Monday, 29 May 2017

The IRA, Briefing, Me and Corbyn's Labour Party

It was fairly obvious, the Tories would attack Jeremy Corbyn for his past positions on Ireland and the IRA. That attack had already been launched prior to the Manchester terror attack, but it has opened up the opportunity for the Tories, and Tory media, to again attack Corbyn, and others, like McDonnell and Diane Abbott, on the basis of guilt by association. They attacked Corbyn, and asked him to apologise for an old article that appeared in London Labour Briefing, falsely claiming that Corbyn was on its Editorial Board, and so bore responsibility for it. That in itself is an illogical stance to take, but, in any case, Corbyn had not been on Briefing's Editorial Board.

At the time this was being discussed, on the TV, I said to my son, “He wasn't, but I was!” My son asked, “So, do you have anything you want to apologise for?” To which I replied, “I'm sure there are plenty of things I got wrong back then, but nothing I can think of that I would apologise for.”

In fact, as I told him, I was on the National Editorial Board of National Labour Briefing, as opposed to London Labour Briefing. Labour Briefing itself, at the time, brought together a number of organisations, and the National Labour Briefing brought together representatives of Labour Briefing groups from around the country. 

The meetings were held usually, once a month, at Digbeth Civic Hall, in Birmingham, though the inaugural meeting, and some others, were held at County Hall in London. As a member of Socialist Organiser, at the time, there were a number of articles that were printed in the magazine that I disagreed with, but that is part of being in an organisation that represents disparate views. The task of an Editorial Board is not to prevent publication of articles that some, or all, of the Editors disagree with. On most occasions, before the meetings I would meet with the other Socialist Organiser supporter on the Editorial Board, John Bloxham, to agree what our line would be, and what we thought were the most important items to try to line up the Editorial Board behind.

So, what was the situation in relation to Ireland, the IRA and the British state? As a supporter of Socialist Organiser, I held to the line the organisation and its predecessors had held for some years. Workers Fight, one of the predecessor organisations of Socialist Organiser had split from the International Socialists, in the 1970's, shortly before I joined the organisation. At the time I joined, it had fused with Workers Power, which had also split from IS, though not long after I joined, the two organisations split again. At the time I joined, the organisation operated under the banner of Workers Action.

A key factor, in the split with IS, had been over the question of Ireland. The question demarcated Workers Action from both IS and the other main left group of the time, the Militant Tendency. When in 1969, British troops went into the North of Ireland, they were initially welcomed by the nationalist community, who were a minority facing severe communal violence at the hands of the loyalist majority. In the 1960's, a large part of liberal sentiment, across Britain, sympathised with the plight of the nationalist minority that faced discrimination in almost every aspect of life, in a situation where Protestant Unionists dominated the major industries, as well as controlling the Northern Ireland trades unions, and where those Unionists had an in built electoral majority, across the six counties as a whole, but also had voting privileges over the Catholics. 

In many ways, the situation facing Catholics, in the North of Ireland, was similar to the situation facing blacks in the US, particularly in the Southern US. When Northern Ireland Catholics began to mobilise in similar civil rights movements to those in the US, under the leadership of people like Bernadette Devlin, therefore, it was quite normal for liberals in Britain to sympathise with that movement. I certainly remember, at school, during the 1960's, my school teachers, who were far from being left-wing socialists, being sympathetic to Devlin, and there being a number of morning assemblies that focussed on “Man's Inhumanity to Man”, which discussed the situation in the US, in Ireland, and in South Africa in similar terms. Of course, although the Black Panthers were organising more militant resistance, in the US, the only one of these three, at that time, where actual violent resistance was being offered was in South Africa, by the ANC, and where today's global treasure, Nelson Mandela, was considered, by Tories, and all right thinking people, as being a dangerous terrorist.

The response of Unionists, to the growing civil rights movement, was to launch communal attacks on Catholics. As the situation began to spiral out of control, in 1969, the Labour Government of Harold Wilson sent in the troops to hold the ring. It was under those conditions that the troops were welcomed by Catholic communities. But, it did not take long for that situation to change. In 1969, the IRA were almost non-existent. The Official IRA, which was Stalinist, had turned exclusively to electoral politics, which, in a condition where basic democratic rights were systematically undermined, was never likely to be a strategy that met the needs of the nationalist community.

The Provisional IRA had emerged as essentially a Catholic defence force, in a climate when the Catholic community was under attack from Protestant paramilitaries, and where the British troops were increasingly seen to be, at best, standing aside from such attacks, and at worst, as with Bloody Sunday, were seen as an extension of those Protestant paramilitary groups, whose ties to the police were so close that it was hard to know where one ended and the other began.

The split of Workers Fight from IS had not just been over Ireland, but also over the collapse of IS into a form of left nationalism over the EEC. Throughout the 1960's, the Trotskyist Left, in Britain, had held to a position of active abstention in relation to the question of Britain's membership of the Common Market. Workers Fight summed up the position in a pamphlet entitled “In or Out, The Fight Goes On.” It essentially argued that workers had no reason to vote for or against joining the EEC, because both were capitalist structures. The problems that workers, in Britain, faced would not be resolved by joining the Common Market, but nor was the British capitalist state, in some way, a better structure for workers that they should support, simply on the basis that it was British!

But, when the issue came centre stage in the mid 1970's, with the 1975 referendum, sections of the Left, including IS and Militant capitulated to nationalist Little Englander sentiment, as the Labour Left around Tribune, Tony Benn and the still influential Communist Party, became the centre of the NO campaign. The capitulation of IS and Militant was essentially an attempt not to lose the periphery of worker militants they had built around them, during the previous period, many of whom were being drawn by the pulling power of the Bennite Left.

But, this sentiment also impacted these organisations in relation to Ireland. The Left, throughout the 1960's, had held to the position that the North of Ireland was an occupied part of Ireland, that Britain had no right to be there, and that it should be united with the rest of Ireland. For so long as the campaign for such a movement was limited to the civil rights movement, and was able to win the support even of British liberals, for at least those civil rights, if not for a United Ireland, it was easy to advocate that the people of Ireland, as a whole, like the people of any other part of Britain's old colonial empire, had the right to self-determination.

Elsewhere in the globe, that anti-colonial struggle had also taken a violent turn, for example, with the Mau Mau in Kenya. I remember, in the 1950's, our next door neighbour, who was in the army at that time, brought me back a Mau Mau bow and arrow. War crimes were committed on both sides, but most of the war crimes committed by the British army only came to light years later. Many of the tactics and strategies developed by Britain in Kenya, were, however, also utilised in Northern Ireland.

But, it was much easier for middle class liberals to defend abstract principles of bourgeois freedom, such as self-determination, when it related to events thousands of miles away than when the same thing was happening just 50 miles away, across the Irish Sea, especially when those events began to be felt on the British mainland itself. When the Provisional IRA began to fight back, against not only the pogroms that nationalist communities faced from loyalist paramilitaries, but also against what, increasingly, was seen as support for those paramilitaries by the British state, and when that fight back took the form of shootings of British soldiers, bombings and so on, the inevitable reaction to those acts, from British workers, whipped up by an overwhelmingly Tory press caused sections of the Left to take fright at the possibility that their hopes for “building the party”, that they had harboured for the previous twenty years, as they had started to win some measure of support from industrial militants, would be destroyed.

Thousands of Parisian workers were murdered by the French
state when the Paris Commune fell.
The question had never been about the Left supporting terrorism. The Bolshevik position had been established long before. Lenin's brother had been executed, having taken part in a terroristic attempt, by the Narodniks, to assassinate the Tsar. It influenced Lenin's own hostility to terrorism. He argued against the individual terroristic acts of groups such as the anarchists, “The difference between us and the anarchists is that they go in for violence retail, whereas we Bolsheviks go in for it wholesale.” In other words, the Bolsheviks opposed individual acts of terror as being adventurist and counter-productive, whereas the Bolsheviks only supported violence as part of a revolutionary overthrow, a violence they knew they would be forced to adopt, given the experience of the violence used by the ruling class, and its state against the Paris Commune.

Lenin made this same point in relation to the struggle of oppressed colonial peoples too. In the Theses on the National and Colonial Questions he writes, 

“fifth, the need for a determined struggle against attempts to give a communist colouring to bourgeois-democratic liberation trends in the backward countries; the Communist International should support bourgeois-democratic national movements in colonial and backward countries only on condition that, in these countries, the elements of future proletarian parties, which will be communist not only in name, are brought together and trained to understand their special tasks, i.e., those of the struggle against the bourgeois-democratic movements within their own nations. The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement even if it is in its most embryonic form;” 

That meant that communists would support the right of colonial peoples to fight for their liberation from colonial powers, but that did not at all mean supporting, let alone throwing their lot in with, any old forces engaged in such a struggle.  In fact, he also says,

"second, the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries;

third, the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc."

That, of course, is quite at odds with the idiot anti-imperialism that sections of the Left have fallen into, in the last thirty years. It also means that we do not feel in any way bound to support the specific tactics and actions undertaken by any of those organisations involved in such struggles. On the contrary, where such organisations are identified as being hostile to the interests of the working-class, we have a duty to say so, and to try to build truly revolutionary alternatives to them. It means that we criticise the specific actions of those organisations, where they are, in fact, counter-productive.

In the end, we support the bourgeois-democratic right of self-determination for nations, but it is always and everywhere subordinate to our larger goal of building working-class unity, and organising a struggle not for national self-determination, but for working-class self-determination, and self-government.

The IS, then as now, failed to make these distinctions. Today, it confuses our duty to support the right of oppressed peoples to fight for their liberation, with a duty to support whatever reactionary forces appoint themselves as the representatives of such struggles, and to support whatever methods those organisations choose to adopt. So, it leads them to make ridiculous statements, such as, “We are all Hizbollah Now”. It leads them to act as cheerleaders for some of the most reactionary regimes and organisations on the planet, simply on the basis of a claim to be “anti-imperialist.”

And, in the case of Ireland, it fell into exactly this kind of position, until such time as the shootings and bombings by the IRA, started to provoke a backlash within the British working-class. Then, as it had done in relation to the EEC, it made a rapid zig-zag. Communists had no duty to support the Provisional IRA, which was, and is, a petit-bourgeois nationalist organisation, whose own politics were largely influenced by Catholic ideology. When the inadequate politics of the PIRA then led it down the road of individual acts of terrorism, that should have made no difference to the attitude of communists to the right of the Irish people themselves to self-determination, the right to free themselves of British rule, and the right to a United Ireland.

Communists had no duty to support the counter-productive acts of PIRA, any more than they had a duty to support the war crimes of the Mau Mau, or the terrorist attacks of Nelson Mandela, and the ANC. But, our criticism of those acts is made in the light of the difference between the violence that the oppressed are led into, and the violence of powerful capitalist states, ranged against them, with massive firepower. 

There could be no real equivalence between the war crimes committed by the Mau Mau, and their bows and arrows, and the war crimes committed by the British state against them, let alone the crimes committed against the people of Kenya, and the rest of the British Empire, over several centuries. Nor could there be any real equivalence between the violence employed by Mandela and the ANC as against the violence used against the people of South Africa by the apartheid state.

Nor could there be any equivalence between the violence employed by the PIRA, and the violence of the British state against the Northern Irish nationalist community that included daily home invasions of Catholic homes, random assaults on Catholic youths, internment of Catholics, in the same way it had been used, in British concentration camps, during the Boer War, and in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion, and the targeted assassination of Republicans, by British Special Forces, as documented in the film “Death On The Rock”. 

And, the position I held, at the time, was based on precisely those ideas and principles. There was no reason for Marxists to support the PIRA, because it was not a truly revolutionary organisation, of the type that Lenin describes. Its acts actually drove towards communalism, that acted against the need to build working-class unity, across the whole of Ireland, and if possible across the whole of Britain. It remained necessary to build such a truly revolutionary organisation of the working-class. But, the question of the border could not be ignored, because it dominated all political life, and itself acted to divide the working-class. Marxists had to continue to argue for a United Ireland, as the expression of the right of self-determination of the whole Irish people, and that necessarily meant arguing that Britain had no place in Ireland, that the troops had to be withdrawn, that no military solution was possible, and that Britain should relinquish its claim to Northern Ireland. 

It was not easy to argue that position. I remember in the early 1980's, I was involved in producing a regular unemployed workers bulletin called Dole Mirror. A couple of blokes from Kidsgrove began to talk to me at the local dole, and became involved in producing and distributing it. It turned out that one of these blokes was a soldier who had been badly injured by the IRA, I won't use his name, because I haven't seen him for a long time. One weekend, we were in the pub on the miners' estate, near where he and his mate lived, and I was discussing with them that week's Socialist Organiser, where a headline was about Ireland. Some of the other regulars in the pub were about to want to lynch me, but the ex soldier intervened, to tell them to calm down, and we then proceeded to have a rational discussion.

Its a long time ago, so I wouldn't like to say whether I completely convinced him of the arguments I put forward, but he certainly continued to help with the production of the bulletin, and a few weeks later he also helped to organise a disco at the town hall, to generate funds for its further production, and he became a Labour Party member. The arguments I put to him were about similar struggles in the past against occupations. As a soldier, I asked him, had you been French, when Germany occupied it, would you have simply sat back and accepted the situation, or would you have fought back, and if you had fought back, would you, faced with the overwhelming military power of the German army, have felt that you had to fight back using only the conventional methods of war, or would you, as the Resistance did, use whatever you could bring to hand to conduct that fight?

And, of course, had that discussion been had some years later, a similar argument could have been put about the struggle of the ANC in South Africa, after apartheid collapsed. Whilst that struggle was going on, the Tories lined up solidly behind the apartheid regime, they vilified Mandela as a terrorist, who quite rightly belonged in jail. And, it is always that way, with Tories and their ilk. When the actual fighting is going on, they are always on the side of the establishment, of the status quo, and always hostile to those fighting against oppression. Only when the fighting is done, and a new establishment is in place, do they decide that those who, yesterday, they called terrorists, today they call world statesmen, as they did with Mandela. And, of course, we should remember that even the Queen brought herself to shake the hand of McGuinness, and to send condolences to his widow. Its only the Tories who seek to rake over the coals of thirty years ago, and to attack Corbyn for again being on the right side of history, as they themselves risk throwing the North of Ireland once more into chaos, and violence, as a result of Brexit

The Tories have sought to criticise Corbyn and Diane Abbot for some of the comments they made at that time. They attack Abbot for a comment where she said that any defeat for the British state would be a victory for British workers. She has resiled from that comment, but, of course, in a sense it is right. Had Thatcher lost against Galtieri during the Falklands War, it would have weakened Thatcher, and may have meant she was unable to press ahead with her attack on the miners. But, does the statement of that fact mean that socialists had to support Galtieri? Absolutely not. At the time, any consideration of the benefits of Thatcher losing could play no part in the consideration as to whether support should be given to Galtieri, and his own expansionist ambitions. In WWII, every victory for Stalin and his regime against Hitler, quite clearly weakened the Nazis, and benefited Britain. Did that mean that British Tories had thereby to become supporters of Stalin? Clearly not!

The Tories have proceeded with their typical hypocrisy. When it comes to Crimea, Ukraine, Tibet, Kosovo and so on, they are quick to insist on the right of self-determination of peoples, to demand that the occupying forces be withdrawn, and they support the fight of those in those places against the occupying forces, no matter how reactionary, or whatever methods they use. But when it is Britain that is the occupying power, when it is Britain that is the oppressor, they expect us to believe that different rules must apply.

No, there is nothing in the positions I supported at that time in relation to Ireland, to South Africa or anywhere else where peoples were fighting against oppression and discrimination that I have reason to regret or to apologise for. Can the Tories say the same thing for their support for the terroristic apartheid regime in South Africa at that time, for similar regimes in Namibia and elsewhere, or the vicious fascistic regime of Thatcher's friend Pinochet in Chile?

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