The Blanket

What Chance Socialism?

Anthony McIntyre • 3/6/2002

Lens is a French town, coal mining and working class, that has spawned a culture which for long was conducive to nurturing strong left wing sentiment. In what seems like an act of keeping faith with the past the town is currently fronted by a Socialist Party mayor, Guy Delcourt. Not everyone there sees the past through rose-red tinted lenses and the mayoralty of Delcourt sits perched astride a chasm being prised ever wider beneath it - socialists on one side glaring across at right wing supporters of Jean Marie Le Pen facing them. Joe Klein attended a meeting of the Socialist Party in Lens. It was no real surprise to find him reaching conclusions similar to those already discovered in Belfast and Dublin. The socialists, he mused 'have no idea how irrelevant they've become'.

Most people have heard some variation of the following joke - the leader of one of the sects within Belfast Trotskyism borrows ten pence saying he needs it to phone a follower; the lender tosses him twenty and says 'call them all'. Yesterday, a friend, Liam, brought over a couple of papers from the sects. Why he bothered I have no idea; probably to wind me up. They never get read here, always reminding me of the little religious tracts that the occasional born again Christian with the Board Of Visitors would bring around while we were on the blanket protest for the sole purpose of tormenting us. A torment rapidly transformed into delight by the wing smokers who used the pages as cigarette papers. The message of the tract was invariably 'read this and agree with us or you will forever suffer hellfire and damnation'. Said out loud in a coarse, broad North of Ireland accent and the effect becomes even more pronounced. How easily Christians can glide from born again to burn again if you don't agree with them.

Left wing sect members are not much different. Marx once said that the sects proliferate when there is nothing progressive happening. Ours are so impoverished in the quality stakes that they don't even proliferate here where there is certainly nothing progressive going on, and would have fewer members than their religious counterparts waiting in the narrow streets of Belfast's city centre to ambush any misfortunate and hand them a leaflet with some psalm on it while gruffly inquiring 'are ye saved yet?'

Anyway, the papers that Liam brought were so dull from all perspectives that my daughter rather than tearing them up, as is the normal fate for the papers she gets her hands upon, scattered them across the floor - and what is it they say about truth and the mouths of babes? A while ago myself and Liam went to a Left unity conference in Dublin. But it was like sitting in at a meeting of the vertically horizontal society, a veritable consensus seeker's Purgatory. Besides, left unity would spoil the party - what could they do with unity? What purpose would they have in their lives if they couldn't shout 'bourgeois deviationist ... social democratic centrist ... Menshevik' at each other? What appeal would there be for them in a political existence where there was no place for the joyous pastime of purging the ideological unclean on the grounds of what Trotsky said: 'the party in the last analysis is always right ... one must not be right against the party. One can only be right with the party, and through the party'. No purges, no ideological errors to correct, nobody to lord it over - the sect member's ultimate nightmare. In any event we could hardly contain ourselves in Dublin as the Spartacus League howled 'defend China ... Ken Livingstone is an imperialist pig.' What one had to do with the other I remain unsure. And then some boring bureaucratic type from Belgium united us all - in sleep. No wonder the sects never transmit ideas when all but the most devout of listeners fall unconscious during the delivery of yet another turgid testimony.

Caught in Corn Market one Friday morning with a friend, Alex, as we waited on his partner and child, ''Brother Bobby Brown'' from East Belfast took to the bandstand and invited us to share in his Damascus Road conversion to the Lord. Now Brother Bobby was hard to listen to but we heard him out in wonderment at what propels someone onto bandstands, when there are pubs open just across the street, to regale passers by with their testimony which virtually no one apart from our two cynical selves appeared vaguely interested in. As uninspiring as Brother Bobby was the Dublin experience with Comrade Trot was immeasurably duller. Small surprise that Gerry Healy of the Workers Revolutionary Party (seriously, they did call themselves that) in his leadership era livened matters up a bit through a touch of hanky-panky with the membership. At least the worst those of us unhappy with the Sinn Fein leadership can say is that our Gerry only screws us politically. No doubt things were explained to the sceptical as merely a tactical variation of entryism, situated in the practical application of a dialectical blend of Marx and Freud - recasting revolutionary strategy in the form of a new National Libido Front for Tooting.

Socialism, if defined as bringing capital under democratic control must have a future. For Marx certainly had a point in warning either 'socialism or barbarism'. That so many of its would-be-beneficiaries seem repelled from it is not because of any great job those who favour capitalism have done in destroying the intellectual and ethical merit of socialism, but lies in the appalling case made for it by the Left. Arm the most mediocre minds with a totalising ideology and allow them to believe it is a grand metanarrative which can explain everything - and another self-important and self referential fundamentalist cult is then in business. That it has only two or three members is neither here nor there, it alone has the 'truth' which it shall endeavour to inflict on the rest of us. Is it any wonder that socialist ideas are in the doldrums when an intellectual caricature can command a central place in socialist discourse, despite the rich intellectual heritage socialism clearly possesses?

While in prison I recall going through an Open University course where the case study dealt with a meeting of an English left sect. Four there belonged to the various state security agencies while three attended because they believed in it. It is hard to imagine that the state would spend time spying on that crowd when, as spook and Spycatcher author Peter Wright said, there are ponds of quacking ducks more dangerous who could be subjected to some underwater surveillance. One can only conclude that the security services had penetrated the sects not to monitor them but to assist them in the promotion of the socialist message - a sure way of ensuring no one would ever receive it. While the sects continue to operate as the public face of the radical left then rampaging capitalism can relax and smirk contently, comforted by the thought, 'what chance socialism?'







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'I am neither an adversary nor a partisan of Marxism;
I question it about what it has to say about experiences that ask questions of it'
- Michel Foucault


Index: Current Articles

13 June 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Interface Violence

Billy Mitchell

What Chance Socialism?
Anthony McIntyre


Was Monday 29th April the day democracy died in the ATGWU?
Sean Smyth


9 June 2002


Pleading Guilty

Anthony McIntyre


A Missed Opportunity for Segregation

Liam O'Ruairc


Working Together

Marian Price (IRPWA)


After the General Elections, What Future for Sinn Féin?

Bob Shepherd


The War on Terrorism & the Irish Factor

MN Kelly



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