at least eleven copies of Lenin's State and Revolution and many copies of the Communist Manifesto in the Provisional IRA's library in Long Kesh; as well as hundreds of Marxist Leninist titles (Cfr. Kirsty Scott, Men of Letters, Men of Arms, The Guardian 2 December 2000).

Woods' strategic alternative to 'individual terrorism' is based on the primacy of trade union work and the construction of 'a party of labour based on trade unions' (124). For Woods, trade unions

"are probably the only real non-sectarian mass organisations that still exist. This is the base upon which we can build! That would undoubtedly be the message of James Connolly, were he alive at this time." (134)

The problem here is that his assumption is that sectarianism and trade unionism are opposites. Sectarianism is seen to exist outside trade unionism, or if inside, a regrettable aberration. But sectarianism and trade unionism are not opposites, except in the realms of abstract analysis. Trade unions in a sectarian society cannot remain insulated from the society of which they are part. In 1971 for example, a militant engineers' march against the British Government's Industrial Relations Act was led by Billy Hull. Just weeks later, the same shop steward led the same workers out on a march to demand internment and repression.

There is a whole literature about the development of sectarian trade unionism and about the mutual acceptance between unionism and trade unions. The first problem facing activists in the unions is that of a divided clientele and an institutionally divided movement. Woods appeals to the tradition of Larkin and Connolly. James Larkin had some successes in 1907 not least because he was an official of an English union, and therefore less open to attack by Loyalists on grounds of national allegiance. Connolly was far less successful. For example, his organising of mine workers in Larne were thwarted overnight once workers discovered that he represented a Southern union; which resulted in the miners not only abandoning Connolly, but the strike as well. When Larkin criticised Connolly for not making as much headway as he had, Connolly's reply was instructive:

"...he (Larkin) is for ever snarling at me and drawing comparisons between what he accomplished in Belfast in 1907, and what I have done, conveniently ignoring the fact that he was then the secretary of an English organisation, and that as soon as he started an Irish one his union fell to pieces, and he had to leave members to their fate." (Levenson, James Connolly biography, 221)

The second problem is that with a divided movement, taking political stances outside purely trade union issues would drive away one section or another of the divided clientele. The trade union movement only exists on the basis of least common denominator between workers. 'Politics' have to be avoided. So for instance, the trade union movement has been reluctant to take up the issue of repression because it would alienate Protestant workers. A few trade unionists set up the Trade Unions Committee Against Repression. When Brian Maguire, a AUEW/TASS TUCAR activist, was found hanged while in police custody in 1978, the trade union movement was notorious for its self-castration on the issue fearing to alienate orange workers. Woods does not mention this incident.

However, he makes a great deal of the fact that in August 1969 a meeting of trade unionists in Harland and Wolff declared their opposition to sectarianism (pp 88, 123). Referring to this incident, even a labour historian sympathetic to Woods' view maintains that "there is a danger here of exaggerating the trade union contribution. The number of Catholic workers in the shipyards for example had fallen dramatically since 1969..." (Civil strife and the growth of trade union activity: the case of Ireland, Government and Opposition, issue 4, 1973, p.407).

Woods should meditate Connolly's conclusions about trade unions in the North:

"The historical backgrounds of the movement in England and Ireland are so essentially different that...the phrases and watchwords which might serve to express the soul of the movement in one country may possibly stifle its soul and suffocate its expression in the other...the doctrine that, because the workers of Belfast live under the same industrial conditions as those of Great Britain, they are subject to the same passions and to be influenced by the same methods of propaganda is a doctrine almost screamingly funny in its absurdity."

The most questionable part of the book is the part dealing with the British left (110-112). The majority of organisations on the British left are a variety of Trotskyite groups which, in common with Trotsky on the Irish revolution, have an abstract and idealist understanding of the Irish question. However Woods presents Trotsky as if he had been a defender of the 1916 Rising instead of one of its detractors (57). It was against the likes of Trotsky that Lenin wrote his defence of the 1916 Rising.

Alan Woods castigates the British left for supporting the sending of troops to the North in 1969. According to him a "honourable exception" (110) was the Militant Tendency (to which Woods and Grant belong), and this political tendency "has a proud record on Ireland": "We were the only consistent ones who opposed the sending in of British troops in 1969." (112). Woods goes on to quote a resolution they tried to pass at a 1969 Labour Party conference and a September 1969 article from The Militant newspaper.

However, he omits to mention that the same article supported the introduction of British troops under guise of preventing a 'blood bath':

"A slaughter would have followed in comparison with which the blood-letting in Belfast would have paled into insignificance if the Labour Government had not intervened with British troops." (Militant, September 1969)

In fact, the IMG (to mention just one organisation) had explicitly opposed the sending of troops (see USFI statement, September 1969). It is dishonest for Alan Woods to rewrite history as if the political tendency to which he belongs was supportive of the anti-imperialist struggle in Ireland because it has a disgraceful record as it was the group on the British left which was the most vehemently opposed and hostile to the liberation struggle in the North. No wonder that Woods does not venture beyond 1969. He wouldn't be able to point to any progressive intervention his political tendency made during the 1981 hunger strikes for example.

Woods then attacks the rest of the British left for "uncritical support for the Provisional IRA" and ignoring the Republican Socialist tendency (111). This is laughable. The only groups on the British left who gave any real support for liberation struggle and the IRA were the RCG/Irish Solidarity Movement, RCP/Irish Freedom Movement, Red Action, the Leninists of the CPGB/Hands Off Ireland. The rest of the left came with inanities about 'individual terrorism', 'petit bourgeois' etc. Far from ignoring the Republican Socialist Movement, members of Red Action have been jailed for participating in INLA activities, and the Leninists of the CPGB held a number of joint schools and statements with the IRSP.

It is unfortunate that Alan Woods nowhere explains why his political tendency made a U turn in its position on Ireland. There is nothing wrong about being mistaken, everyone makes mistakes. But he should have admitted it, a dishonest piece of revisionist rewriting of history will never win anyone to his political line.



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