Apparently I am something called an “insurrectionary socialist”. I’ve never called myself this and until now nobody has ever called me this. Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien, who I take it are involved in the Left Forum in Ireland, used this newly-invented term casually and repeatedly in an article they wrote called “The Strategy of Attrition”.[1]

http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=11746

The article is an argument for the idea that socialism should be achieved without breaking any capitalist laws, by winning a majority in parliament and using the state to reform capitalism out of existence gradually.

An argument for reformism, in other words. But they won’t admit this.

A recent Left Forum debate had the title “Revolution, Reform, and everything in between”. The reformists present, of course, saw themselves in the “in between” bracket. At this debate O’Brien described himself as a “revolutionary reformist”! Today’s reformists, with the shameful failures of reformism in the 20th century still hanging over them, don’t want to call themselves by that soiled name. It has become a dirty word on the left (and it deserves to be). To gain some credibility today’s reformists have to spend a lot of time blurring the boundaries between reform and revolution.

So every time the authors write “insurrectionary”, they mean the following: “revolutionary – but we don’t want to use that term because it’s an admission that we are not revolutionary.”[2]

This need to invent a new term to cover their own asses leads the reformists to say some very silly things, like:

“As the experience of the last century has shown the far left, it is not so easy to organise insurrection against a democratically elected government, especially in the advanced capitalist countries.”

What do they expect us to say? “Yes, you’re damn right, I’m sick of taking part in failed insurrections. I’m blue in the face taking up arms and manning the barricades on Henry Street only to be shot down by the FCA time and time again. The lads in Les Mis thought they had it bad! Insurrections in 21st-century Dublin are really, really difficult to organise!”

To use their own language, calling revolutionary socialists “insurrectionaries” is “entirely unhelpful” and “vacuous”.

The State – Don’t mess with it, you never know what could happen!

“A large bureaucracy is a very complex machine and complex machines are far easier to break than to improve… changes which haven’t been carefully thought through in advance can quickly lead to severe social crisis.” This is just Edmund Burke rephrased.[3]

By contrast, the existing state institutions, to quote what the authors say on laws, “Limited as they may be, they have the under-appreciated virtue of actually existing — not a trivial accomplishment.”

Existing is actually a very trivial accomplishment. What is decisive in making me value something is not whether it exists, but whether it is useful, and whether it has a future. The phrase “actually existing” made me laugh out loud. It made me think of Stalinist parties, which pledged allegiance to “actually existing socialism” in the USSR. Bad enough that it wasn’t socialism, a time came when it ceased to be “actually existing”.

Dialectical thinking is about discerning the outlines of what might arise in the future, and seeing everything “actually existing” as mutable and dependent on historical conditions. The dinner I plan to eat tomorrow does not have the virtue of actually existing. Disparate existing elements (rice, peppers, sauce) need to be brought together from diverse sources, and placed in extreme heat, in various conditions, which will cause them to change form. Still I plan to eat it. Capitalism has “the virtue of actually existing”. So did feudalism before it. Big deal. It’s going to take more than existence to impress me.

But as the quotes above show, the Reformists are scared of the consequences of change even though it’s a condition of this existence which is such an achievement. They think terrible things might happen if we try to change the state too much. If that is their view, then how can they justify even believing in socialism, which, whatever bizarre way they want to implement it, would mean radical changes on every level?

That terrible things might happen if we leave the state substantially as it is doesn’t cross their minds; that constant change is a condition of existence doesn’t seem to occur to them. Revolutionary change happens not when we feel like it but when it is a necessity and a possibility for all of society – and when that moment comes, you’d better not muck about. In any conceivable scenario where capitalism is overthrown, there’s already a “severe social crisis” going on. A new order is necessary to fix this crisis. That’s the whole point! How did they miss it?

 The State Machinery

To be fair, our Reformists do believe that the state machinery has a future and is useful. The state machinery for them is neutral. It is not essentially capitalist – it just operates in a capitalist context! The whole lot, parliament, elections every five years, the army, the guards, could run a socialist society without much change. In fact, almost every change will be enacted by the state!

To use their own image, they imagine that a tool designed to “bash heads and extract the surplus” can be used not only to govern a socialist society, but to decree from on high the transition to socialism. This head-bashing and surplus-extracting tool, it doesn’t take a genius to see, would not be ideally suited to creating and running a planned socialist economy. It’d be like trying to tighten screws with a hammer, or drive in nails with the butt of a screwdriver.

It is a surprise to me that they can imagine that there could be another mode of production, when they can’t even imagine that there could be another type of state.

They imagine a socialist government which has broken none of the laws (that were, by the way, designed to preserve capitalism), trying to enact a “revolution”, from above, with a parliamentary majority, with all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed, saying please and thank you all the way. It’s like Stalinism in a drawing-room.

One Eventuality in which the Reformists will allow physical struggle

“Of course, should the democratic process itself come under attack, either through a frontal coup d’état or through a prolonged form of technocratic government installed by the IMF or the ECB, then an old-fashioned street revolution becomes not only desirable but inevitable.”

What is this “democratic process”? Bourgeois democracy, which was pretty impressive in the 18th century. Today it means vote every five years for which group will kowtow to the markets and lie to you. It means a range of freedoms to organise, assemble, publish (subject to how much money you have) which are narrowing, not expanding, which are increasingly coming under attack in the advanced capitalist countries.

Why, even for a moment, would anyone hold on to the idea that there would be no decisive physical confrontation before capitalism is overthrown? It is a remote and bizarre possibility. What kind of political idea rests on a remote and bizarre possibility?

And what’s “old-fashioned” about a “street revolution”? Has everything since 2011 flown over their heads?

And what’s all this about not doing anything physical until the bourgeoisie “fires first” by attacking their own “democratic process”? What’s all this about refusing to allow the working class to fight meaningfully until the capitalists have violated their own mythical democracy?

It’s wrong to attempt any kind of revolutionary mass action when the mood of the working class is not favourable, when the workers are not convinced of the necessity. Many factors influence this mood, make the class bolder or make it more timid. One of these factors might be, and in most historical situations has been, that the state has committed some atrocity. Depending on the conditions, it might shock the class into action, or terrorize it into submission. Who has ignored this factor, this one factor among other factors? Not the revolutionary socialists, or even, if you like, the “insurrectionary” ones.

But the Reformists have elevated this factor to the level of a box that must be ticked. Why this factor and not others, such as how organised the masses are, how confident they are, how weak the ruling class is? Because they are very impressed with bourgeois democracy. They think it’s the bee’s knees. They use phrases like “a legitimate government sanctioned by a democracy.” When they use phrases like this I get the feeling that they are not really of our movement at all.

Effectively they seem to say, “We will approve of physical confrontation only after a violation of democracy by an embattled ruling class, something which is practically inevitable, happens. Until that happens we should base our entire perspective on the idea that this inevitable event won’t happen.” They’re gas, these reformists.

And the most obvious point of all: If you let the enemy fire first, you risk ending up dead. An atrocity by the government may provoke outrage and a response… Or it could be a brilliant coup that disarms and scares the masses, that sets off an unstoppable reactionary momentum, that exposes not the state, which is already exposed, but the leadership of the masses. The masses decide they do not want to risk life, limb and freedom for these “leaders” who have stood by and let the enemy savage them.

 

When two cowboys face each other, feet apart, arms tense by their sides, waiting for the darting hands and the pistol shot that will leave one of them dead, what’s going to happen to the cowboy who’s determined not to fire first? And why is he determined not to fire first? Is it because his head is full of the thoughts, ideas and instincts of his enemy?

Bourgeois Democracy

The reformists have elevated bourgeois democracy to a celestial level and bathed it in golden light. They even think it’s wrong to use the term “bourgeois democracy”. For them, it seems, its is the only possible form of democracy.

Apparently, the elections we have in Ireland are “broadly considered free and fair”. In reality only an eccentric minority think they’re “free and fair”. In society at large, now more than ever before, there is a huge frustration and cynicism with the political establishment and system. It’s a long, long way from Robert Mugabe but it’s not “broadly considered to be free and fair.” I don’t know where the Reformists got that one from.

Proletarian democracy, another, far superior form of democracy, involves councils directly elected from workplaces and communities, with every rep subject to recall and on the average workers’ wage. Organised on local, regional, national and international levels, on workplace and industry levels, this mass participatory democracy is the only form of state that can carry through a revolution and provide the mass input necessary to democratically plan a whole economy.

The Reformists’ trump card that they play against this argument is one word: Russia. So they use bizarre and ignorant phrases like “Lenin’s break with the Marxist Centre through his gigantic gamble on the soviet horse”. Elsewhere in the article they are very concerned with how massively capitalism and the state have changed since the early 20th century. But when it comes to the Russian Revolution, all concerns for context and historical change go out the window.

For all the attention they pay to the context, from the way they crudely graft its lessons onto today’s world, (“A temporary dictatorship will be necessary to bridge the gap between the collapse of capitalist political power and the institution of a new mode of production, a gap that may well last some decades”) it seems that for them the Russian Revolution might as well have happened in any advanced capitalist country in the last 20 years.

The USSR was not just a workers’ state in the abstract. It was a workers’ state in a backward, largely feudal country with a working-class that was a small minority of the population, that had lost 2 million people and been thrown into chaos by three years of total war, that faced isolation, siege, invasion and a vicious civil war on its advent. This brutalizing, deforming context is actually more important than the form of government that was instituted. But I have found that reformists generally, when they discuss the Soviet Union, show little understanding of this context, or even much interest. For O’Brien, it is sufficient to say that when power passed to the soviets, chaos ensued. Was there not chaos before power passed to the soviets? Was the year 1917 one of supreme and placid order? Chaos from what source? And what brought this chaos under control? This doesn’t interest these formalists.

http://dublinmarxist.wordpress.com/2013/11/24/left-forum-meeting-revolution-reform-and-everything-in-between/

The belief that things would be better if the working class democratically ran society, the economy and politics is not some freak eccentricity of us Trotskyists. It did not constitute “Lenin’s break with the Marxist centre.” It’s the essence of Marxism. If the Reformists can’t recognise that they should stop calling themselves Marxists.

What Practical Steps do They Propose?

I see socialism coming about through revolution. Revolutions happen in moments of extreme crisis, when it is intolerable for the mass of the people to continue living under the old conditions, and are organised and confident enough to go on the offensive. Revolutions are a fact of history. Ireland saw two revolutionary situations in the past century, one in 1917-1923 and another in the North in the late 1960s. Several revolutions have shaken the world since the beginning of the Tunisian revolution in 2011. An economic and political crisis and a continuing radicalisation characterise the global situation.

Despite all this, these Reformists seem to think that believing in revolution is like believing in Santa Claus. They say that basing your perspective on revolution is like waiting for the rapture. It clearly isn’t. It’s absurd that I have to point out that the rapture has never happened, anywhere. Revolutions have happened in the vast majority of countries. The rapture is not likely to happen because there is no evidence that it will. Revolutions are happening right now, and are likely to happen in the future because capitalism is not sustainable and is becoming less and less tolerable.

But the dumbest thing they say is that we “insurrectionaries” don’t actually have anything to do when there’s no revolutionary situation. I wonder are they the same people who, in the next breath, will accuse us of “frenetic activity”.

In fact revolutionaries have two main tasks. First: build a revolutionary party, to act as a decisive political force in a revolutionary situation. Second: build, strengthen, empower and embolden the working class in every way possible, through trade unions, community struggles and the building of a mass party of the working class. Which to place emphasis on, and how to approach them, are extremely flexible questions and depend on the situation.

By contrast, what kind of activity do these Reformists propose? Organise co-ops and build a mass party. Good luck with the co-ops, where’s your capital? The mass party idea is one I wholeheartedly support. But they don’t seem to have much of a clue on this question.

They talk about the SPD, the huge pre-WW1 social-democratic party in Germany. It had all kinds of groups attached to it, from smoking clubs to sports clubs to this, that and the other. But the SDP was the political expression of an advancing working class. Everyone wants to attach themselves to a movement that’s marching forward.

Is the Irish working class on the advance right now? No. It’s beaten back. It may go on the advance soon and there will be a prospect of a new mass party. But right now it’s not happening. So you’re not going to succeed in building a mass party at this moment, and copying some of the symptoms of the SPD’s success is not going to help your case, it’s going to add to your workload.

How Will Socialism Enter the World?

The Reformists repeatedly show a massive aversion to disruption, hassle and risk:

“The resulting break in the chain of production will see a severe decline in living standards and an immediate, perhaps irrevocable, plummeting of political support for seeing the transition out.”

This and many other such passages reveal the authors’ inability to visualise a socialist transformation of society. To any revolutionary, a level of disruption, even chaos, is justified if it could potentially lead to socialism. In any conceivable revolutionary situation, the working class will understand this damn well. But the reformists don’t think socialism is worthwhile if, to get to it, we have to go through serious disruption or suffering. They think the working class will bail out at the first sign of discomfort.

They don’t understand that it wouldn’t be a couple of bods at the top forcing changes on a foot-dragging, grumbling working class who will jump ship the moment things get tough. The class would make the revolution, not impatiently put up with it.

Socialism will not come into the world bowing and scraping, apologising for its own existence. It will not dispossess the most powerful people in the world using a state designed to dispossess the least powerful. It will not win power through an election where both sides worship some made-up thing called the “democratic process”. It will have to fight for every inch the capitalist world yields to it. Its only engine can be the enthusiasm of millions.

 

 


[1] I have heard of a trend in anarchism that calls itself “Insurrectionary”. As far as I can tell they are very anti-Marxist and do the whole black-block thing. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insurrectionary_anarchism. As far as I know this is the only tendency on the left that calls itself, or that anyone else calls, “insurrectionary”. The reformists have displayed some cheek in inventing a new meaning for this word and applying it to us because they couldn’t think of a word for themselves that wasn’t “reformist”.

[2] Revolution is the process of one class physically defeating and replacing a ruling class. Eg, the dates of the French Revolution are usually given as 1789-95 or 1789-1799 or even 1789-1815. This encompasses a whole revolutionary process – multiple insurrections, battles, wars and shake-ups of various kinds. Insurrection is a more specific term, referring to a specific uprising, eg Easter Week 1916 in Ireland or the Bolsheviks’ uprising in October/November 1917. A revolution without any insurrections would be a very strange-looking revolution; that’s why it’s wrong to pose the terms “revolutionary” and “insurrectionary” as if you could be one without being the other.

[3] Edmund Burke, a Westminster politician, wrote a tract against the French Revolution, “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, in which he argued that a bunch of uppity lawyers shouldn’t tinker with feudalism because terrible things were bound to happen if commoners attempted change. Kings and queens were awesome and knew what they were doing through long habit (this was literally his argument). Incidentally, in his only reference to the mass of the people he used the words “the swinish multitude”.

A New Year’s note from the author: It’s been a great year for the blog, with views up more than three-fold on 2012. Thanks a lot to everyone who’s read, liked and commented.

This post has been a very long time coming. I haven’t posted in months, but the blog isn’t abandoned, have no fear. For one thing, the posts I’ve made over the past two years are still making me friends and enemies online.

For another thing I’ve had a mad busy few months since when I last posted in August. The holidays gave me a break and let me finally get this post done. Things will be slow but hopefully steady for the next six months, then back on track after that. 

 

From 1917 to 1923 the Irish working class went on the offensive like never before or since. Every year saw an average of 200 strikes and lockouts. Landless labourers and small farmers followed the lead of the working class; at the time some said that the struggle against landlords in those years surpassed the land war. This history has had a curtain of republicanism drawn around it. It has been hidden behind a colourful story of ambushes and assassinations. But Costick in his excellent book on this subject Revolution in Ireland reminds us:

kostick…without the willingness of hundreds of thousands of workers to boycott, strike, demonstrate and protest, the military activity of the 3000 or so IRA members who had managed to obtain guns would have proved insufficient.[1]

 

It was not the IRA guerrilla war on its own that ended British rule in Ireland, though that’s the idea that’s drummed into us in school.[2] It was the masses in southern Ireland, in particular the working class, that made the revolution.

 

This all came to the fore when the Irish dockers and railway workers refused to handle weapons for the British army. This turned the military situation against British imperialism very significantly. What’s not generally known is that the workers who started this strike were inspired by the British workers who were refusing to handle weapons destined for the hands of the counter-revolutionaries in Russia.

This single fact places the IRA in the context of working-class struggle without which they never would have won. It also places that working-class struggle in the context of the world revolution. This is how we should think about this period.

 

Huge upsurge in struggle

 

Like practically every European country, Ireland saw a rise in trade union membership and the number of industrial struggles in ITGWU1the years leading up to 1914. Following the outbreak of the First World War, membership plunged and strikes disappeared. In the late-war and post-war years the curve rose again. We can look at the statistics for country after country, and we see that towards the end of the war it hits the 1914 high point; in 1919 or 1920 it rises to entirely new heights.[3] The Irish TUC grew from 110,000 to 250,000 members from 1916 to 1920. Most of this growth was down to the ITGWU, Jim Larkin’s union, whose membership grew from 5,000 to over 100,000 in the same period.[4]

 

The first issue of the ITGWU’s paper Voice of Labour claimed in December 1917 that the year had been more significant for the labour movement than the lockout year of 1913. 1917 ended with 25,000 ITGWU members compared to 5,000 in 1916.[5] This was before the great general strikes, before the soviets; the best was yet to come.

 

Yet today it is 1913, not 1917-1923, which is remembered as Labour’s great “moment” in Irish history. The Irish working class as a political force is relegated to 1913 in mainstream memory, a date safely sealed away from 1916 and 1919-21. In reality, 1917-23 overshadows 1913 by a very long shot in terms of working-class struggle and socialist ideas.

 

The Russian Revolution

 

Along with this great working-class offensive came a new international vocabulary: Soviets, Bolsheviks, red guards, red flags. This represents something very deep. Much deeper than, as some argue, simply an attempt to lend some second-hand glamour to otherwise boring strikes for a few percent more here and there.[6] In fact “There was a growing working-class culture [...] which openly identified with the Red Flag and drew inspiration from the Russian Revolution.”[7]

 

These strikes and struggles were so numerous and so intense because a new idea had entered world politics in a spectacular fashion in 1917: the idea that the working class could and should run society, that every struggle was an episode in the fight for the socialist future of humanity.

 

Churchtown, Co Cork saw repeated factory occupations and protests with red flags prominent, including the classic slogan of Karl Marx, “Workers of the World, Unite!” Farm labourers’ struggles in Waterford began with the “Battle of Femor”, a hand-to-hand street battle that took place under the red flag, and escalated to a two-week strike in 1923 in which the (Irish Free State) army imposed martial law and suffered from ambushes and gunshots. Farmer “White Guards” and labourer “Red Guards” abducted, beat up and killed each other in a low-level civil war.

 

brureeAghada, Co.Cork, was patrolled by “Red Guards” for six days in 1919. Cork port saw a workers’ occupation in September 1921 in which the ITGWU organiser in the leadership of the struggle addressed strikers as “Friends, comrades and Bolsheviks.”[8] Even in Galway, a town viewed as conservative next to Limerick, a demonstration “of imposing dimensions” for May Day 1919 ended with (in the words of an angry local journalist) the singing of ‘The Red Flag’, “the rallying-song of anti-Catholic Socialism.”[9] The Soviets of Bruree, Knocklong, and hundreds of other places showed in an embryonic way how workers can run their own workplaces democratically, without capitalists or the profit motive.

 

These are just a few examples of the kind of incidents that were taking place in hundreds of places. The greatest, of course, was the Limerick Soviet, when for two weeks the local trades council ran a town of tens of thousands of people. And the use of the word “Soviet” in that struggle is clear evidence of the link with the Russian Revolution and the struggle all over Europe.

 

The Voice of Labour

 

This identification did not come from the mainstream press. The Irish Independent in particular disgraced itself in reporting nonsense about the Russian Revolution. Reports of Lenin’s death came at regular intervals; the Red Army, using the “methods of Atilla”, was “chiefly” made up of “Letts and Chinese”.[10]

 

The upsurge of 1917 allowed the ITGWU to purchase a newspaper, Irish Opinion: The Voice of Labour. In March 1918 it sold around 10,000 copies a week.[11] ITGWU branches sold the paper and each issue was read aloud to groups of people, so we can imagine that as the union grew and grew, so must the circulation of this paper.

 

Early issues of the Voice seemed wary of mentioning the revolution. As the weeks went on this caution went out the window. The Bolsheviks were given their due in January 1918 as champions of national self-determination and open diplomacy. Soon the paper was quoting Lenin: “The Soviet… represents a higher form of political development than the Constituent Assembly. The Soviets, the organs of the exploited masses, become dictators, removing the exploiting elements of the community, absorbing them into the fabric of the new social system.”[12]

 

The paper described with great excitement the meeting between the Soviet envoy in London and the leaders of Irish labour. Connolly’s Labour in Irish History had been read with eager interest by Lenin, who had said that Connolly must be a remarkable man.

 

Thomas Johnson, secretary of the Labour Party, wrote a very interesting article published on February 23rd 1918. Entitled “If the Bolsheviks Came to Ireland”, it argued that “While Ireland has had but one Connolly, Russia has produced hundreds” in the form of the Bolshevik Party. He went on to call for the socialisation of land and industry, for food, clothes, housing and education to be provided for all. Most interestingly, he looked for Irish equivalents to the Soviets in three areas: local trades councils, agricultural co-operative societies and “dare we say it”, local IRA groups. Johnson stressed that these were only potential embryos of Soviet power; his point about Russia’s hundreds of Connollys was that the Irish labour movement was not yet politically or organisationally prepared for revolution.[13]

 

“Hundreds of Connollys”

 

Johnson made a very important point: that in Ireland, no strong, organised, respected revolutionary party existed, and this made the prospect of carrying out a revolution more difficult. As an illustration of what is meant by a “revolutionary party”, you could do a lot worse than the image of “hundreds of Connollys.” Connolly, unlike Johnson, was a true socialist revolutionary but the great tragedy of his life is that he did not build a party. Connolly as a person could be shot dead by the British government; Connolly’s ideas and spirit, in the form of a revolutionary socialist party, could have lived on through the difficult years of the war, and increasingly taken the lead in the struggle from 1917 onwards.

 

Instead the leadership of the labour movement passed to the likes of Johnson, who could “talk socialist” to please the workers, but really hadn’t a notion of leading a revolution. Or O’Brien, who openly campaigned and canvassed for Sinn Féin. There were hints of this contradiction in the pages of the Voice. The paper was incredibly reluctant to print anything critical of Catholicism or Irish Republicanism. The effort of being as “Bolshevik” as possible without offending a medieval institution (the church) and a bourgeois ideology (Irish Republicanism) was not as obvious at first but it became serious later on.

 

For now, the Voice was red. In the springtime it apologised that paper rationing meant a halving of pages, later apologising again russian-civil-war-posters-3that there was a vast amount of material which could not be included. Despite this, articles on such topics as “the Great Russian” Trotsky, the Russian Civil War and the Bolsheviks continued to flourish.[14] After the death of Tsar Nicholas II the Voice declared that “No criminal in history has better earned his fate,” but lamented that “Nicholas dies and [William Martin] Murphy lives.”[15] This gives an idea of the demand that existed among the Voice’s readers for socialist politics.

 

The Voice is a very interesting paper to look back over, with ads for pamphlets by Lenin and Zinoviev beside ads for the Republican leader Harry Boland’s shop in Dublin. Available in the Dublin City Library archives on Pearse Street, you get an exciting sense while reading it that you are getting a glimpse of the great, tragically untold story of the Irish working class.

 

The World Revolution and the Limerick Soviet

 

hungarianmap[1]The Voice issue for November 16th hailed the revolutions in Germany and Austria. The issue of January 11th included a full-page article on the idea of a General Strike and of Soviet power. The Belfast engineering strike, the Dublin tailors’ “Soviet” and the Monaghan asylum “Soviet” were all given great attention alongside the German Revolution, the Munich räterepublik and “The Red Hungarian Republic.”

 

Amid all this excitement, when it seemed that revolution was sweeping across Europe in an unstoppable wave, an article was published in the April 12th 1919 issue entitled “The Dictatorship of the Irish Proletariat.” This unsigned article addressed the military repression proposed by the British politician Ian McPherson. It continued:

 

Today the Soviet idea is sweeping westward over Europe [...] Before long the whole tribe of which McPherson is but a specimen will be swallowed up by the great ocean which is flooding the continent [...]

Again we say that Ireland’s best and most effective answer is the immediate establishment of Soviets, the instruments which will bring about the dictatorship of the Irish proletariat.

That must be the outcome of all the travail of these five years [since the 1913 lockout]. We have had enough of the old isolation. We have been cut off long enough from the mainstream of European life and thought.[16]

These words did not fall into a void. The next issue led with an article entitled “The Limerick Strike: Down Tools Against Tyranny.” The Limerick Soviet had been declared.

Limerick had three thousand ITGWU members, so the Voice must have seen a high circulation there.[17] On May Day 1918 7,000 workers from 42 different unions marched through the city. 15,000 then attended a demonstration at which speakers especially endorsed the Voice. With red flags waving, it was resolved

that we, the workers of Limerick and district, in mass meeting assembled, extend fraternal greetings to the workers of all countries, paying particular tribute to our Russian comrades who have waged such a magnificent struggle for their social and political emancipation.[18]

Liam Cahill's excellent book on the Limerick Soviet

Liam Cahill’s excellent book on the Limerick Soviet

The links between Limerick, the Russian Revolution and the Voice are clear to see. The Limerick Soviet was no accident or anomaly; it was a natural manifestation of the growing working-class militancy, confidence and identification with Bolshevism.

The leadership miss the “occasion” for rebellion

The Irish Trade Union Congress leadership lied to members that national action was planned in order to de-escalate the strike. The later “Soviet” movement of distinctly Bolshevik workplace occupations took place on the initiative of local organisers, including one who had been prominent in Limerick during the Soviet, and owed little to the national leadership. At the Labour conference in August 1919, despite some dissenting voices, delegates agreed that it was right to cut the legs out from under the Limerick Soviet because it was “not the occasion” for “insurrection”.[19]

Many leadership figures falsely claimed that the only alternative to the betrayal of the Limerick Soviet which they engineered was a full-scale insurrection. Their own poverty of ideas stood out very clearly with their ridiculous proposal to evacuate the entire city as a form of protest – they sought any alternative, however desperate, to escalating the struggle and taking on imperialism.

Among those who spoke against the “insurrection” was Walter Carpenter, who had fought in Easter Week 1916. The tragedy is that while insurrection was indeed premature in 1916, when Carpenter did take up arms, it was what the situation demanded in 1919-20, when Carpenter’s feet were much colder. The only question was who was to lead the struggle.

The Labour leadership, despite their fighting words in their paper, ran a mile and left a clear field for the middle-class and capitalist elements in the form of Sinn Féin. These bourgeois nationalists seized the leadership in the struggle against imperialism

A scene from The Wind that Shakes the Barley, showing the insurrection that was beginning even as the leaders of Irish labour insisted that it was "not the occasion"

A scene from The Wind that Shakes the Barley, showing the insurrection that was beginning even as the leaders of Irish labour insisted that it was “not the occasion”

but only because the labour leadership would not take what was being handed to them. By late 1919 a guerrilla war was under way. In 1920 and 1921 it grew in scale and intensity. And in summer 1919 the Labour leadership had said it was “not the occasion” for revolution. In fact it was the most ripe “occasion” in Ireland in the whole twentieth century.

An Alternative Struggle for Independence

A labour-led struggle for independence would have embraced every street and every village and made every site of oppression and exploitation a centre of resistance. What were “soviets” in name – in reality militant, politicized strikes – would have become soviets in fact: organs of working-class power capable of running society. This struggle would not have been confined to removing British rule – it would have settled with Irish exploiters like William Martin Murphy, the villain of 1913, as well. It would not have been confined to Irish Catholics. On the basis of workers’ solidarity the southern Irish working class could have linked up with militant workers in Belfast, on the Clyde, and given a new impulse to the struggle for socialism on a European scale.

We should take a moment to imagine an alternative War of Independence, fought with different weapons, by the majority of the people, splitting the republican movement on class lines and exposing the hostility of the church to the demands of ordinary people. Such a movement would have had the potential to win the support of both sections of the Northern Irish working class on the basis of the socialist politics.

Saying the working class could have taken the lead in the struggle is not speculation. It had led the anti-conscription campaign of

remembering1918 and left Sinn Féin in the shade. A magnificent general strike beat the conscription bill and radicalised the country, all while the Republican leaders were still in prison with their organisations in disarray.

How could things have turned out differently?

Of course many Irish workers, including many of the most militant, had nationalist and republican ideas. A meeting of railway workers in 1918 voiced opposition to Labour running in elections at a time when the leadership was for it. It was this section which the leadership leaned on and encouraged.

But a real working-class leadership would have put forward an independent position clearly. An example comes in the form of Jim Larkin, who though confined to the United States, wrote with fury about the sell-out of Labour to Sinn Féin. A far-from-perfect figure, Larkin was nonetheless a proletarian leader who was head, shoulders and chest above those the workers’ movement was saddled with at the time, and he saw clearly what was happening.

We can imagine that a revolutionary party that kept an independent line and was critical of republicanism and the church would have lost some support early on and come under attack from all quarters. But once the class went through the experience of betrayal – the general election sell-out, the Limerick Soviet, the increasingly anti-working class position of the Dáil – they would win back this support tenfold. Such a situation would be clearly analogous to what the Bolsheviks did between February and October 1917.

Revolutionary socialism is based on a belief in the working class. When the time is ripe the best elements of the class can come to the fore, small wheels turning big wheels, the leadership winning over the class, the class realising its own power and making history. All this is conditional on the most advanced sections of the working class being organised ahead of time in a revolutionary party.

Perhaps Johnson and others were genuinely enthused and temporarily radicalised by the Russian Revolution.[20] Cathal limerick sovietO’Shannon, editor of the Voice, the most left-wing of the leadership, rationalised and justified his colleagues’ behaviour in ridiculously over-optimistic terms: “the triumph of the Irish working class was bound up with the triumph that was coming, yea, had to come to the Bolsheviks in Russia.”[21] No need to escalate the Limerick Soviet – the European proletariat would do the job without an Irish worker having to lift a finger! Another explanation is that in a period of unprecedented, unexpected militancy they postured in order to please their membership.[22] A combination of the above factors is probable, and in the context of the European labour movement, normal enough.

By contrast, many Limerick workers, particularly ITGWU members, felt betrayed by the calling-off of the strike. They organised a meeting and a blockade of Thomondgate Bridge on the day the partial return to work was declared.[23] This is not surprising; the context of the Limerick Soviet, as seen in the Voice and on May Day 1918, reveals that many Limerick workers saw the use of the term “Soviet” not just as a gimmick but as a link to the seemingly all-conquering international revolutionary movement. Again, if a strong revolutionary organisation had existed, with an ability to spread its own material and its own ideas, it could have won a lot of support from these workers and explained the betrayal for what it really was.

Instead what happened was that Ireland’s most militant workers fell into inactivity and demoralisation or support for the republicans, who were actually fighting British imperialism. An example presents itself in the form of one man. In 1919 Peadar O’Donnell was an outstanding ITGWU organiser but by 1922 he was in the IRA.

The ILP & TUC and ITGWU despite their praise for Bolshevism stood with the “centrist” trend in the Second International, which was to the right of the Bolsheviks and to the left of the pro-war parties. This grouping came together in February 1919 with the Berne “two-and-a-half” International which O’Shannon and Johnson attended.[24]

The Irish labour leadership was therefore not remarkable in its conservatism; it was in fact on the left wing at the Berne congress, championing the Bolsheviks and the idea of dictatorship of the proletariat as opposed to parliamentary democracy.[25] For a time they even tried to join the revolutionary Third International.

O’Brien, Johnson, O’Shannon – the leading figures in Irish labour during this period – were not as horrifically treacherous as the likes of the SPD in Germany. They did not gun workers down in the streets. They did not disgrace themselves with anti-Bolshevik red-baiting. What they did, they did well. But revolutionary action, which the situation demanded, was beyond them. To occupy an independent class position, across national and sectarian lines, to frustrate Republicanism and defy the Catholic Church, was a task for revolutionaries.

Fundamentally their outlook was parliamentarian and industrial, a vision of a class struggle at the kind of slow, plodding, gentle pace which real-life history has never allowed. They were a non-revolutionary leadership thrust into a revolutionary situation. Often revolutionary in words, but capable of outrageous conservatism in deeds, 1917-1923 must have been in their memory an exciting interlude, or an incomprehensible hiccup, before Labour’s long back-seat in the 20th century’s “independent” Ireland. Maybe this pace of events was more comfortable for them.

It is said that when the never-implemented “Democratic Programme” (at the time the words “democracy” and “socialism” were often interchangeable) was adopted by the first Dáil as a sop to the labour movement and to pay back the Labour Party for not running in the 1918 election, tears came to the eyes of Thomas Johnson. His tears of joy were, just to recap, over a document with no binding content read aloud in a bourgeois parliament as a thank-you for the working class laying down its weapons.

By contrast, the class they led made a great contribution to history, and acted out what should have been just the first chapter in a greater story. The Irish general strikes of this period were the awe of Europe’s labour movement. The Irish Soviets deserve a place of honour alongside the other “Western Soviets” of the Scotland, Germany, Italy and elsewhere. Throughout all these struggles the red flag flew, “The Internationale” and “The Red Flag” echoed, and words never-before heard in Ireland like “Bolshevik” and “Soviet” took on a great importance. The Irish proletariat played an outstanding role in the World Revolution.


[1] Conor Costick, Revolution in Ireland: Popular Militancy 1913-1923 (Cork University Press, 218)

[2] Tom Barry, Guerrilla Days in Ireland, (Anvil Books, 1949) and Ernie O’Malley, On Another Man’s Wound (Dublin & London, Rich & Cowan, 1936) are the classic accounts of the period from the point of view of IRA leaders. These are very readable and useful accounts, especially O’Malley’s, but their focus is quite narrow.

[3] See for example Tökés, 227

[4] Cork Workers’ Club, Irish Labour and its International Relations in the era of the Second International and the Bolshevik Revolution, 38

[5] Sondhaus, 291

[6] As argued, for instance, by David Fitzpatrick, Politics and Irish Life, 210

[7] Dan Bradley, Farm Labourers: Irish Struggle 1900-1976 (Athol Books 1988), 55

[8] Bradley, 60-66

[9] Connacht Tribune, May 10th, 1919

[10] Eg, Irish Independent, May 5th, 1919

[11] Voice of Labour, March 2nd, 1918

[12] Voice of Labour, January 20th, 1918

[13] Ibid., February 23rd, 1918

45 Voice of Labour, April 20 1918

[15] Voice of Labour, August 24th 1918

[16] Voice of Labour, April 12th 1919

[17] Liam Cahill, Forgotten Revolution: Limerick Soviet 1919, O’Brien, 1990, p 21; Voice of Labour, March 2 1918

[18] Voice of Labour, May 11th, 1918

[19] Ibid, 132-135

[20] “…excited by the energy and influence of their movement, some began to dream of social revolution.” Fitzpatrick, Politics and Irish Life, 209

[21] Costick, p 88

[22] See O’Connor, Syndicalism in Ireland 1917-1923, Cork University Press (1988)

[23] Cahill, 141

[24] Voice of Labour, February 9th 1918

[25] Cork Workers’ Club, International Relations¸ 49

In late 2010 a revolt of the poor and unemployed  broke out in Tunisia. Within a few short months the rebellion had spread, with earth-shattering effects,  to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Oman, Iraq and other countries. This inspired the movement of square occupations in Spain and Greece, and even spread to the USA with the occupation of the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin and later the Occupy movement.

Something similar, but on a much bigger scale, took place after the First World War. In February 1917 hordes of Russian soldiers joined the workers of the cities in revolt and overthrew the Tsar. The Soviets, councils of directly-elected workers, peasants and soldiers, grew in strengthA-tank-is-dismantled-in-B-006. In November the world’s first successful socialist revolution was consummated as the soviets, led by the Bolshevik Party, seized power from the short-lived bourgeois government. The effect was electric: within months a million German, Austrian and Hungarian workers were on strike against the war. This initial revolutionary wave battered against the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, but was beaten back.

In October and November 1918 the assault began again with renewed force. German sailors refused to go out on a suicide mission, and 1918NovMutinyKiel$Fragen300pxwinstead seized control of the ships from their officers. The sailors marched with the red flag into coastal cities and revolution spread uncontrollably throughout Germany. Soviets controlled Berlin and most major cities. The war ended and the Kaiser fled to Holland. The Austro-Hungarian and German Empires followed the Russian Empire into oblivion.

Civil war was raging in Russia. Britain, France, the USA, Japan and other countries intervened with thousands of troops and staggering amounts of money to prop up the White Armies who fought to restore the old regime. But British workers refused to carry weapons destined for use against Russian workers. French sailors in the Black Sea, sent there as muscle for the Whites, took over their ships, raised the red flag, shelled the Greek troops that tried to stop them, and set sail for home.

In 1919 and 1920 civil war conditions in parts of Europe mirrored on a smaller, more dispersed scale the civil war in Russia. Bavaria and Hungary became socialist Soviet republics and had to fight with bullets for every month of their short lives. Germany saw years of battles, uprisings and coups.

In Italy the “Biennio Rosso” saw revolutionary land seizures in the south and factory occupations in the north. In Spain general strikes, struggles on the farms and bombings and shootings defined the “Bolshevik Triennium” of 1918-1920. A radical peasant government came to power in Bulgaria, shoving aside the old military-aristocratic rulers.

South Africa, Australia, Argentina and Peru saw strikes and social conflicts on a huge scale. The United States saw the Seattle general strike,

A leaflet from the Seattle General Strike, 1919

A leaflet from the Seattle General Strike, 1919

the Boston Police strike and the colossal steel strike in Pennsylvania and Indiana. In Canada syndicalist workers took over Winnipeg.

The May Fourth movement in China saw mass protests of young people and gave birth to the Chinese Communist Party. Communist revolutionaries took power in Mongolia.

In England massive strikes took place alongside mass army mutinies. One mutiny saw British soldiers establish a “soviet” in a French coastal town. Strikes in Glasgow reached such intensity that crowds of workers battled police in George Square – and won. Union leader Willie Gallacher downed a police chief with a perfect punch to the jaw. Against the soldiers’ soviet and against Glasgow the British government had no alternative but to send in tanks and troops.

The British Empire stood on the edge of an abyss. Faced with revolution in Egypt, it resorted to killing thousands of people. In India, a general strike led a British officer to massacre hundreds of peaceful protestors in Amritsar.

Ireland

Amazingly, many of those who write about Europe in this period leave Ireland out of this story or else deny that there was much connection. On the other hand most Irish historians entirely ignore the international context to Irish events. But Ireland is in fact a very good case study in this global revolutionary wave, having all the key elements: local and national general strikes, massive industrial and agrarian unrest, syndicalist militancy, mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, factory occupations, imperialist and anti-imperialist violence, a movement for self-determination and a civil war.

The Leaders of the Labour Movement

In the 19th century the capitalist class transformed the world. In Europe and North America industrialisation created massive cities, concentrated working classes and a new abundance of wealth. As the century went on free enterprise gave way inevitably to gigantic monopolies. Capital chased new markets and resources, and the flag and the gun followed, subjecting all the world to the rule of the few advanced capitalist countries.

The working class internationally was becoming more and more organised and militant. Their industrial and political rise brought to prominence a privileged layer of leaders, bureaucrats and politicians who were more interested in compromise than struggle, who believed (conveniently for them and their cosy positions) that progress toward socialism and working-class emancipation must be slow, gradual and within the framework of the bosses’ laws and in the political arena dominated by the rich.

In the years before the outbreak of the First World War trade union membership and power grew impressively, driven by the “New Unionism” of militant tactics and socialist politics, in defiance of the growing bureaucratic stagnation. In England this found its expression in the “Great Unrest”; in Ireland it appeared in the form of 1907 Belfast strike and in the 1913 Dublin lockout.

Then came the war. Bloody fighting raged on the frontlines, consuming millions of human lives, but in the hungry cities and villages an oppressive peace reigned between the worker and the boss.

The labour movement split in two with the declaration of war. The majority of the leaders of the socialist, labour and social-democratic parties all over Europe sided with their own governments in the war.

In 1917 Paul Lensch, a German social-democratic parliamentarian, wrote of “World-Revolution” – but not with the meaning you might expect. For him the World War was not the prelude to world revolution – it was the world revolution! It represented “the overthrow of the English world domination by the Germans”. He compared this to the overthrow of the Roman Empire by “the Germans” 1500 years before. The idea of the right of peoples to independence was just “individualistic international anarchy”. Germany would triumph, “and then will dawn a new epoch for humanity.” And after all, Lensch makes clear, the more Germany wins in the war, the more spoils there will be to divide between labour and capital.[1]

Lensch stated the case more nakedly and blatantly than others dared. However this was the basic attitude of most of the labour leaders of all the combatant countries. Exceptions included the Bolsheviks in the Russian Empire and the far weaker labour movement in Ireland. But the British Labour Party, the French Parti Socialiste and the vast majority of the leaders of the German SPD betrayed the pledges they had made to resist war through general strike action. Their country was exceptional and had great things to offer the world – by conquering it. Victory (which they all saw as inevitable for their side) would bring the spoils of the war home to the working class.

Leadership in Revolution

The extent of enthusiasm for the war has been greatly exaggerated. In any case the apparent pro-war consensus was shattered in the closing years of the war, especially from 1917 onward. As we have described, the working class rose up repeatedly with tremendous energy and organisation. But they were saddled with an utterly bankrupt leadership, the same that had led them into the war.

In November 1918, hundreds of thousands thronged the streets of Berlin and soviets ruled many cities. From one balcony the revolutionary socialist Karl Liebknecht was declaring a soviet socialist republic; from another balcony nearby the social-democrat Ebert was

Street fighting in Germany, 1919

Street fighting in Germany, 1919

anxious to steal a march on Liebknecht, and declared a republic. The masses still trusted their old leaders, and thought they offered the surest path toward socialism; in reality, social-democrats like Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske were making deals behind the scenes with bosses and proto-fascist militias to stave off revolution even at the cost of thousands of lives. In this way the advocates of “gradual” reforms toward socialism handed over the initiative to the far right and prepared the way for the triumph of fascism in Germany.

In Italy likewise the Socialist Party failed to take the initiative when, in 1920, workers ruled thousands of factories. Again, the initiative passed to the right. Mentally unstable and sadistic individuals formed death squads and spent their nights high on coke beating up and killing socialists and workers’ leaders. Funded by industrialists, with a vanguard of special forces veterans, these “combat groups” used brute force to beat the life out of the Italian revolution. Their leader, an ex-socialist crank named Mussolini, became the fascist dictator of Italy, the first in the world, in 1922.

Austrian Social-Democratic leader Otto Bauer described the great demonstrations that rocked Vienna day after day in 1919: “Every newspaper brought news of the struggle of the Spartacists in Germany, every speech gave information of the glorious Russian Revolution, which by one stroke had put an end to all exploitation. The masses who had recently witnessed the downfall of a strong empire had no suspicion of the strength of the Capitalist Entente. They imagined that revolution would spread like wildfire through the victorious countries. ‘A dictatorship of the proletariat!’–’ All power to the Soviets!’–nothing else was heard in the streets [...] Peasants had also returned home from the trenches full of hatred for war and militarism, for the bureaucracy and for the plutocracy [... ] Together with the proletariat they imagined that the political revolution must needs bring with it a revolution with respect to property ownership.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/world/ch04.htm)

CLR James points out that the same Otto Bauer who describes so vividly this revolutionary situation did everything he could to dampen and defuse it. The Social-Democrats, brought into a new government, refused guns to the Hungarian Soviet Republic, arrested the Austrian Communist leaders and shot down workers who protested demanding their release. Absurdly conservative, the Austrian social-democratic leaders refused to be so bold as to call for freedom for the oppressed nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until after that Empire had collapsed, and self-determination was an established fact!

In James’ words, the post-war years saw “the new Socialist order striving to be born all over Europe, and a thin scum of bureaucrats with the ear of the masses holding up the historical process and throwing humanity a generation back.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/world/ch04.htm)

History doesn’t move at a pace set by comfortable labour bureaucrats. When revolutionary situations arise, you can’t wish them out of

The triumph of fascism meant the death-blow to the trade-union and socialist movements

The triumph of fascism meant the death-blow to the trade-union and socialist movements

existence and go back to the slow accumulation of inoffensive reforms. A year of defeats can undo a half-century of slow methodical organisation. A year of decisive, strong, revolutionary leadership, as demonstrated in 1917 in Russia, can end with the working class in power. On the other hand, given half a chance, the bosses play their trump card, fascism, which uses ultra-nationalism, male action-hero attitudes and violence to crush the power and organisation of the working class.

The Verdict on the World Revolution

This was the dark, tragic side of the World Revolution. Its successes are obvious: they include establishing the world’s first workers’ state and planned economy in the USSR, ridding the world of four rotten monarchies, self-determination and universal suffrage in many countries, and ending the war. But its failures, which are the responsibility of the social-democratic leaders of the day, led to the triumph of counter-revolution. In Germany, Italy and Spain this took the form of fascism.

Within a hungry, backward, isolated Russia the reaction took shape as Stalinism. This represented a privileged layer of managers and bureaucrats who maintained their power by slaughtering and starving peasants, national minority groups and all those who stood for the real tradition of the Russian Revolution. They forever stained the name of Marxism, socialism and communism by covering their crimes with a paper-thin layer of justification in the language of the revolution.

Historical phenomena aren’t 90-minute feature films. They don’t end neatly with an unambiguous triumph for a clearly-defined set of sympathetic characters. Fanciful historians always counterpose to the hardship and suffering of revolution some imaginary form of government called “liberal democracy”. The countries they refer to, France

The slaughter of revolutionaries by reactionary army officers, captured in this contemporary cartoon

The slaughter of revolutionaries by reactionary army officers, captured in this contemporary cartoon

and Britain, were viciously class-divided societies which ruled over vast empires whose subjects enjoyed few democratic rights and suffered famines comparable to those that happened under Stalin.

In any case an advanced capitalist society is not an appropriate “control” from which to judge the success of a revolution in a vast semi-feudal empire. We have no such “control” in the colossal experiment that is revolution.

Ireland

Pivotal moments in Irish history tend to mirror global events. The 1798 rebellion was fought under the slogans of liberty, equality and fraternity. The 1948 Republic of Ireland Act came, not by accident, during the period of a great international strike wave, the establishment of the welfare state, independence for India and the Chinese revolution. The 1968 Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland took its inspiration from the struggles of African-Americans.

Similarly, in the revolution of 1917-1923 strange words like “Bolshevik” and “Soviet” acquired immense significance. In the chapters to follow we will show how the Irish Revolution mirrored the World Revolution in its successes and its failures, in the wasted potential for the socialist transformation of society, and in the role of leadership.

In Ireland, too, a “thin scum” of labour leaders held back history through subordinating the working class to nationalism. Thus the Irish Revolution on the one hand shows the enormous power and potential of the masses led by the working class. On the other hand it shows how when a revolutionary situation arises, it’s not good enough for the working class to be led by alarmed, conservative bureaucrats and naive, well-meaning improvisers. Those who want to see a socialist world must organise themselves before time into a conscious revolutionary organisation, win the trust of the working class through being the most determined and skilful fighters, and grow through uncompromising political debate and discussion.

In a revolutionary crisis such a party would be posed as an alternative leadership, capable of leading the masses to a historic breakthrough. The Arab Spring, events in Egypt, Turkey and Brazil during the summer, and the developing crisis and struggle on the peripheries of Europe and in the USA, show that talking about revolutions is not just a matter for history buffs. A revolutionary party of the working class is the key missing ingredient in all these situations.  The reader can take what lesson they want from the chapters that follow, but for the author the lack of organised revolutionary leadership is as obvious in Ireland in 1919 as in Greece in 2013.


[1] Paul Lensch, Three Years of World-Revolution, Constable, London, 1918

This is part one of a planned five- or six-part series of short essays examining the role Ireland played in the worldwide revolutionary upheaval that followed World War One and the Russian Revolution, and in turn the role this global context played in shaping Irish history in these crucial years. 

In 1887 the socialist writer Friedrich Engels predicted that within a few decades there would break out

 a world war of never before seen intensity [...] eight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other and strip Europe bare as no swarm of locusts has ever done before. The devastations of the Thirty Years War condensed into three or four years and spread all over the continent: famine, epidemics, general barbarization of armies and masses, provoked by sheer desperation; utter chaos in our trade, industry and commerce [...]crowns will roll in the gutter by the dozens and there will be nobody to pick them up…

In 1914 the great empires of Europe went to war and fulfilled this prophecy down to the letter. The First World War of 1914-1918 plunged humanity into horror, but it was followed by a World Revolution that promised a better future for all. The war was confined mostly to Europe and parts of Africa, but the revolution swept across every continent. “Crowns rolled in the gutter” and republics were declared, empires crumbled, new states fought for independence, women won the right to vote in many countries, and workers’ organisation and militancy rose to awesome heights.

The two partitioned Irish states of today were two of the many children of this post-war World Revolution. The winning of freedom from British rule is an example of the achievements of the revolution; the fact that the island is partitioned is an example of its limits.

In peacetime the workers of Europe had toiled to make a few bankers and bosses richer at their expense. Now in wartime working-class men made up the bulk of those who rotted in muddy, louse-infested trenches, died under explosive shells, sank to their deaths trapped in the metal hulls of battleships and marched defenceless into machine-gun fire – all for the benefit of the same peacetime bosses, who were fighting for resources, markets and political power. By 1917 many millions had been killed and many more wounded or mentally scarred by trench warfare. The demands of the war took bread from the mouths of those left at home.

In February of that year the workers and peasants of Russia overthrew their Emperor. But the Russian people soon realized that the new government was no better able to deal with their basic needs – it was a “liberal democracy” just like those “liberal democracies” of Western Europe and America, warmongering empires run by and for the wealthy. The workers, peasants and soldiers trusted instead to their own truly democratic organisations, councils elected straight from the workplace, village or regiment. These were called Soviets.

In October the Bolsheviks, a party of revolutionary socialists, led the people in a new revolution. They called for industry to be run democratically by the workers themselves, without any boss creaming off the profits; for land to be owned by the peasants who worked on it, not by useless obsolete aristocrats; for an end to the war; for all oppressed ethnic and national groups to be free to decide their own fate.

For the Bolsheviks, the most important aim of the Russian Revolution was to spark off revolutions in the more industrialised and advanced countries of Europe. These countries could then help Russia to develop socialism. They predicted that without this outside help the Russian Revolution could not be completed.

The Irish socialist James Connolly had gone to his death in 1916 with the same hope: that by taking part in the Easter Rising the workers of Dublin might inspire the peoples of Europe to rise up and end the slaughter. But the Easter insurrection was tragically premature. Thousands of armed rebels took over major buildings in Dublin, but the people as a whole didn’t join or actively support them. Over a week of bloody fighting, the British Army shot and bombarded the rebels into surrender.

Just a year later, the “grave-like stillness” in Europe was shattered by the Russian Revolution. Then the world revolution was in the balance. In Ireland, Connolly’s dream of freedom from British imperialism and from Irish bosses was in sight.

When most Irish history books today tell the story of Ireland’s Revolution – the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War – there is almost never any acknowledgment that the Irish Revolution was just one episode in the World Revolution that followed the World War. The global context is lost, and with it, an understanding of the real dynamic and meaning of events.

The southern Irish state since its foundation has been beset by massive problems – partition, poverty, emigration, the enormous power of the Catholic Church, and a dysfunctional economy. The only period of prosperity we have ever enjoyed, the Celtic Tiger of the late 1990s and 2000s, was based on a fake property bubble. Now mountains of debt sit on the shoulders of working people in Ireland and there is no end in sight to cutbacks, new taxes and attacks on wages and conditions.

Almost a century ago southern Ireland won freedom from British rule; in a hundred years the Irish capitalist class has had more than a fair chance to prove its worth and to develop the economy and society. But this class has only proved its incompetence and depravity. The greatest symbol of this depravity is how it leaned on the Catholic Church as a prop for its power and ignored the sexual abuse of children and the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries. Unable to develop the economy and with an affinity for cons and shysterism, the Irish ruling class jumped more enthusiastically than any other on the bandwagon of the financial bubble economy of the ‘90s and ‘00s.

Knowing only two tricks in international relations – rolling over and begging – the Irish ruling class happily made their country take on over 40% of the cost of Europe’s bailout when the crisis hit. The politicians owned and funded by the Irish boss class fawn and drool over the visits of US presidents and celebrate like victorious kings whenever a scrap of investment from the table of the multinational corporations lands in Ireland. They seem to think that asking super-rich corporations like Apple, Google and Facebook to pay more than a pittance in tax would be the height of arrogance.

If James Connolly could see Ireland today, he would have an explanation at hand for our historic problems. Our revolution was never completed; soundly beating the British Empire, the Irish people stopped short at the throats of the Irish capitalist class, who have done us no favours in return.

Leaning on a medieval institution, unable to develop the economy except by cons, occupying a position in world politics comparable to the little pointy-eared creature that sits cackling and screeching in the shadow of Jabba the Hutt, the Irish capitalist class has even less to offer the people of Ireland than the parasite boss classes of more developed countries. Oppressed not only by capitalist exploitation but by imperialist domination, sectarian division and a historically weak capitalist class, the Irish people face multiple challenges as we begin the 21st century. It is vital that we understand these challenges.

Ireland is in a decade of hundred-year milestones. The years 1913, 1916, 1921 and others will be endlessly debated and written about. But if we really want to understand these momentous events that defined the world we live in today the standard nationalist, unionist and liberal narratives will give us at best a partial insight and at worst a complete distortion.

This document is intended to tell the story of the Irish Revolution as an episode in the World Revolution that began in Russia in 1917. We will revisit events that have been tragically forgotten. Few now appreciate that for a short but momentous time Belfast and Limerick stood alongside Petrograd, Berlin, Glasgow, Seattle and others as cities ruled by the power of organised workers. Few know that the future leaders of “holy Catholic” Ireland once stood on the brink of forming an alternative “League of Nations” with the “godless” Soviet Union. Members of the SIPTU trade union today should know that in the few short years that their predecessor the ITGWU grew from 5,000 to over 100,000 members, it was a boldly pro-Bolshevik, militant, socialist organisation.

These facts and many more like them weigh heavily against the Neil Jordan school of history, which imagines the fight against British imperialism as a conspiracy by guerrillas and assassins and wise and less wise statesmen. This kind of “history” is not confined to films, however, but saturates what is taught in schools and seeps heavily through most mainstream historical writing.

We will fundamentally change this story by re-inserting three major characters that have been left out by most: the global context, which people living at the time were unable to ignore; the ideas of revolutionary socialism, which were spreading unstoppably throughout the world, not least through Ireland; and lastly the great majority of the participants in the revolution, who did so not as riflemen in the hills but as trade union militants.

We will examine firstly the connections between Ireland and the World Revolution visible in the trade union movements, north and south. Then we will look at the attempts to build dedicated socialist revolutionary parties in Ireland in these years. Last of all we will look at the strong connections that existed between the republican revolutionary movement and the Russian Revolution.

The following post began life as a comment on the following article: http://www.chekov.org/blog/what-left

It grew too long for a comment, so I continued until it was long enough for a blog post, and instead of leaving a great big tower of text at the bottom of the article I left one polite little link. 

left-model_0

This is an interesting model presenting several aspects of “the left” as a phenomenon or culture. The use of a Marxist-to-eclectic continuum is valuable and the various groups well-defined. It makes some true and astute observations, such as that in the present period Trotskyists and Anarchists are closer together than either are to Stalinists.

However you acknowledge that the object of the model is limited enough, to serve as an introduction etc. So forgive me if my disagreements are partly a critique and partly a recce beyond the limitations you yourself acknowledge.

In Ireland, either one of the Socialist Party or the SWP are bigger and have more connection with the working class than the CPI and the WP put together. And the orange planet, social democracy, has in most countries not only faded in colour but changed to a light shade of blue.

You say this model only applies to the post-1917 world. But it applies more than anything to the pre-1989 world – a strong social democracy and Stalinism whose weakness and/or absence are defining features of the neo-liberal period. The ground on which social democrats used to stand is very small at the moment. When the markets will punish any vaguely progressive measure, how can anyone be meaningfully “moderate” and “constitutional” and also be on the left?

The general problem with the model is that it doesn’t allow for change over time, for history.

One group that’s predominantly young, intellectual, confrontational and male and another that’s also all four of those things might have very different outlooks, methods, activities and ideas. One might be able to connect with and politicise the masses, another might die out in a few years.

Remember that every organisation from the “Team USSR” and “Social Democracy” planets started out as just a few “Far Left” types before they were raised up by great events. At certain times in history, some groups from planet “Far Left” grew very large indeed without shedding their politics. How do we explain this?

You say that confrontation and radical politics are “unappealing to many beyond this core demographic” while “social liberalism, gradualism, constitutionalism” are more popular. In what country, in what historical period, in what context is this true?

These assertions do not hold true for most of Europe in the context of the crisis when increasing numbers are drawn toward confrontation.

No pinpoint in history is an eternal default setting. No population maintains the same mood forever any more than does any individual. Other factors play into the relative strength of political forces: social democrats are funded by trade union bureaucracies; Team USSR parties were generally helped along with money from the motherland.

Right now across Europe, a serious factor holding back struggle and radicalisation is not an eternal preference for constitutional mainstream parties, which are in fact increasingly hated and distrusted, but frustration over the lack of leadership and alternatives being put forward by the official “leadership” of traditional parties and trade unions.

This lack of leadership implies a vacuum to be filled. In the next period the organisations you characterise as a fringe of angry young men will have to be tested to the utmost, and some will defy your characterisation and rise to the challenge. When this happens the weaknesses and limitations of this planetary model will become more clear.

What Changes Has the Working Class Undergone?

Like goods and services ideas don’t tend to fall from the sky. Why are some people deceived into thinking that “we are all middle class now”?

The working class has undergone immense changes in the last 30 years. These changes have not transformed the working class into something else – its essence, working for labour, has not changed. But historical trends that we will detail below have changed the working class in important ways.

Neo-liberalism

After the Great Depression and World War Two capitalism went through a “golden age”: rising living standards and productivity smoothed out the sharp conflicts between rich and poor that defined the 1930s.

In the 1970s there arose a conflict – between democracy and workers’ rights on the one hand, and profitability for big business on the other. This came to a head in most advanced capitalist countries. Victory for big business in this conflict (through Reaganism in the US and Thatcherism in the UK, for example) defined the world we live in today.

International Division of Labour

The massive deindustrialisation of Europe and America and the industrialisation to a spectacular level of China and other countries has led to an international division of labour, with the dirtier, poorer-paid jobs going to countries where people have no democratic or workers’ rights.

So on the one hand, trade unions and social-democratic parties won huge gains for working people in the advanced capitalist countries of Europe and America in the middle decades of the 20th century. On the other hand, these gains have not been enough. Businesses don’t like democracy or workers’ rights, and if left to their own devices they’ll pack up and leave for somewhere more repressive and backward. This race-to-the bottom is the reason why China and other heavy-handed states with poor populations have boomed industrially.

For a sketch of the world economy today we should look at the two most crucial economies, those of the US and of China, in comparison. China, on the basis of the Communist Party’s planned economy through which it overcame warlordism, foreign domination and economic backwardness, is a colossus of industrial production.

To list just a few examples:

  • Cement production: 2,000 million tonnes to the USA’s 68.4. Since 2005, China’s output has doubled, while the USA’s has nearly halved.
  • Car production: 18.5 million to the USA’s 8.6
  • Steel production: in 2011, 683 to the USA’s 86.2. In 2007 this stood at 98.1 for the USA and 495 for China.

Meanwhile in indicators of consumption, the US outstrips China spectacularly. In 2008 every 2.25 watts used in China was overmatched by over 11 used in the USA.

The interrelations of the world economy are defined by this nexus of production and consumption. The US sustains China through being a market for its goods; China sustains the US by buying up its currency massively. Other countries to a greater or lesser extent fit into this picture as either producers or consumers.

The implications of this for our observations on the working class are clear: it is bigger and more powerful and more concentrated than ever. It is more like the “traditional” view of class than ever. You would not think it if you took a superficial look around Dublin or London. But if you look a little deeper the signature of today’s working class is everywhere. Who made the clothes I am wearing? Some of the two million garment workers in Bangladesh. Who made the cars that line the roads? Workers on the eastern seaboard of China.

Again we remind ourselves that goods do not fall from the sky. They are built by the labour of working-class people and, for the sake of profit not of rationality, transported absurd distances.

Shopping centres are generally boring places for me. But they become interesting when I really think about the commodities around me. I imagine the exotic places these mountains of mundane objects came from, and the incredible people whose hands made them – an unspeakably great mass of humanity who will someday stand organised, will demand their desires and interests, and shake the world to its foundations.

Financialisation

Back in Europe and the US, since the 1980s the banks and financial institutions have exploded in size and influence. This led directly to the great financial crash of 2007-8. The essence of this age of the domination of finance was the attempt to smooth out, by means of illusions won by gambling, the essential conflict between the capitalists and the working class, revealed by the crisis of profitability of the 1970s.

It was only by financial trickery that decent living standards could be maintained in an economy based on “services”, stripped of manufacturing, whose essential role in the world economy was to be a market. But if you’re a boss, how do you turn a working class into a buying class without paying them higher wages than you can afford? Capitalism “solved” this problem as it usually “solves” problems: by storing up a greater crisis for the future through creating enormous bubbles of imaginary wealth.

Since the predictable crisis hit, the role of governments has been to turn national and regional economies into creaking props for this failed system. The more wealth they pump into the banks, the more the bankers gamble or hoard.

Imagine a dam is built above a city. It is poorly-built using shoddy materials. The dam begins to give way, and the city council steadily dismantle the city brick-by-brick and plank-by-plank in an effort to build up material to fortify the slowly-collapsing dam. This farcical and terrifying situation is what we’re living in. The substantial – jobs and public services – are being sacrificed to save an insubstantial and fake world of fictional wealth whose time has passed and which has nothing to offer humanity.

Alongside the financialisation of the world economy came the collapse of Stalinism. The Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe fell in a great revolutionary wave. While these were planned economies which, especially in the Soviet Union, achieved economic miracles impossible under capitalism, they were ruled over by bureaucratic tyranny. As well as denying the people basic freedoms, this led to the economies stagnating and collapsing. The result was the restoration of capitalism, which was a social, economic, cultural and even a demographic disaster.

Effects on the working class

The historical stages that passed in the last 40 years or so, which I have just briefly outlined, made fools of the two dominant trends in the workers’ movement of the 20th century, in strangely similar ways.

Social Democratic and Labour parties rested cosily on the achievements of the post-war boom, and on that basis became so bureaucratised and conservative that when the 1970s came and all the gains of that boom were under attack from big business they could not make an effective fight. Thatcher claimed that her greatest achievement was New Labour – the transformation of Britain’s Labour Party into a sad imitation of a bosses’ party, which is mirrored all over the world.

Stalinism was equally complacent and conservative. It was no more prepared for historic change, for the accumulation of contradictions which can tear down empires. Without the Stalinist states of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, their sister parties in the West were utterly discredited and left without an anchor in the world.

It is this context which has shaped and defined the working class as it exists today.

Both of these trends in the working-class movement, formerly all-powerful, deserved their fate because the historic period which had sustained them passed. But in dying, following on from defeats such as the miners’ strike and the PATCO dispute, they dragged the working class down with them. The 1980s and 1990s were demoralising experiences which struck the international working class with one blow after another.

Moreover the social-democratic and labour parties retain a zombie-like existence, retaining a prestige among workers based on their past, and making the odd radical noise. This fools people into supporting them as the “lesser evil”. Supporting them and being betrayed by them can further depress working people – making them pessimistic and cynical instead of radicalising them.

A similar bureaucratic obstacle exists in the leadership of the trade union movement. This problem is particularly sharp in Ireland. A time of relative prosperity in the late 1990s and 2000s, a brief historic episode, allowed for a system known as social partnership, whereby scraps are thrown to the working class in exchange for the trade unions becoming tame and timid organisations.

This experience weighs on the working class of today. The memory of Stalinism and social democracy are obstacles on the road of the people toward socialist ideas and mass action. When the crisis hit in 2007-8 and working people were suddenly under attack from all angles, they did not begin from scratch. The working class started with memories of past betrayals and defeats still weighing them down, and with a legacy of disorganisation and complacency inherited from the boom. Every minute of the 1990s and 2000s the workers’ movement grew weaker, and every minute the stranglehold of the bankers and bosses grew stronger. This explains the slowness of the turn toward radicalisation and struggle in most countries.

To briefly summarize the changes we have just outlined:

  • The working classes in the Advanced Capitalist Countries work less in manufacturing, and more in services. This is in an economy that is unsustainable in and of itself, but has been artificially sustained pre-2007 by financial trickery and post-2007 by a massive transfer of wealth from society to the super-rich.
  • The failures of Stalinism and of social democracy and the triumph of neo-liberalism have left a heavy burden of defeatism and demoralisation on the shoulders of the working class globally. It is further weakened by a general disorganisation, retreat, complacency and death of fighting spirit that took place in the last few decades. These factors are holding the working class back from struggle today.
  • The working class is bigger, more developed and more powerful than ever. This fact can be obscured by the international division of labour and by the fact that the working class has low morale and consciousness at the moment. But like the heights of the Celtic Tiger, this apparently all-conquering and eternal reality is merely an episode, an aberration.

So these are the changes: international division of labour, demoralisation and massive potential strength. What basis is there really to claim that there is no working class? As many British people work in call centres today as at one point worked in mines.

What basis is there to think that the colossal working class of today will fail to make its mark on the 21st century? Greater potential for class struggle and revolution exists today than existed 100 years ago, at a time when a far smaller part of the world was industrialised and capitalist, and the working class was a fraction of the size it is today. Revolutionary events greater than those of the 20th century will unfold in the 21st. The further development capitalism has undergone in the meantime promises a greater chance of victory for socialism: wider and deeper foundations now lie ready in most of the world’s countries.

Computational scientist Stephen Emmott has written a book in which he predicts disaster and possible extinction due to population growth and humanity’s unsustainable relationship with nature. On the one hand these predictions are hard-headed and convey the seriousness of the situation as regards the environment and the organisation of human society. On the other hand amid all his “realism” he leaves out of consideration most of humanity.

Achieving a democratic socialist society with a planned economy is the only way we could even begin to address the challenges he outlines through a changeover to green energy and enforcing conservation and efficiency as opposed to the profit-driven chaos of capitalism. Yet he doesn’t even approach such an idea. Instead he concludes, and these are his exact words, “We’re fucked.”

I don’t believe we’re fucked. I know from history that constant radical change is the rule, not the exception. I know the massive progressive power that is unleashed in those moments, revolutions, when the masses intervene actively and consciously in historic events. Once the working class collectively and democratically controls all means of production, distribution and exchange, our species will not only save the environment from complete destruction, but begin to raise civilisation to a higher level.

It would be strange to imagine a future in which for some reason today’s working class fails to leave a decisive stamp on world history. There are obstacles – dictatorship, reactionary ideas, sectarianism, the bitter memory of past defeats. But human beings will look out for their interests; this great mass of human beings, the global working class, has a common interest against the bosses of this world, and is potentially the most powerful force that has ever existed. If even limited sections of this class become conscious, organised and militant, this will be enough to change the course of history. These simple facts trample over all relative obstacles.

A nun walks into a bar.

She smashes up all the stools, robs the till and beats the barman to within an inch of his life.

She’s sentenced to go to jail and pay a fine.

The nun tells the judge, “I choose not to contribute to my prison sentence or my fine.”

And the judge says “Grand so,” and the nun walks away.

 

A government minister walks into a bar.

He buys ten pints and the barman gives him the bill.

The minister refuses to pay. He says what he says whenever he sees a number that doesn’t suit him:

“I don’t know where you’re getting your figures from. That’s voodoo economics.”

 

A banker walks into a bar.

He gets roaring pissed and starts joking and singing. He downs pints of beer, jaegerbombs, vodka and whiskey.

The barman, passing him another five tequilas, asks him if he’s having a good time. The banker nods.

“You’ll be dying tomorrow morning though,” warns the barman.

The banker laughs until tears stream down his cheeks. He says, “I’m a banker, you idiot! Don’t you realise what that means?”

The barman doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Next morning the barman wakes up. Even though he’s had nothing to drink, he’s dying of the worst hangover of his life.

In July 2013 a ship the size of a small city was squatting in Galway Bay. This is a cruise liner where you pay $3 million to live there in a two-bed room. This 43,500-tonne playground for the rich was the talk of the town for the few days it stayed – people spoke of three restaurants, a tennis court, even a golf course.

Of the 250 workers who run the ship, however, we heard nothing. If most cruise liners are anything to go by, they couldn’t have been having much fun. Cruise liner workers are often confined to a ship for eight months, many with zero days off and one 16-hour day after another.

As if begging to be used in a clumsy metaphor, the liner in question bears the modest name of “The World”.

But clumsy metaphors can still be effective. A luxury cruise liner like “The World” is a place that is at the same time a playground and a prison. It’s a holiday site for the statistically insignificant section of the human race who have millions to spare for holidays; it’s a floating prison for the workers who are forced by the need for money to work there.

And yet, even with this great hulking metaphor squatting in the bay, there are people who say that class is not an issue anymore, or in the words of Prescott of the UK’s Labour Party, “We are all middle class now”. The financial crisis has softened the cough of those who argue that class has disappeared but these kinds of ideas are still prevalent, if not dominant.

The Irish Labour Party

Irish Labour Youth’s Tom Johnson Summer School for 2013 was entitled “From lock out to left out”. Strange title, isn’t it? You can understand it if you look at the election manifestoes of this ex-left-wing party. In 2007 this party argued that things were brilliant in Irish society, but that there were some unfortunates who were “disadvantaged” and “marginalised” and had to be looked after.

So the message of Labour Youth is – in 1913 bosses locked out workers. In 2013 there are a few people who are “left out” of a party that the rest of us are enjoying.

A Labour Party member might agree that someone who has €50 or less left after the bills are paid at the end of the month is someone who’s “left out”. But is “left out” really the appropriate term when 1.6 million households are in this position?

The Great British Class Survey

Earlier this year a survey on class conducted in the UK “found” that “traditional” views on class were no longer viable. It did not define these “traditional” views. It unaccountably chopped up the working class into four sub-groups based on arbitrary differences, while allowing something called the “Established Middle Class” to dominate as the largest single bloc.

For more details see here:

http://ranksavagespit.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/the-great-british-class-survey-chopping-up-the-working-class/

Real life

These views have real-life effects in the everyday struggles of the working class. Last year a strike at a restaurant in Denmark was actively sabotaged by a splinter group of Anonymous, who denounced the workers and their “carbon-based class struggle”. When local newspapers carried ads for the restaurant, which was behind a picket, the printing workers decided to call a sympathy strike and get the ads removed. The Anonymous splinter group then hacked into the trade union’s website, shut them down, and disrupted payments to members – all in order to defend the “freedom of speech” of private newspapers!

So what is class?

“Working class” does NOT mean an industrial worker from Victorian England. We can’t present a snapshot of what a “working class person” looks like and judge whether someone is a worker or not based on how much they look like that snapshot. That wouldn’t be a scientific category, it’d be a stereotype.

Unfortunately most of the media deal in exactly such stereotypes, and most people’s ideas are unbelievably muddled by the very same confusion.

“Ireland doesn’t really have a working class, though, does it?” a friend asked me once.

Ireland doesn’t have swarms of men in overalls and flat caps tramping into factories and mines at the roar of a plant whistle – men with cockney or north-of-England accents whose heavyset wives menace them with rolling pins for having one too many pints of bitter. Ireland does not have an abundant collection of these historically-originated stereotypes. But Ireland does, unquestionably, have a working class.

Interrelations, not static categories

A better way to look at class and society is the way a biologist looks at a forest, a beach, a field or any other ecosystem. You try to determine how the different species of plants and animals interact, compete, cooperate and kill, and how this activity produces the overall environment.

We do the same thing when we look at society, only instead of an ecosystem, it’s a complex system of economic relations. And this is the crucial factor. The working class is defined by its position in society – its position in RELATIVE, not ABSOLUTE, terms. It’s defined by the niche it occupies in the “ecosystem” of capitalism – how it survives, how it interacts with other forces.

Let’s say there’s a worker named Usama who makes burgers. Let’s say there’s a worker named Kate who makes agricultural chemicals.

Kate has a higher level of education, earns more, is more secure, has more regular hours and has a lot of cultural and social contact with the world around her.

Usama has only spent a couple of years in Ireland; he works crazy hours for minimum wage, gets called in on his day off, and doesn’t have a lot of contact with a lot of Irish people.

Relative to each other these two workers are very different.

But they have more in common: they both occupy the same niche in the system. They work in exchange for wages. These wages allow them to exist. This is an exploitative relationship: if you control property, and have the exclusive power to employ people, those people will always be employed on YOUR terms. Otherwise why the hell would you employ them?

In a given business ten, twenty or a hundred workers use their bodies to turn raw materials into things for people to buy, be it cups of coffee, ink cartridges or cars. The boss takes the money, gives each worker a fraction of it, and keeps the lion’s share. His only contribution was to get the raw materials, equipment , land and labour together; in other words, his only contribution was to own wealth and to use it.

There are different degrees of exploitation as in the comparison between Kate and Usama. But the fundamental relationship is the same. So we take a broad view of the working class. They are defined not by visual and cultural incidental details, but by their relation to their boss, by this unfavourable niche they occupy in human society.

Exceptions or Borderlands

This division is not absolute and clear-cut:

Higher managers and well-paid professionals like doctors and professors obviously stand closer to the boss than to the worker.

A teacher might own a few houses; a worker might dabble in private business; a tradesman might be self-employed.

The state also employs a lot of people, especially in modern capitalism. The relationship is, however, the same.

A lot of farmers in Ireland make so little off their land that they have to work on the side. They own property, but it’s a dead weight. Property becomes a burden, not a privilege.

So the division between worker and capitalist is not absolute. But it is the most significant division in society. Between those who live by working, and those who live by owning and acquiring. There are broad middle strata who might both own and work. There are those who work but are so well-paid they identify with those who own.

But some, like the authors of the Great British Class Survey, mistake these exceptions for the rule. They spend their whole lives in the borderlands and never see the heartlands of either country. They see elements of both countries, that of capital and that of labour, all around, but they can’t distinguish the two.

Illogical

As well as this theoretical explanation there’s a more obvious objection to the idea that we’re “all middle class now” and that’s the simple question of how any society would work if it was composed of just high-paid professionals and successful businesspeople. This strange utopia, by the way, is actually what a lot of the mainstream politicians think Ireland is, or at least what it should be.

But if such a society existed, who would make the clothes for these people to wear? Who would produce the food they eat, the cars they drive, the instruments and appliances? Who would the doctors treat? Who would buy goods from the businesses? Who would the administrators administer? Where would all the wealth that sustains the activity of the upper layers of society come from?

Despite massive advances in IT, in transport, communications and the sophistication of the operations of finance capital, we have NOT reached a stage in history in which goods and services fall from the sky. Without the underpaid labour of billions of people who are marginalised and exploited, no capitalist society could possibly function. This is the most obvious and indisputable evidence of the existence of the working class today: the fact that completed commodities do not fall from the sky in response to some chants and rituals that only millionaires know.

But class, and the working class in particular, have gone through huge changes in Ireland, in Europe and all across the world, since the 1980s or so. Tune in again soon for a follow-up post on the broad question of what changes the working class has undergone in recent decades.

Here’s a link to a clip from a new HBO series, “The Newsroom”, which someone has posted to youtube under the name “The most honest three minutes in television history, EVER”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=uOTnwBR2ugY#at=24

To put it simply enough, the first half of it was good and thought-provoking and progressive in the questions it poses. The second half, from “we used to be” onwards, was sentimental nonsense founded in nostalgia not reality.

The first half asks difficult questions of the mainstream American consensus. The second half flees in panic from the unpleasant truths the first half hinted at, into a comforting foam of the kind of total ignorance it pretends to criticize.

Characteristic of the first half are specifics – literacy, life expectancy, etc. Characteristic of the second half are generalisations, without reference to ANY specifics at all to back them up – “we didn’t scare so easily”, “We put our money where our mouth was”. What does this mean?!? Whoever wrote this script can refute the contention that America is the greatest country in the world, and back it up with facts. When he moves on to saying that America used to be the best country in the world, however, the writer has to rely on a load of empty talking.

The Bright Side

In one way there’s a dialectical truth in all this. American capitalism passed through a stage that was in a huge number of ways profoundly progressive in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Full employment, a boom, a dramatic rise in living standards. Americans today are living in the hollowed-out shell of the engine that once carried out these great achievements. We have to assume this is the past golden age the actor is talking about.

Nostalgia for this progressive period explains why the John F Kennedy assassination is remembered with such passion by so many – it’s implicitly identified as the moment when everything “went bad”. Of course this is rarely backed up by any actual argument or data. Kennedy was as cynical and murderous as the next US president you might pick out of a hat – look at Cuba, look at Vietnam. The event is just taken over as an effective symbol.

The Dark Side

The character portrayed is of course not black, gay (as far as we can tell) or a woman. Nor is he from Latin America or South-East Asia. This means his view on this socially repressive and rampantly imperialist age is skewed.

This is the dark side of sentimentality for the post-war “golden age” – it’s a straight white man’s golden age. Good points about how there used to be a welfare state, workers’ rights, a sense of community and greater democratic accountability, start to shade into an otherwise inexplicable nostalgia for a period of rampant racism and sexism.

Two ways to respond to change

There’s a reason this kind of nonsense sentimentality strikes a chord with people. Reality is constant change, and capitalism brings about constant, revolutionising change to the world. There are two ways to respond to the change capitalism imposes on humanity.

1) a sad, tragic, depressing response of trying to salvage or reinstate the positive things that capitalism has destroyed, usually defined by a selective and sentimental remembering of the past. Running after anachronisms and past  fleeting moments is a journey through fog that might lead you anywhere except where you want to go. One in this position we might call an anachrophile – a lover of obselete things.

2) a positive and uplifting response of identifying the incredible foundations that capitalism has laid and planning to build on them. This is the basis of scientific socialism or Marxism. The massive advances in technology and social organisation which capitalism has brought about in the last two hundred years or so have massively improved the condition of humanity.

Capitalism is a vessel we have to shrug off now as it’s fulfilled its progressive role and is increasingly a burden, not an aid – strangling democracy, the economy and the environment just to sustain the wealth of an insignificant minority of the population. Those who want to turn back the clock to an earlier phase of capitalism are fooling themselves.

To give one example to illustrate this point:

The Corporation drives the small farmers off the land and turns them into propertyless wage-labourers. What is the solution to this injustice?

1) The anachrophile might say that the small farmers should wish the Corporation never existed, so they could return to being small farmers.

2) The Marxist will recognise that the Corporation has superior technical equipment and capital that can reduce the amount of time people have to spend in work and drudgery – so he says that the wage-labourers need to strive for the future, not the past. They need to take over the Corporation and run it democratically, using its capital and resources to provide a better life for all concerned.

Nature of Television

The mass media are very good at sending out vague or mixed messages. In this way they can give viewers of many political persuasions the illusion that they are hearing something that supports their particular views. So where this clip first provokes and cuts deep, it must then soothe, unite, fudge together and promise hugs for everyone. The refreshing denial that America is the greatest country in the world must be balanced by an outpouring of sludge about a fictional golden age.

 

Over the last few days the Irish Independent has been releasing taped phonecalls between the bosses of the toxic bank Anglo-Irish, made at the time of the bank guarantee in 2008, when the government decided to bleed the country dry to bail them out.

As we might have guessed, the bankers – David Drumm, John Bowe and others – laugh and joke about the whole thing, revealing that the bailout figure of €7 billion was “pulled out of me arse”, that they knew they were conning everyone, that they looked forward to the government taking over the bank and turning them into civil servants.

The Independent harps on endlessly about this “damaging our reputation overseas”, a reputation Enda Kenny had been “painstakingly rebuilding” for us from its previous “shattered” state. But the only things the Anglo tapes have damaged are stupid illusions. They show the whole world that when we try to be “poster child for austerity”, “taking the medicine” without a fuss, we’re just being pathetic chumps, running our country into the dirt to save a class of bankers, speculators and bosses who sneer at us behind our backs.

What came between 2008 and now was five years of vicious cutbacks and new taxes. When the bankers sniggered over the phone at how they were scamming the country for tens of billions, they knew very well that they were sniggering over the hundreds of thousands who would soon be plunged into unemployment. They were laughing at people dying in underfunded hospitals; at people unable to get an education; at people living in misery and drudgery; at people losing their homes; at people being forced to leave the country. Hearing those laughs over the phone lines echoing from the beginning of these five merciless years provokes a serious anger in anyone who listens.

Politicians play innocent

Politicians from all the major parties are now demanding inquiries of various kinds. Eamon Ó Cuiv, a long-standing FF leader, thinks if we spend a few million on a good strong inquiry, we’ll “find out” what went wrong and then make sure it never happens again. But we know what happened; the rich fucked us over again, and their buddies in government let them do it again. We only need to listen to the bankers’ voices to gain a greater insight into the crisis than any inquiry could give us.

An inquiry, for f**k’s sake, wouldn’t start for years and would take the guts of a decade, and end with nothing substantial. It will make millionaires of some barristers and solicitors and instead of satisfying the demands of justice it would serve to “quarantine” the Anglo scandal, to seal it off from the whole system that is tainted by it, shaving the tip off the iceberg. It would take the anger people feel at the Anglo scandal, and exhaust it all in a boring and inconsequential saga of legal wrangles.

Compared to this, the image of a lynch mob hanging the Anglo executives from the Ha’penny bridge starts to look very attractive. Of course that wouldn’t solve anything, but the image is attractive because in it the people are centre-stage; a lot better than a government of shysters using our money to fund a bunch of rich lawyers to politely nit-pick the Anglo issue until today’s new-born babies are growing stubble and getting ready to emigrate.

The whole damn system is a scandal; the era of “free markets” ended with such a massive crisis that governments have been forcing enormous pain on workers just to prevent the capitalist system from collapsing. A system that’s become so monumentally fake and useless is being desperately maintained with the wealth of a society it does not serve but rules over.

The letters page in yesterday’s Indo is a showcase in the battle between people’s anger and people’s resignation. One letter compares the contempt of the bankers to the attitude of French aristocrats before the Revolution; the comparison is appropriate because in each case we’re talking about a ruling elite that’s lost the ability to provide anything for the people, but maintains the ability to take from the people endlessly.

Solidarity and struggle, not some lame inquiry

The Anglo Tapes provide the shock to make us realise what we’ve known all along: austerity serves the interests of the rich, and fleeces the rest of us. We give everything and we get nothing back. The last five years were a massive con.

The best course of action is to organise and fight. Against the power of money we have the power of solidarity and numbers. We need to reclaim our unions from the sellout bureaucracy who have had the power to lead the fight for years but have failed. We need to resist the imposition of new taxes and charges on working people. With over half the people of the country determined to vote for independents & others or else undecided, the vacuum in the electoral field desperately needs filling; the CAHWT electoral slate can be an electoral voice for working people in June 2014.

What we need to fight for

Vague appeals to “stand up and be counted” and innuendo about the fate of French aristocrats only go so far. We need concrete demands.

-          We are still paying through the nose for AIB, BOI and Permanent TSB. These dysfunctional banks – they lost €500 million every month last year – need to be properly nationalised; we can open their books and decide who among their bondholders is more deserving of funds than a school or a hospital, and write off debts to everyone else. Then let’s get the banks lending again.

-          More than 100,000 households are in arrears of more than 3 months. Let’s allow people to pay for the bricks and mortar they live in, not for the predatory, inflated prices generated by a ridiculous bubble.

-          The 300 richest people in Ireland, who are growing richer every year, now sit on €66 billion. The essence of the crisis is that these and other wealthy people are not investing because the rate of profit doesn’t look inviting enough. We can’t politely wait for them to start investing again, as we’ve been doing for five years. We need to tax the hell out of this wealth and use it to create jobs, infrastructure and services.

[This is another essay from college. In arguing my point I think I leave a few blind spots such as some of Dylan's earlier protest material and Ochs' later turn toward introspection.  My arguments still stand, but I don't think I give everything its due...

Again, I don't usually write in this formal way, forgive the style or lack thereof.]

In 1965 Bob Dylan played a new song of his to Phil Ochs (according to different accounts, it was either “Sooner or later” or “Can you please crawl out your window”). The two were travelling in a taxi when Ochs gave his opinion of the song: “It’s OK, but it’s not going to be a hit.” Dylan told the driver to stop and said, “Get out, Ochs. You’re not a folk singer. You’re just a journalist.”[1] Relations between the two were not usually hostile, but the incident was a manifestation of inherent tensions and conflicts within the folk revival and the radical movements of the 1960s.

These two very different men, at one stage described as the King (Dylan) and President (Ochs) of the topical protest song,[2] reflected and were affected by different aspects of the culture and politics of the 1960s. With a focus on Dylan and Ochs we will firstly explore the different aspects of the folk revival of the early 1960s, in particular the conflict between image and reality. Then we will look at how Dylan, like many activists and artists in the 1960s, substituted radical form for radical content. Finally, we will describe how Ochs reacted to the political defeats of the left in the late 1960s. In this the differences and to some extent the conflicts between the different aspects of the movement that they represented were clear.

Different aspects of 1960s culture and politics were immediately audible in the early music and lyrics of the two musicians. Ochs was journalistic, satirical, overflowing with facts and information while Dylan conveyed images and feelings. Ochs reacted to the Cuban Missile Crisis with a mocking exposure of US politics:

…some Republicans was a-goin’ insane

(And they still are).

Ochs' first album: Ochs the journalist

Ochs’ first album: Ochs the journalist

They said our plan was just too mild, Spare the rod and spoil the child,

Let’s sink Cuba into the sea,

And give ‘em back democracy,

Under the water!

“Talkin’ Cuban Crisis”, I Ain’t Marching Anymore, Elektra (1964)

This was a folk song in the tradition of Guthrie’s “Talking Sailor” and “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues”, musically simple and lyrically conversational or journalistic. While Dylan too wrote some “Talkin’” songs, he reacted to the Cuban Missile Crisis with a song that stood in a different part of the folk tradition:

I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’

[...]

“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Columbia (1962)

This was a metaphorical prophecy, standing closer to eerie old ballads like “Nottamun Town” and shading into later 1960s psychedilia rather than to Ochs’ style of sassy, ironic, witty satire. A similar pattern is repeated with the Vietnam War. Even in later songs that were more metaphorical and image-based, Ochs remained specific and clear in his critiques:

Blow them from the forest and burn them from your sightvn2

Tie their hands behind their back and question through the night

But when the firing squad is ready they’ll be spitting where they stand

At the white boots marching in a yellow land

“White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land”, Tape From California, A&M, (1968)

Dylan never directly referenced the Vietnam War, let alone any specific aspect of it, in his songs:

How many times must the cannon balls fly

Before they are forever banned?

“Blowin’ In the Wind”, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Columbia (1963)

The King of the Philistines his soldiers to save

Dylan's Vietnam: "slaves" sent out to the jungle by the King of the Philistines
Dylan’s Vietnam: “slaves” sent out to the jungle by the King of the Philistines

Puts jawbones on their tombstones and flatters their graves

Puts the pied pipers in prison and fattens the slaves

And sends them out to the jungle.

“Tombstone Blues”, Highway 61 Revisited, Columbia (1965)

 

By the time he released “Tombstone Blues”, of course, Dylan had somewhat moved away from traditional folk patterns and was more and more concerned with word-painting metaphorical landscapes as a means of satire along with increasing rock elements. However, a tendency away from the specific and towards the general was inherent in the folk revival from the start, and particularly in the tendencies represented by Bob Dylan as opposed to Phil Ochs.

“Masters of War”, for instance, in Ochs’ hands might have been a thorough and witty exposure of the military-industrial complex; in Dylan’s hands it was a simple but extremely heartfelt and bitter condemnation of war profiteers – “I hope that you die” is a line that was so intense that Joan Baez, when covering the song, would not sing it.[3] But Dylan, when he sang it, seemed to mean it. While Greil Marcus sees “Masters of War” as too simplistic to do Dylan’s talents justice,[4] the song is in fact characteristic of Dylan in that it substitutes emotion and strong, simple images for argument.

Ochs the Activist

Ochs the activist

By comparison, Ochs represented those who were more concerned with information and argument. Compare Guthrie’s “The biggest thing that man has ever done” with Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”: in both the singer takes on an immortal persona and describes a journey through history. Guthrie is the spirit of the working-man who “fought a million battles and I never lost a-one” and will now “kick [Hitler] in the panzers and put ’im on the run.”[5] Ochs is the American soldier who has fought in every American war but after every experience of cruelty, injustice and dishonesty, “I knew that I was learning/ That I ain’t marching anymore”. Each song has a wealth of historical detail backing up a clear political statement.

“I Ain’t Marching Anymore” was Ochs’ most successful song, remembered as “the anthem” of the anti-war movement. Ochs playing it in public was enough to provoke a spate of draft-card burnings.[6] Its lyrics were incorrectly reported by FBI agents. As a witness at the trial of the Chicago Eight, Ochs was forced to recite the lyrics word-for-word to the judge and jury.[7] This song was no crude attempt to transplant the spirit of the 1930s or 1940s into the 1960s; it was an extremely successful song that inspired young protestors and alarmed their opponents.guthriedylan

While Ochs was heavily influenced by Guthrie’s form and content, Dylan was far more interested in Guthrie’s image. After listening to Guthrie’s “Ballad of Tom Joad” repeatedly and obsessively and reading his autobiography Bound for Glory, Dylan left Minneapolis in December 1960, hitch-hiking east to find Guthrie. He dressed and spoke like Guthrie, invented various hobo back-stories for himself, and imitated Guthrie on his early album covers.[8]guthrie

The attraction of Guthrie was the attraction of folk generally for middle-class young people like Dylan and Ochs. Cantwell explores this vital aspect of the folk revival, which he sees as “a form of social theatre” in which middle-class young people idolized and imitated the proletarian, rural and demotic folk singer. Hero-worship of rebel figures like Brando and Dean earlier in life gave way to an embrace of figures like Guthrie and Leadbelly, hobo rebels who were unlearned but had bitter life experience.[9] In hair and clothes 1960s radicals sought “to break with how successful people presented themselves in ‘straight’ society”[10]. Robes and flowers came later; the folk period was characterised by second-hand clothes associated with manual labour.

Dylan’s advice in “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “don’t follow leaders”,[11] might have been very popular but he never sang anything like “don’t follow icons.” Ochs too understood the power of the icon in the contemporary US when in 1970 he joked (or perhaps seriously suggested) that “if there’s any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara.”[12]

Hope for America - Elvis becomes Che in the person of Phil Ochs

Hope for America – Elvis becomes Che in the person of Phil Ochs

Many 1960s activists believed that radical politics must be matched by radical means of representation. Students for a Democratic Society preferred “a kind of emotional and moral plain-speaking” to political theory,[13] and the folk revival which spoke lyrically in a proletarian voice and musically with great simplicity and a minimum of instruments. Though highly-educated, Yippies like Rubin and Hoffman thought they could only communicate their message through strong images and rhetoric. They revelled in state repression and police brutality, spoke in a “hip patois” punctuated with the inarticulate words “you know”, and made poetic statements such as “We demand the politics of ecstasy!” instead of concrete demands and arguments.[14] In embracing the image, therefore, Dylan was, in the context of the 1960s, making a kind of political statement, and was in tune with many political activists of the day.

Lasch believes that this emphasis on the image “imprisoned the left in a politics of theatre, of style without substance [...] which it should have been the purpose of the left to unmask.” Farber argues that the Yippies’ emphasis on “facile slogans instead of careful explanation” meant that they “gave most Americans little chance to understand them.”[15] Ochs, though helping to found the Yippies, considered the idea of a “freak counterculture” to be “disastrous.” What was needed was “an organic connection to the working class.”[16] Radicalism in form and radicalism in content were two connected but at times antagonistic phenomena in the 1960s.

Even when Dylan was writing “protest” songs, their message was never clear. The line “How many roads must a man walk down/ Before you can call him a man?”[17] is a reference to the civil rights marches, but taken out of context it could just as easily be a reflection on maturity and coming of age, with metaphorical roads representing human experience. Dylan’s 1964 song “My Back Pages” seemed outright to disown many of his former beliefs, though he is characteristically unspecific here about what beliefs he is rejecting. He suggests that in even trying to define and express explicit politics “I would become my enemy/ In the instant that I preach.”[18] Dylan was not just embracing new forms of expression; he was identifying explicit and concrete means of representation and argument as inherently corrupt.

Generally over the next few years Dylan expressed politics only in terms that were general, surrealist and metaphorical. Employers “say sing while you salve and I just get bored”; Jack the Ripper “sits at the head of the chamber of commerce”. Alongside these subterranean_homesick_bluesmetaphors there is a message of fatalism; Dylan says he wants to help the listener to “ease the pain/ of your useless and pointless knowledge.”[19] Joan Baez claimed that Dylan “ends up saying there is not a goddamned thing you can do about [social problems], so screw it.”[20] Dylan didn’t “need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”; he gave the impression that he simply knew and understood the world instinctively and had no need for science or expert opinion. Meanwhile, there was nothing to do but “Look out, kid”; the best you can hope for is to “Keep a clean nose, put on some plain clothes”[21] and escape capture by the “agents”, “superhuman crew” and “insurance men” of Desolation Row.[22] Later Dylan was to encourage listeners to seek redemption in religion; before he turned to religion he pointed instead toward redemption in an image of street-wisdom, a “subterranean” lifestyle and an avoidance of futile conflict with the authorities.

Other lyrical subject matter included non-political romantic songs and evocations of a “subterranean” freak lifestyle. The most striking feature of Dylan’s mid-1960s material, however, was his increasing number of songs in the second person which were harsh, bitter personal judgements:

[...] you know as well as me
You’d rather see me paralyzed
Why don’t you just come out once
And scream it

“Positively 4th Street” (1965) Single, Columbia

Now you don’t talk so loud

Now you don’t seem so proud

About having to be scrounging your next meal

“Like a Rolling Stone” (1965) Single, Columbia

Well you walk into the room

Like a camel and then you frown

You put your eyes in your pocket and your nose on the ground

There oughta be a law against you comin’ around

You should be made to wear earphones

“Ballad of a Thin Man” (1964), Highway 61 Revisited, Columbia

Practically everyone Dylan knew from 4th Street in Greenwich Village and 4th Street in Minneapolis suspected that “Positively 4th Street” might be about them.[23] They need not have worried because these songs were primarily about Dylan himself. Ochs remembers how Dylan used to engage in verbal battles on nights out: it was “very clever, witty, barbed and very stimulating, too. But you really had to be on your toes. You’d walk into a threshing machine if you were just a regular guy, naive and open, you’d be ripped to pieces.”[24] Dylan was presenting himself as a kind of witch-hunter of phonies and bourgeois intruders who were, like the Thin Man, more comfortable discussing “lepers and crooks” with “great lawyers” and “professors” than they were mixing in Dylan’s culturally non-conformist milieu.[25]

It’s worth pointing out that in singing these songs Dylan had no qualms that he might tell any “lies that life is black and white” or become his own worst enemy “in the instant” that he preaches. Dylan’s judgemental songs are performances of his own streetwise image as well as portraits of uncool features for listeners to avoid unless they too wanted to be “ripped apart” by Dylan.

Music producer Paul Rothchild clai

Cartoon by Ralph Steadman depicting the police riot in Chicago in 1968, a tunring-point for Phil Ochs

Cartoon by Ralph Steadman depicting the police riot in Chicago in 1968, a tunring-point for Phil Ochs

med that Ochs’ commitment to political causes was a cynical ploy along the same lines as this image-obsessed politics.[26] However, by all other accounts it is clear that Ochs’ commitment was genuine. He was the only musician who gave his word that he would come to the Chicago 1968 protests no matter what.[27] He would frequently turn down commercial gigs in favour of playing for free at political benefit gigs.[28] Abbie Hoffman remembers that “Phil never turned down anybody no matter what size the [political] group.”[29]

Ochs was, like the narrator of “The Biggest Thing the World had Ever Done” or “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”, a witness to more than his share of history. He was at the Newport folk festivals, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the first anti-war teach-in; he helped organise the Chicago ’68 protests; the “War is Over” rallies and “An Evening with Salvador Allende” were his brainchild; he visited Robert Kennedy in the White House and brought tears to his eyes singing “Crucifixion”; he was active in Mississippi when the bodies of three murdered civil rights activists were found. A great deal of Ochs’ person and career were deeply invested in the radical politics of his day.

At the Newport Folk Festival of 1966 Dylan performed songs with a backing rock band and an electric guitar, provoking outrage from many sections of the crowd.[30] During a tour of England he was called “Judas” by an audience member.[31] This was another manifestation of the inherent tensions and conflicts within radical politics and culture in the period. In the eyes of many on the folk scene, the modest, “authentic” and political folk genre was losing the prominent voice of Dylan to the corporate, egotistical, corrupted, apolitical world of rock.[32] Ochs believed that those who booed were engaging in “a most vulgar display of unthinking mob censorship. Meanwhile, life went on around them.”[33] Despite their differences in terms of content and form, Ochs in this period never abused Dylan, calling Highway 61 Revisited “the most important and revolutionary album ever made.”[34]

A large part of Ochs’ defence of Dylan must have been his own growing desire to try new musical styles. This resulted in his 1967 album

Ochs, uncertain where to go

Ochs, uncertain where to go

Pleasures of the Harbor which was more poetic than political, incorporating orchestral arrangements rather than a simple guitar. The album received negative reviews but Ochs’ desire to find a new niche reflected changes that were taking place in the music business. Rothchild explains that though Ochs had been at home in “the pre-Beatle, pure folk era”, his producers were not convinced that he “was going to crack the pop world. He had the wrong image, the wrong voice” and his lyrics were not “relationship introspective.” The music business was no longer interested in folk, especially political folk with lyrics “of the intellect” rather than sex.[35] This shift was like a forewarning of even more significant changes afoot in politics.

Former SDS leader Tom Hayden believes that there were, speaking very generally, two main halves to the 1960s from a radical point of view. The first half was characterised by innocence and optimism, with a basic belief in the possibility of the redemption of the American dream.[36] The second “half” represented reality reasserting itself; a “clarification of where we really stood.”[37] This basic schema helps us to understand the waning of the civil rights movement and the rise of the Black Panthers; the collapse of SDS and the activity of “urban guerrillas”; overall, the change from optimism to either resignation or a more determined and dangerous form of struggle.

For Dylan the Kennedy assassination, race riots and the Vietnam War “transformed his attitude from one of wanting a moral reform and the cleansing of his society to one of despairing that this society was reformable at all” as early as 1964.[38] There was obviously no “clean break” at which the civil rights movement ended and the Black Panthers began, and Malcolm X had already raised similar ideas years before his death in 1965. Despite these ambiguities and others, we can say with confidence that the key events which contributed most to the demoralisation of activists occurred in 1968.

1968 in the US saw the assassination of Martin Luther King and the most widespread ghetto riots yet; the murder of Robert Kennedy; the repression of the Columbia University occupation; the Chicago Democratic National Convention protests; the strong vote for the ultra-conservative Wallace; and finally the victory of Republicans Nixon and Agnew in November.[39] Ochs was so closely integrated with the radical movements that to understand the significance of this year we need only look at the cover of his 1969 album “Rehearsals for Retirement”. It shows a gravestone which reads:

PHIL OCHS

(AMERICAN)

BORN EL PASO, TEXAS, 1940

DIED CHICAGO, ILLINOIS, 1968[40]

images (2)The album documented the changes that had taken place in that year in poetic, metaphorical terms:

I spied a fair young maiden and a flame was in her eyes

And on her face lay the steel blue skies [...]

I’ll go back to the city where I can be alone

And tell my friends she lies in stone

In Lincoln Park the dark was turning

“William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed” (1969) Rehearsals for Retirement, A&M

This expressed Ochs’ belief about Chicago that “something very extraordinary died there, which was America.”[41] Here idealized as a woman, the news Ochs brings back to Los Angeles is that illusions in a liberal, democratic USA are dead. Other songs illustrated this more violently:

And they’ll coach you in the classroom that it cannot happen here

"It has happened here" - brutal police repression in Chicago, August 1968, left Ochs haunted by fears of encroaching fascism in America
“It has happened here” – brutal police repression in Chicago, August 1968, left Ochs haunted by fears of encroaching fascism in America, “the dawn of another age”

But it has happened here [...]

It’s the dawn of another age [...]

We were born in a revolution and we died in a wasted war It’s gone that way before

“Another Age” (1969), Rehearsals for Retirement, A&M

Ochs expressed what this meant to him personally with the words “My life is now a death to me.”[42]

Ochs suffered from a long period of reduced output of songs and wild bouts of drinking and violent behaviour. The sudden, near-fatal attack on Ochs on a beach in Tanzania in 1973 caused his further deterioration. It is tempting to emphasize his father’s mental health problems and draw parallels with Ochs’ behaviour. However, we cannot separate Ochs’ mental health from the history and politics in which he had invested so much of himself, any more than we can separate his father’s mental health from his experiences in the Second World War.[43] The attack in Dar-Es-Salaam was simply a personal version of the kind of horrific and apparently meaningless event that had come to characterise the political world Ochs inhabited.

Victor Jara, Ochs' friend and an inspiration, tortured and murdered along with thousands of other young Chilean socialists after Pinochet's coup

Victor Jara, Ochs’ friend and an inspiration, tortured and murdered along with thousands of other young Chilean socialists after Pinochet’s coup

It is an indication of his personal deterioration that he did not learn of the September 11 1973 coup in Chile until December. Ochs had visited Chile and made friends with fellow folk singer Victor Jara, who was tortured and killed along with thousands of others after the counter-revolutionary military coup. Ochs later confessed, “When that happened I said ‘All right, that’s the end of Phil Ochs.’”[44] Despite this he set about immediately and tirelessly organising a huge benefit gig, “An Evening with Salvador Allende”, which he managed to secure Dylan’s presence at by reciting to him the late Allende’s inauguration speech in full, from memory.[45]

He swung between intense periods of political activity, self-destructive idle depression and absurd business ventures until in 1975 he began to claim that Phil Ochs had been murdered by “John Butler Train”. For an individual who had always set so much store in icons and whose ambition it was to become one, and for a representative of a genre defined as “social theatre” and a movement that had invested so heavily in icons, images and theatrics, it is significant that the nadir of Ochs’ decline was his long, violent performance as John Train. A brief recovery preceded his suicide in April 1976.

The last sixteen years of Ochs’ 36-year life could be read as a history of the rise and fall of the radical movements of the “long 1960s.” As if to dramatise the death of the movement, Ochs as “Train” was a violent, cynical, misogynistic wreck. His drunken conspiracy-theory rants were like a dark, twisted parody of Ochs’ witty on-stage patter.[46] The “Train” stood for the boxcar-riding hoboes the young activists had once idolized[47] and so Train’s character seemed to be a dramatisation also of the fact that the working class, in whose image the folk revivalists had tried to construct themselves, had by and large not been won over by the radicals of the 1960s.[48] Ochs’ deterioration and suicide were a reflection of history and politics at least as much as they were personal.

A Melody Maker journalist was perceptive in describing Dylan and Ochs as the King and President, respectively, of the “topical song.”[49] If Dylan was a leader his style of leadership was ceremonial and symbolic like that of a modern monarch. From the start he

The new Bob Dylan: some traces of politics remain but the focus is on culture and lifestyle

The new Bob Dylan: some traces of politics remain but the focus is on culture and lifestyle

neglected direct, specific protest lyrics in favour of radicalism in form and image. His travelling-hobo clothing and voice conveyed a radical message in and of themselves but this soon gave way to a rock-star image as his music turned increasingly toward experimentation, and his lyrics toward personal problems, definitions of coolness and fatalistic metaphorical depictions of the world around him. He rarely advised his listeners to take any action or condemned anything specific – instead he created in himself an ultra-cool radical image and icon capable of knowing and expressing intuitively what the world was like and who was cool and who was not. Accordingly the changes of the late 1960s did not detract from him significantly since he was invested in a politically uncommitted self-image rather than in politics itself.

Monarchs generally rule for life while Presidents only enjoy a limited term. In the US they are executive and military leaders. It is a fitting image for Ochs, who in his lyrics generally made it clear and specific what he stood for and what he opposed. His commitment to active politics was enthusiastic and generous. Ochs had been at home in Hayden’s optimistic and active “half” of the 1960s. With the onset of pessimism, retreat and demoralisation, especially after 1968, he characterised himself and the movement as powerful, but out of their element: “A whale is on the beach/ It’s dying.”[50]

Ochs, in his “Train” persona, believed that Dylan “in a cowardly fashion hid behind images – after his third album”. Dylan’s albums between 1967 and 1974 were widely perceived as weak[51] and “Train” imagined accosting Dylan with the words, “Listen, asshole, I can kill you as soon as look at you. You were Shakespeare at twenty-five, and now you’re dog shit.” This cannot be sincere because Ochs, along with most critics, was hugely impressed by 1975’s Blood on the Tracks.[52] Meanwhile Ochs’ defence of Dylan after Newport 1966 suggests that this resentment was not rooted in envy of Dylan’s success or talents. It seems instead that this was another manifestation of the inherent conflicts in the culture and politics of the 1960s. Ochs’ resentment stemmed from the fact that Dylan had at an early stage abandoned the political struggle to which Ochs had sacrificed his career, his sanity and most of his adult life. Rather than seeking social change Dylan, like the hippie movement, sought personal redemption; like the folk revival, he constructed an icon; like the Yippies and SDS he preferred intuition to analysis and images to politics.

Bibliography

Books

  1. Boucher, David and Browning, Gary (eds), The Political Art of Bob Dylan, Imprint Academic, 2009
  2. Cantwell, Robert, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, Harvard University Press 1996
  3. Eliot, Marc, Phil Ochs: Death of a Rebel, Omnibus, 1990 (1978)
  4. Farber, David, The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s, Hill & Wang, 1994
  5. Farber, David, Chicago ’68, University of Chicago Press, 1988
  6. Gill, Andy, The Stories Behind the Songs, 1962-1969, Carlton Books, 2011 (1998)
  7. Isserman, Maurice and Kazin, Michael, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, New York, Oxford University Press, 2008
  8. Marcus, Greil, Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, Writings 1968-2010, Faber & Faber, 2010

Albums

Bob Dylan:

  1. Bob Dylan, Columbia, 1962
  2. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Columbia, 1963
  3. The Times They are a-Changin’, Columbia, 1964
  4. Another Side of Bob Dylan, Columbia, 1964
  5. Bringing it All Back Home, Columbia, 1965
  6. Highway 61 Revisited, Columbia, 1965
  7. Blonde on Blonde, Columbia, 1966
  8. John Wesley Harding, Columbia, 1967
  9. Nashville Skyline, Columbia, 1969
  10. Blood on the Tracks, Columbia, 1975
  11. The Basement Tapes¸ Columbia, 1975

Phil Ochs:

  1. All the News That’s Fit to Sing, Elektra, 1963
  2. I Ain’t Marching Anymore, Elektra, 1964
  3. Pleasures of the Harbor¸ A&M, 1967
  4. Tape From California, A&M, 1968
  5. Rehearsals for Retirement, A&M, 1969
  6. Greatest Hits, A&M, 1970

Film

  1. Bowser, Kenneth, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, First Run Features, PBS American Masters, 2012

 


[1] Andy Gill, The Stories Behind the Songs 1962-1969, Carlton Books (1998, 2011), 128

[2] Marc Eliot, Phil Ochs: Death of a Rebel (1978), Omnibus (1990), 109

[3] Greil Marcus, Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-1010, Faber & Faber (2010), 410-12

[4] Marcus, 412

[5] Woody Guthrie, “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done”, The Columbia River Collection Smithsonian Folkways, (1941, 1988); Phil Ochs, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”, I Ain’t Marching Anymore, Elektra (1965)

[6] Kenneth Bowser (writer and director), Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, First Run Features (2012); 00:20:18, 00:46:30

[7] Eliot, 181

[8] Gill, 17-18, 32

[9] Robert Cantwell, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, Harvard University Press (1996), 2, 17, 347

[10] Isserman and Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, Oxford University Press (2008), 155

[11] Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, in Bringing it All Back Home, Columbia, (1965)

[12] Eliot, 97

[13] Isserman & Kazin, 180

[14] David Farber, Chicago ’68, University of Chicago Press (1988), 7, 20-23

[15] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, Abacus (1979), 81-82; Farber, Chicago, 225, 244-5

[16] Eliot, 163-4

[17] “Blowing in the Wind”

[18] Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages”, Another Side of Bob Dylan, Columbia (1964)

[19] Bob Dylan, “Maggie’s Farm”, Bringing it All Back Home, Columbia (1965); “Tombstone Blues”, Highway 61 Revisited, (1965)

[20] Gill, 94

[21] “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

[22] Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row”, Highway 61 Revisited, Columbia (1965)

[23] Gill, 126-7

[24] Gill, 127

[25] “Ballad of a Thin Man”

[26] Eliot, 76

[27] Farber, Chicago ‘68, 26

[28] Bowser, 00:09:04

[29] Bowser, 00.09:10

[30] Gill, 111

[31] Michael Jones, in The Political Art of Bob Dylan, ed. Boucher & Browning, Imprint Academic (2009), 75-80

[32] Jones, 82

[33] Eliot, 96

[34] Gill, 113

[35] Eliot, 119

[36] Bowser, 00:17:37

[37] Bowser, 00:38:05

[38] The Political Art of Bob Dylan, 38

[39] Isserman & Kazin, 319

[40] Phil Ochs, Rehearsals for Retirement, A&M (1969)

[41] “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed”, live performance in Vancouver, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWEBlZ7C_lE&playnext=1&list=PLD33BBF4B10862910&feature=results_video, accessed 3/3/2013, 17:14

[42] Phil Ochs, “My Life”, Rehearsals for Retirement, A&M (1969)

[43] Eliot, 12

[44] Eliot, 256

[45] Bowser, 00:58:30 – 01:06:00

[46] Eliot, x-xv

[47] Eliot, 262. The following comes from the liner notes of a planned album written in 1975: “John stands for Kennedy, Butler stands for Yeats, Train stands for hobos at the missed silver gates.”

[48] Isserman & Kazin, 280

[49] Eliot, 109

[50] Phil Ochs, “No More Songs”, Greatest Hits, A&M, 1970

[51] Marcus, 7-27

[52] Eliot, 243, 255

 

[This was an essay I wrote for college a few months ago - forgive the near-pompous, formal language, hope you find it interesting...]

 

Nikolai Bukharin, just before the 1937 arrest which led to his death, wrote “My solitary, innocent head will draw in thousands more innocent people. For, after all, [the prosecutors] have to create an organisation, a Bukharinist organisation.”[1] A key method of the

Nikolai Bukharin - unwittingly cleared the ground for his own complete destruction

Nikolai Bukharin – unwittingly cleared the ground for his own destruction by collaborating with Stalin

Great Terror of 1936-8 was the fabrication of organisations, and Bukharin as a participant in, and increasingly a victim of the Terror, knew this. Organisations opposed to Stalinism were grossly misrepresented, falsely linked to foreign governments, blown far out of proportion and often fabricated, but they did exist. In this essay we will examine organised Trotskyism in the USSR in the 1930s and the scattered youth opposition groups of the late 1940s with a focus on what they tell us about Stalinist society.

There is a school of Soviet history writing that explores resistance and opposition. Its focus is for the most part on “weapons of the weak” as defined by James C Scott and other “subaltern strategies”: acts of passive or small-scale resistance that were part of the everyday experience of Stalinism. “Speaking Bolshevik”, a concept coined by Stephen Kotkin, describes a process by which people aped Communist vocabulary and behaviour as a survival mechanism.[2] Viola makes a comprehensive list of forms of “active opposition” which includes rebellions, strikes, protests, broadsheets and terrorism.[3] Opposition newspapers were, of course, produced by organisations, yet Viola seems to neglect this vital aspect of resistance in favour of spontaneous and un-sustained or else individual-level acts. All through resistance studies, examinations of dissent and resistance centre around specific events, times and places.[4] The study of an organisation, however, transcends specific times and places and gives us a more general picture of the society from which it emerged. It is strange that this task has been neglected.

” [...] little attention has been paid to the small group of people who overtly resisted in word and deed. While in a study of mass behaviour they would occupy little more than a place reserved for the curiosities of Soviet society, the form and content of their resistance reveal just exactly how far a citizen of the Soviet Union could distance himself from the officially prescribed norms.”

(Juliane Fürst, “Prisoners of the Soviet Self?—Political Youth Opposition in Late Stalinism”, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 54, No. 3, 2002, 353–375)

 

The above quotation relates to the anti-Stalinist youth organisations of the late 1940s whom we will discuss later. We will devote more attention to the Trotskyist organisations of the 1930s because they represented much more than “a place reserved for curiosities” numerically and politically. In this we will confine ourselves to the period after the defeat of the United Opposition and the exile of Trotsky in 1927-8.

These opposition organisations help us to determine what mental and practical scope existed for sustained, committed, organised opposition under Stalinism. Moreover, they reveal new ways of looking at such interpretive categories as Sovietisation and Stalinisation, resistance and assent, pragmatism and utopianism, Bolshevik ideology and Soviet power. They help us to understand further the social implications of the Great Terror of 1936-8 in attempts to shape a new kind of society and individual. In opposing the Bolshevik and Soviet ideology of the opposition groups to Stalinism we gain an insight into the social forces at play and the implications of Stalinism for Soviet society.

This essay will not examine the efforts of nationalist organisations existing at the peripheries of Soviet power. The case of Chechnya, for example, reflects the violent ethnic cleansing efforts of the Stalinist state[5] but it reveals little about a Stalinist, let alone a Soviet, society that had never been fully established in Chechnya and Ingushetia. As early as 1918 Red Army leaders considered these two regions to be impenetrable due to terrain and culture.[6] This and other examples of nationalist organisations and armies are historically very significant but their existence depended entirely on non-Soviet traditions and forces that were prevalent due to the relative weakness of Soviet power in time or place. Christian youth organisations – which Bukharin estimated in 1928 had a combined membership equalling that of the Komsomol[7] – were not political organisations and we must exclude them as well.

The Left Opposition in Russia in the 1930s was small and weak - but so were the Bolsheviks at the start of 1917. Analogies must have occurred to Stalinists and Opositionists alike

The Left Opposition in Russia in the 1930s was small and weak – but so were the Bolsheviks at the start of 1917. Analogies must have occurred to Stalinists and Opositionists alike

Service dismisses the Left Opposition as completely insignificant by 1937.[10] He perhaps fails to appreciate the analogy that would have come to the mind of Stalin or a Trotskyist, that the Bolsheviks were practically irrelevant to the course of the February Revolution, their leaders in prison or exile and their Centre staffed by obscure figures. Yet their numbers grew from 49,000 in April 1917 to 240,000 in July.[11] In November 1918 they held state power and majorities in the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets. This story was celebrated in Bolshevik ideology and throughout Soviet society and it greatly inspired both the Trotskyists and the oppositionists of the late 1940s.[12]

The extent to which Trotsky himself was demonized and vilified resounds in Russia and internationally to this day.[13] Therefore it is all the more necessary for us to define what we mean by “Trotskyists”. We mean the organisation or organisations which identified themselves as the Bolshevik-Leninists, the Left Opposition, and the Fourth International; which produced, distributed and read the Bulletin of the Opposition and which agreed with Trotsky’s analysis of the nature of the Soviet Union and the need for political revolution. We will also mention other opposition organisations such as those of Riutin and Zinoviev which the Stalinist government falsely labelled “Trotskyites” but which did not enjoy as sustained an existence as the Trotskyists.[14]

In 1936 the organisers of the Trial of the Sixteen famously blundered when the defendant Goltsman “confessed” to having met Trotsky and his son Lev Sedov at a hotel in Copenhagen which had ceased to exist fifteen years before the alleged meeting.[15] But while they

Hotel Bristol, Copenhagen - "site" of one of the greatest blunders of the show trials

Hotel Bristol, Copenhagen – “site” of one of the greatest blunders of the show trials

had invented the details, the instinct of the prosecutors was correct. Goltsman and IN Smirnov had met with Lev Sedov in 1931 and 1932. The exiled Trotsky was establishing links with the “Leningrad Opposition” around Zinoviev as well as Smirnov’s group in order to form a united anti-Stalin bloc in the context of the widespread upheaval of 1932.[16] Like the Riutin platform of 1932 this bloc was rapidly suppressed by arrests and executions.[17] Therefore Trotskyist and other distinct anti-Stalinist organisations existed, in 1932 forming something resembling the “joint Trotskyite-Zinovievite Centre” that was concocted by prosecutors in August 1936.

The important question is how deep-rooted this opposition was in society as a whole, not just among the Communist Party leadership and former leadership. An idea is given by the Stalinists’ reaction to the murder of Kirov, after which 30,000 families, “mostly workers”, were deported from Leningrad in order to break the “Leningrad Opposition” around the figure of Zinoviev. Kevin Murphy’s examination of the Trotskyist and United Oppositions in the Hammer and Sickle Factory in Moscow in the 1920s is very important in assessing the level of support for oppositions among workers and rank-and-file party members as opposed to the heavy focus on leadership figures. Its examination is confined to the 1920s but it gives a strong indication as to the strength of grassroots support for the opposition. In particular it shows how a small number of dedicated militants could exert great influence on other workers.[18] That only a remnant might have remained loyal into the 1930s is of course a valid point but the massive failures of forced collectivisation and the difficulties and struggles that ensued in the early-to-mid 1930s in many areas opened a rift between the working class and the Communist Party.[19]

Stalin estimated that there were 12,000 Trotskyists in the Communist Party. We should see this as a propaganda statement by Stalin who was trying to play down the significance of Trotskyism numerically.[20] However the statement is valuable in that it indicates that the minimum credible number of Trotskyists was around 12,000. In addition to this, ex-members of the Communist Party, many of whom would have been Trotskyists, numbered 1.5 million.[21] NKVD figures show that 41,362 people were arrested for “Trotskyism” in 1937-8, far outweighing the numbers arrested for any other political denomination. Around 15,000 “Right” and 14,000 “Ukrainian Nationalists”[22] come closest. The number of arrest is of course not a precise indicator, reflecting the centrifugal tendencies of the Great Terror.[23] Over 41, 000 arrests for Trotskyism does, however, give a valuable counter-indication to Stalin’s 12,000. In any case, as noted a membership in the tens of thousands, even if largely in exile, was all that the Bolsheviks could call upon at the start of 1917, something which the Trotskyists themselves must have reflected on, not to mention Stalin.

The Trotskyite movement was not simply a bogeyman or a curiosity; it represented a serious element in Stalinist society. Tens of thousands of oppositionists had been persecuted, imprisoned and killed since the mid-1920s, Trotsky pointed out in 1937; “Can it really be that all this was for the sake of a personal struggle between Trotsky and Stalin?”[24] Murphy demonstrates how its implications for Stalinist society and popular opinion go well beyond this organised force.[25] The importance in Soviet social history of organised Trotskyism has been underestimated due to several factors. Firstly, its complete effacement by policies of terror left few to record its history – there are not enough first-hand memoir accounts to count on the fingers of both hands, according to Rogovin.[26] He also contends that the hostility of both Stalinist and anti-communist writers to Trotskyism cut down the number of those outside this eradicated movement who might be motivated to record its history.[27]

The Great Terror must be understood in the context of this organised Trotskyist opposition. Many contemporaries including Hitler saw the Great Terror as an act of insanity. One participant remembers how it sapped morale and initiative and made the Red Army less combat-ready on the eve of war.[28] It remains in the eyes of many “the greatest mystery of the Stalin years.”[29] Others, however, then and since, have emphasized the very rational nature of the Terror. Molotov justified it in the 1970s on the basis that not only “clear Rightists” and Trotskyists but “many who vacillated, those who did not firmly follow the line and in whom there was no confidence that at a critical moment they might desert” were deliberately targeted. He stressed the context of a looming world war under whose pressures dissent could find an echo and lead to division and weakness.[30] The real implications of this were the destruction of Trotskyism and the devastation and terrorizing of national minorities.[31]

The Great Terror fell hardest on the cities and on party members, but its implications went far beyond the party to every level of society. Molotov’s comments confirmed the speculations of Deutscher, who, writing in the 1950s, imagined a mid-1930s Stalin threatened by the rumour of war and haunted by the fate of Tsar Nicholas II. Stalin and Nicholas both face determined revolutionary organisations who might take advantage of the conditions of war; Stalin tells the ghost of Nicholas that his, Stalin’s, opponents are all imprisoned or in exile, but the ghost of Nicholas retorts that Stalin himself was imprisoned in Siberia at the start of 1917.[32] Far from a totalitarian monolith, the Stalinist regime must have been aware of its own fragility in the late 1930s.

The Moscow Trials denounced Trotskyism without ever explaining truthfully what Trotskyism was. Nor were virtually any of the leaders tried in the show trials actual Trotskyists. Stalin insisted that the Fourth International was

“…not a political trend in the workers’ movement but an unprincipled gang of wreckers without ideas, diversionists, intelligence agents, spies, murderers, sworn enemies of the working class, acting in the hire of the intelligence service organs of foreign states.”

(Service, Trotsky, 441)

These were the means by which Stalinism discredited Trotskyism and justified its physical extermination within the USSR. That the prosecutors of the Moscow Trials, the press and the state tackled an outrageously misrepresented straw man shows the power of their physical apparatus and propaganda services but it also demonstrates their political weakness.

Overall this seems to suggest a point made by Fürst to which I will return later, that the “real backbone” of the Soviet system was not the “radical fanatic or convinced socialist” but

“turned out to be the ‘new Soviet people’, who had adapted official demands to suit their own personal needs and survival and were thus neither rejecting nor truly fulfilling them.”

(Fürst, 369)

In thus eliminating the opposition based not on politics but on conscious lies, Stalin typified the model of what Fürst calls “the imperfect”, those who “adapted official demands to suit their own personal needs and survival.” The ideas of the “resistance school” of “weapons of the weak” and “speaking Bolshevik” are usually applied with a large degree of sympathy to opposition, resistance and survival strategies of ordinary Soviet citizens. But they often very accurately describe the Soviet government itself which was compelled to “speak Bolshevik” to the people. Actual resistance, whenever it reared its head in an organised form, was, like the Trotskyists, consciously “Bolshevik-Leninist”. To use Fürst’s words again, the new elite were “neither rejecting nor truly fulfilling” the demands of Bolshevik ideology.

Understanding this requires that we briefly state the position of the Trotskyists: In the years immediately following the revolution the Soviet state was fatally handicapped by war, poverty, backwardness and international isolation. Bureaucracy replaced democracy in the Soviets, the Communist Party and all levels of state administration. Stalin was the personification and leader of the bureaucratic caste which secured privileges through its rule over the state. The Soviet Union should be defended at all costs from the restoration of Capitalism but nonetheless a political revolution was necessary to remove the bureaucracy.[33] Trotskyism (unlike Stalinism from 1939-1941)[34] had zero links to fascism or (unlike Lenin in April 1917[35]) to foreign governments. Trotskyism was a threat to Stalin and to those in privileged positions but not to the Soviet regime itself.

The experience of imprisoned Trotskyists is evidence of the social importance of their organisation and of an alternative Soviet identity. It also illustrates the disproportionate hostility toward them demonstrated by the Soviet government. In the Gulag, Trotskyists were marked with the status of KRTD, for Counter-Revolutionary Trotskyite Activity, rather than the standard KRD for Counter-Revolutionary Activity. This extra letter on their papers made it compulsory for guards to treat them with extra harshness, including beatings and the hardest types of work.[36] This harsh treatment killed the majority but the remainder were more systematically shot or otherwise eliminated in mysterious circumstances.[37] In numbers arrested and in harshness of treatment Trotskyists or alleged Trotskyists were the worst-hit by the Great Terror.

The gold-mining slave labour camps of Kolyma in Eastern Russia

The gold-mining slave labour camps of Kolyma in Eastern Russia

Despite this experience the imprisoned Trotskyists defied victim status in many ways. In the gold mines of Kolyma Trotskyists from various distant camps organised a united hunger strike that won them better conditions. In one area a group of Trotskyists managed to win an exemption from physical labour with no corresponding reduction in rations. Another group being conveyed to the camps shouted slogans out train windows and, in one case in Vladivostok, unfurled a banner reading “Down With Stalin” from a ship. In Vorkuta 1,000 went on a 132-day hunger strike for better conditions and the release of their families. Trotskyists in the camps generally formed well-organised, close-knit groups. They had an overall organisation between camps consisting of fleeting encounters between prisoners while in transit.[38] They were a mix of a few old, seasoned Oppositionists with a majority of young people, some sixteen or seventeen.[39]

Historians concerned with opposition and resistance under Stalinism marvel at

“an entire world within the Stalinist dictatorship, a semi-autonomous world of many layers, cultures, and languages of existence, experience, and survival that coexisted with, evolved within, interacted with, and at times bypassed the larger and seemingly omnipresent reality of Stalinism.[40]

It is remarkable that historians with such preoccupations have so consistently overlooked the fascinating and tragic world-within-a-world of resistance and autonomy that was Trotskyism in the Gulag. This may be another measure of the extent to which both western and Stalinist historiography has neglected the importance of this movement.

The enigma of the Great Terror is why Trotskyists, who supported the Soviet regime, were special targets for extreme demonization, torture and extermination, over and above any other form of “counter-revolutionary”. The solution is to understand that the struggle against Trotskyism was not a factional dispute, a doctrinal debate or a leadership challenge but a social conflict. Stalinism was eliminating alternative poles of influence, trying to reshape society as a whole into a pliant and non-revolutionary body of people. If this was an attempt to fashion a “new Soviet man”, it was anything but utopian.

111This demanded of the regime that it terrorise the nationalities, the oppositionists, the ruling bureaucracy itself[41] and to a lesser extent the population as a whole. It was a pre-emptive strike against separatism, revolution and palace coups, aimed at creating a society in which such things were impossible. The primary task therefore, which Bolsheviks would have understood keenly, was to eliminate the revolutionary party. This was a spectacular inversion and negation of Bolshevik ideology.

International supporters of the Stalinist terror included Italian fascists, who cheered Stalin for embracing “realism” and suppressing “the demon of revolution for the sake of revolution”, and White émigrés. One of the latter, a “Eurasian” named S. Ya. Efron, pledged allegiance to Stalin in the 1930s in the service of “the fatally important Russian ideal” and organised assassinations of Trotskyists in Western Europe.[42] It should be no surprise that fascists and Whites might support Stalin’s terror: its targets were after all national minorities and revolutionary communists. This fact again problematises the question of resistance and assent and poses difficult questions as to the nature of Sovietisation and Stalinisation, which we will address further below.

Trotsky claimed in 1936 that the Soviet government was engaged in a “struggle against the youth”:

“The most innocent groups of schoolchildren who try to create oases in this desert of officiousness are met with fierce measures of repression [...] Healthy young lungs find it intolerable to breathe in the atmosphere of hypocrisy inseperable from a Thermidor – from a reaction, that is, which is still compelled to dress in the garments of revolution.”

(Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, 162-5)

The members of the anti-Stalinist youth groups of the late 1940s would never have read the above words and would have accepted the anti-Trotskyist position of the Komsomol and the Communist Party.[43] Nonetheless, completely independently, several hundred young pairs of lungs found the air sufficiently intolerable to form secret opposition organisations in the late 1940s.

Fürst’s essay “Prisoners of the Soviet Self?—Political Youth Opposition in Late Stalinism” details the activities and politics of these anti-Stalinist youth groups. She identifies 27 distinct organisations which were notable for their opposition to Stalinism but also for their Communist zeal. Her point, elucidated further in her reply to Kuromiya’s critique, is that their political position blurs the boundaries between resistance and assent under Stalinism. This idea deserves further exploration.

The essay concludes with a quotation from Anatoly Zhigulin who, after a sentence in the Gulag, concluded that “in the end Leninism and Stalinism were one and the same.”[44] However, the main argument of the essay is that the ideologically earnest were brought into opposition to the Stalinist system, the backbone of which was made up of careerist and self-interested people who neither rejected nor fulfilled Bolshevik ideology. If as argued above, this encompassed the ruling bureaucracy as well as sections of society, and if the youth opposition groups resembled and argued for Leninism, it is bizarre that the author should endorse the conclusion that “Leninism and Stalinism were one and the same.” As a statement expressing Zhigulin’s disillusionment after a sentence in the Gulag it is relevant and interesting but as a concluding remark to this essay it is very disappointing.

On the contrary, the distinction between Lenin and Stalin is symptomatic of wider differences which are key to understanding where we are to draw the line between assent and resistance. Like the youth groups of the late 1940s,[45] a casual reader of the works of Lenin today will find glaring differences between it and the policy and practise of Stalin. Compare the following to Stalin’s policies of the liquidation of the kulaks and complete collectivisation[46]:

“…Socialists have no intention whatever of appropriating the small peasants… the advantages of mechanized socialist agriculture will be made clear to them only by force of example.”

(VI Lenin, Article published September 11th, 1917, The Land Question and the Fight for Freedom, Progress Publishers, 1978, 37-45)

“…we shall not tolerate any use of force in respect of the middle peasants [...] We say that the resistance of the counter-revolutionary efforts of the rich peasants must be suppressed. That is not complete expropriation [...] comrades frequently resort to coercion and thus spoil everything [...] There is no upper layer that can be cut off, leaving the foundation and the building intact.”

(Report on the work in the countryside, 8th Congress of the VKP(b), March 23rd, 1919, Ibid. 80-98)

Lenin had no qualms about the use of coercion in some circumstances, but the quotes above show that complete and compulsory collectivisation and the wholesale expropriation and liquidation of the kulaks were alien to Bolshevik policy on the land question. This is one example of how Stalin silently rejected the social projects of Bolshevism despite his fluency in its terminology.

A pair of interpretive categories which might be more useful is Sovietisation and Stalinisation. Rather than seeing the latter following seamlessly from the former, it is revealing to conceive of them as antagonistic forces, albeit both deploying the same vocabulary. Stalinisation was forced collectivisation and industrialisation plus the complete effacement of political opposition, with particular violence and thoroughness applied to a party that defended the Soviet Union but advocated revolution with the aim of more power for the Soviets.

Fürst, similarly, finds that the most ideologically committed communists in the USSR were anti-Stalinists whom Stalinism ruthlessly suppressed. From this she tentatively concludes that they were “prisoners of the Soviet self”,[47] incapable of expressing dissent in any other way. A more obvious conclusion might be that communist ideology and Stalinism were in many vital respects antagonistic, putting those who genuinely espoused the state ideology in conflict with the state itself whose commitment was lukewarm at best, and murderously hostile at worst. The rupture between Sovietisation and Stalinisation comes in 1936-8 with the physical elimination of the Trotskyists, the apostles of Bolshevik/communist ideology.

Stalin's prosecutor in the Moscow Trials, Andrey "shoot the mad dogs" Vyshinsky - he had been on the other side of the barricades in 1917. Had he undergone a complete conversion, or had the Soviet regime?

Stalin’s prosecutor in the Moscow Trials, Andrey “shoot the mad dogs” Vyshinsky – he had been on the other side of the barricades in 1917. Had he undergone a complete conversion, or had the Soviet regime?

Despite the antagonism which we have outlined above, Stalinism was compelled to “dress in the garments of revolution” or, to use a phrase more popular in recent historiography that means the same thing, to “speak Bolshevik.” “Speaking Bolshevik” was not just a tactic of peasant resistance or a “weapon of the weak.” The most powerful people in the country, including Stalin himself, had to “speak Bolshevik” despite a violent antagonism toward communist opponents that surpassed any other. In the Moscow trials the Stalinists had to invent extravagant conspiracy theories and play on anti-Semitism rather than criticize (and thereby publicize) the politics of the Trotskyists. The prosecutor Vyshinsky, a former Right Menshevik, was “speaking Bolshevik” at the Moscow trials. Trotskyism was apparently a weapon of imperialism, fascism and capitalist restoration.[48] Vyshinsky even invented “petit-bourgeois” origins for Trotskyism.[49]

Similarly, the Komsomol helped in the persecution and torture of revolutionary communists whose crime was to form organisations. To do this the Komsomol had to “speak Bolshevik” and call the dissenters “counter-revolutionaries.”[50] The extent to which the Komsomol and Communist Party had to “speak Bolshevik” illustrates that the ideology of Bolshevism and the living memory of the Revolution enjoyed very significant prestige in Soviet society. Therefore organised opposition to Stalinism was pro-soviet and Bolshevik in character and form. In this respect perhaps the greatest “resister”, or perhaps suppressor, of Bolshevism was the state which is generally seen as its fountainhead. It follows that the agent which “imposed” Bolshevik ideology was the Soviet working class and wider public.

This does not mean that Stalin and his followers were necessarily devoid of communist ideology or of admiration for Bolshevism, or that in “speaking Bolshevik” they were not addressing themselves too. There was no capitalist class in the USSR, all major industries were nationalised, the economy was planned and jobs and social welfare were provided for citizens. These were the fruits of “Sovietisation” and the basis of the power of the ruling stratum. But if, as we have argued, “Stalinisation” as a process worked in the opposite direction to Sovietisation, culminating in the final rupture that was the Great Terror, this fundamentally recasts conceptions of resistance and assent. The anti-Stalinist, pro-Soviet opposition organisations are not oddities or the results of brainwashing but the natural result of the fundamental antagonisms that existed between Stalinisation and Sovietisation.

 

 

Bibliography

Books

  1. Deutscher, Isaac, Stalin: A Political Biography, Penguin Books (1949, 1970)
  2. Dewey, John, Not Guilty: Dewey Commission Report, Wellred Books (1938, 2005)
  3. Fisher, Ralph Talcott, Jr, Pattern For Soviet Youth: A Study of the Congresses of the Komsomol, 1918-1954, Columbia University Press, New York (1955-1959)
  4. Kizny, Tomasz, Gulag, Firelfy Books (1958, 2004)
  5. Read, Christopher (Ed.), The Stalin Years: A Reader, Palgrave Macmillan (2003)
  6. Rees, Lawrence, Their Darkest Hour, Random House (2007)
  7. Rogovin, Vadim, 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror, Mehring Books, Michigan (1998)
  8. Service, Robert, Trotsky: A Biography, Macmillan (2009)
  9. Shalamov, Varlam, John Glad (trans), Kolyma Tales, Penguin (1980, 1994)
  10. Snyder, Timothy, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Vintage (2011)
  11. Trotsky, Leon, Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going?, New Park Publications Ltd (1937, 1973)
  12. Ulam, Adam B, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Fontana/Collins (1965)
  13. Viola, Lynne (ed), Contending With Stalinism: Soviet Power and Popular Resistance In the 1930s, Cornell University Press, Ithaca & London (2002)

Essays

  1. Burds, Jeffrey, “The Soviet War against ‘Fifth Columnists’: The Case of Chechnya, 1942-4”, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Apr., 2007), pp. 267-314, Sage Publications, Ltd. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30036445. Accessed: 27/03/2013 06:42
  2. Daniels, Robert, “The Left Opposition as an Alternative to Stalinism”, Slavic Review, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Summer, 1991), pp. 277-285. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2500203. Accessed: 19/03/2013 04:04
  3. Fürst, Juliane, “Prisoners of the Soviet Self? Political Youth Opposition in Late Stalinism”, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 54, No. 3, 2002, 353–375
  4. Fürst, Juliane, “Re-Examining Opposition under Stalin: Evidence and Context: A Reply to Kuromiya”, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 55, No. 5 (Jul., 2003), pp. 789-802, Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3594573. Accessed: 27/03/2013 07:00
  5. Kuromiya, Hiroaki, “’Political Youth Opposition in Late Stalinism’: Evidence and Conjecture”, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Jun., 2003), pp. 631-638, Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3594551. Accessed: 19/03/2013 04:04
  6. Murphy, Kevin, “Opposition at the Local Level: A Case Study of the Hammer and Sickle Factory”, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Mar., 2001), pp. 329-350 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/826351. Accessed: 27/03/2013 07:28


[1] Vadim Z Rogovin, 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror, Mehring, Michigan, US (1998), 17

[2] Lynne Viola (ed) Contending With Stalinism, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London (2002), 19-20

[3] Viola, 18-19

[4] Kevin Murphy, “Opposition at the Local Level: A Case Study of the Hammer and Sickle Factory”, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Mar., 2001), pp. 329-350 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/826351. Accessed: 27/03/2013 07:28; Jeffrey J Rossman, “A Worker’s Strike in Stalin’s Russia”, in Contending With Stalinism, 44-73

[5] Jeffrey Burds, “The Soviet War against ‘Fifth Columnists’: The Case of Chechnya, 1942-4”, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Apr., 2007), pp. 267-314. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30036445. Accessed: 27/03/2013 06:42

[6] Ibid

[7] Fisher, Ralph Talcott, Jr, Pattern For Soviet Youth: A Study of the Congresses of the Komsomol, 1918-1954, Columbia University Press, New York (1955, 1959), 143-4

 

[8] VI Lenin, Joe Fineberg & George Hanna (trans), What Is to Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement (1902), Marxists Internet Archive, http://marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/index.htm, Chapters II, IV and Conclusion

[9] Isaac Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography, Penguin Books (1949, 1970), 46-115

[10] Robert Service, Trotsky: A Biography, Macmillan (2009), 459

[11] Adam B Ulam, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Fontana/Collins (1965), 427, 460

[12] Rogovin, 383, Fürst, 369

[13] Robert H. McNeal, “Deomonology: The Orthodox Communist Image of Trotskyism”, International Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1, Communism (Winter, 1976/1977), pp. 20-40. Published by: Canadian International Council. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40542144. Accessed: 19/03/2013 02:45

[14] John Dewey, Not Guilty: Dewey Commission Report, Wellred Books (1938, 2005), 376

[15] Rogovin, 17

[16] Ibid,20

[17] Ibid, 24

[18] Murphy, “Opposition at the Local Level…”, 347

[19] Murphy, 347, Rossman, “A Workers’ Strike…”, 44-5, Rogovin, 60-66

[20] Rogovin, 287-8

[21] Khlevnyuk, “The Objectives…”, 106

[22] Burds, “The Soviet War Against ‘Fifth Columnists’…”, Table 1

[23] Read, The Stalin Years, 103

[24] Rogovin, 142

[25] Murphy, 347

[26] Rogovin, 380

[27] Rogovin, xx

[28] Rees, 197, 202

[29] Read, The Stalin Years, 102

[30] Khlevnyuk, 118

[31] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Vintage (2011), 89-108

[32] Deutscher, 373

[33] Leon Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going?, New Park, London (1937, 1973), Chapters V and IX, 84-114, 273-290

[34] Snyder, 117 onwards, examines the background to the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939

[35] Ulam, 424-428, relates how Lenin returned to Russia from exile in 1917 with the help of the German government

[36] Rogovin, 376

[37] Rogovin, 389, 392

[38] Rogovin, 384

[39] Ibid, 383

[40] Viola, 1

[41] Rees, 200-202

[42] Rogovin, 329

[43] McNeal, “Demonology”

[44] Fürst, 369

[45] Fürst, 362-3

[46] Snyder, 24, Trotsky, 32

[47] Fürst, 366: “The style, content and form of Soviet resistance were pre-programmed by the very

system that then felt under attack from the idealistic youngsters it had created.”

[48] Rogovin, 57

[49] Dewey, 379

[50] Fürst, 355-356

 

The deadline has passed for Property Tax registration with around 90% compliance. The figures are almost certainly being spun but it’s still bad. The boycott has been defeated by government threats and media bias.

Responses to Defeat

There are many ways to deal with failure. There are some who refuse to accept it and blindly struggle on without changing their position – I have rarely met these people, but they do exist. If you want an example of the other – far more common – bad response to defeat then check the comments after this article.

http://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/after-the-cahwt/

Another response is to search frantically for scapegoats and hammer them to hell.

(For a classic example ask Paddy.healy@eircom.net for his latest masterpiece, “Having Damaged the CAHWT Campaign by Imposing Suicidal Policies SP and SWP Move in to Pick UP the Recruits!” He emphasizes that they are picking UP recruits, rather than picking DOWN recruits)

Racist imperialist pig and all as he was, Rudyard Kipling had a point when he said that whether you meet with triumph or disaster, you should “treat these two imposters just the same”. The task is the same: to analyse coolly the possibilities and alter previous strategies according to a changed situation. But it’s never as easy. Triumph is taken to vindicate previously-held strategies and ideas, while failure is held to discredit them.

Are our friends commenting on Cedar Lounge calmly weighing up the situation, criticising mistakes and pointing towards a way forward? Even the original post, which is well-considered and for instance doesn’t go mad speculating about Declan Ganley becoming Ireland’s Berlusconi on account of one meeting in Cork, is weighed down by a catalogue of the negatives in the situation.

Acknowledging difficulties and threats is a necessity but a lot of people on the left in Ireland treat it as an enormous virtue. In the effort to be as “realistic” as possible (because they believe that socialism should creep self-consciously around the place apologising for itself), this cohort overstates difficulties, describes only negatives, and leaps on any defeat to try and showcase their “realism”, adding to people’s demoralisation.

The Situation

If we want to carve a clean path through rocky waters we need to identify the rocks, describe them fully, and estimate also what might lie invisible just beneath the surface. However the point of this exercise is to identify the safe and fruitful channels between the rocks. A catalogue of vicious spiky rocks is not a useful chart of a stretch of water. It is an argument for staying on the shore.

(Sound carries over water – many of those we hear warning us of the rocks are doing so from the shore and they have no intention of ever stepping into a boat.)

We have a boycott – too small a boycott, but one in the hundreds of thousands. The boycott has failed to defeat the tax – but still we must defend the boycott.

Avenue Number One

The government has to do something about this boycott. If they ignore it, then once again their threats have been proved false. The weapon of fear and demoralisation which they waved around this time will be laughed at next time.

Avenue Number Two

On the other hand, if they carry out their threats, this is a possible provocation to a renewal of struggle. Considering hundreds of thousands of people would have money deducted directly from pay and pensions and welfare then to say the very least this will be an issue for the campaign to hammer the government on. It is not inevitable that this will lead to an upsurge but it is a possibility -it is an avenue for which we have to be prepared.

Avenue Number Three

A key weapon in defending the boycott is a slate of local election candidates in 2014 to smash up a few local labour strongholds. The obvious difficulty is that these elections will not take place for 12 months. We need to maintain and extend the campaign between now and then if we want to be fighting-fit in 9 or 10 months when we’re into election season.

On the other hand we need to be open to the possibilities in this situation. Demoralisation is an issue here, but fear is not. The establishment parties can lie, spin and spend huge amounts of money, but they can’t threaten to fine us for voting the wrong way. Again, to say the very least, a new field of battle will open up and we need to be ready for it.

As the IRA man once described to a British journalist the foreign policy of Sinn Fein – “REVENGE, bejasus!” What was evident on the doors was that people didn’t want to pay, but were scared. The last-minute rush to register is also evidence of a “wait-and-see” attitude – again, to see how things stood before sticking your neck out. The price of ruling by fear is a storing-up of resentment which will break out in the future with interest.

For Labour, an already disintegrating and crisis-ridden party, imposing this tax under threats may be another nail in the coffin. Fine Gael may also have surrendered ground. Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail’s opposition was very clearly hypocritical and will be easily exposed. Where there are moderately well-organised campaigns, there is an opportunity to break onto the councils and register a serious vote for a new left force in the form of a nationwide anti-Property Tax, anti-austerity slate.

A word on the strategy pursued so far

Not calling for a boycott would have been an immediate surrender of the most important positions.A strong boycott would have presented the government with a massive problem. Imposing deduction at source would have been a political impossibility, or at least led to a stormy summer that would have shaken the government to its core.

Many of the organised left groups, however, even when a boycott was agreed upon, seemed to have a crystal ball which told them it wouldn’t work. There was a great tally-ho pooling of energy and forward momentum in the Household Tax boycott in 2011 and a real buzz was created. In 2012-13 there was a lukewarmness to the approach of many in the campaign. For example, one leaflet produced by a campaign committee did not dare to argue the campaign’s position, it just “gave the facts” in the manner of a government leaflet.

Of particular confusion to me are the Left Forum types who blast the left for a failure to make large gains after five years of austerity and crisis, and who call for a pluralistic, multi-tendency, broad left movement which would be relevant to the working class. They seemed not to realise that this already existed! They really wanted something identical to CAHWT/CAPTA to happen, but few seemed to have gotten involved with it, preferring to hold out for.. what, exactly?

The fact is that if the full resources and people-power of the left had been pressed toward the boycott, we could have created a buzz around it and victory would have been a probability. This is not to denigrate those who did take part, it’s to praise them and hold them up as an example.

The comments on the cedar lounge post seem to be designed to depress people and derail the campaign. Remember that one of the biggest, most dangerous rocks in the channel is demoralisation and hysteria. One of the major effects of media bias and government threats is to scare and depress. Maintain a clear and calm analysis of what’s going on and what the possibilities are. Effectively shouting “Run to the hills! The fascists are coming! Ganley will be the Irish Berlusconi! The left is impotent!”

…it’s not clear, it’s not calm, and it’s not analysis. It’s not correct to speak of “after the CAHWT.” As an organisation we must maintain and expand it to fight in the 2014 elections and sweep up as much as possible of the nearly 1 in every 2 voters who don’t want Labour, FG, FF or SF.

British PM Cameron’s response to the Woolwich killing:

“In Britain, we have had these sorts of attacks before. We never buckle. The terrorists will never win because they can never beat the values that we hold dear.”

What values is Cameron talking about? Are they the values that the British Army brought to Iraq and Afghanistan? Those are the values of torture chambers and death squads. They are the values of death dealt on innocents from above at the click of a button. They are the values of those who destroy entire societies and kill hundreds of thousands based on conscious lies.

These are values that Cameron and most of the British political establishment do indeed seem to hold dear. And Cameron is entirely correct when he says that Islamic terrorists can “never beat” these values. Two lads with machetes, with a few camera-phones trained on them, versus the British and American military terror-machines with budgets in the billions – it’s no contest.

Imperialism creates Islamist terrorists when it blows up innocent people or occupies their countries.  (http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/05/22/umbrellas-and-drones/) Islamist terrorists help imperialism when they commit acts of terrorism in the imperialist countries. (For evidence, see any mainstream or far-right reporting on the Woolwich attack.) Military terror and individual terror reinforce each other in an endless cycle of death. David Cameron is, for once, telling the truth: British imperialism will not buckle. The English Defence League were on the streets in the blink of an eye. Individuals attacked mosques.

These two killers wanted to strike a blow against imperialism. “The only reasons we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day… You people will never be safe. Remove your government. They don’t care about you.” This is all true. But a lot of the other things they said stank of putrid theocracy, which nobody in Britain wants, even most Muslims.

The British people are capable of removing their government, fighting Imperialism and building a world free of racism and chauvinism. But a terrorist attack like this strengthens all elements and tendencies in British society that militate AGAINST any progressive development.

Revolutions are not made by handfuls of angry people conspiring and then striking violently out of the blue. Revolutions are made by the organised, democratic action of the masses, no matter what their colour or background. The terrorist fears the people, and strikes at the people murderously. At best the terrorist kills cops, soldiers and politicians for reasons that are not as immediately clear to the people as the immediate clarity of the horror of violence and the natural human sympathy this arouses.

This is especially true when the attack is reported on by a millionaire-owned media which ignores the killings of thousands in other countries by the British armed forces, and treats only one death with the sorrow and anger merited by every death. Nor is there any recognition from the media that British soldiers sign up knowing there is a risk of death and a likelihood that they will kill in an equally savage way. And killing in a deluded attempt to hurt the butchers of Iraq and Afghanistan is obviously less disgusting than killing for oil and imperialist pissing contests. I won’t write any eulogies for the dead soldier, not because I lack human sympathy but because I didn’t write any damn eulogies for any individual dead Talibs, insurgents or innocent civilians either.

The media might touch upon some of this context, although the politicians definitely won’t. Even the trick of shouting slogans into people’s phone-cameras won’t manage to convey any anti-imperialist message. Rather a bastardized, simplified version of what motivated these terrorists will be forever associated with, and discredited by, the horror of the individual death and the use of machetes. This is what the media will emphasize and this is what people will remember.

The values that Cameron and the likes of Cameron hold dear – the rule of the rich, imperialism, chauvinism – will withstand this attack, unbroken, unbowed, in fact strengthened.

The imperialists kill off-duty jihadis with drones (along with villages full of innocents). The jihadis kill off-duty imperialist troops with machetes.

The imperialists proclaim their reasons for killing through massive PR machines and media empires in print, on TV, online and in Hollywood. The jihadis have to ask passers-by to film them making statements with bloody machetes in their hands and a dead body in the background.

I have no desire to support either side in their campaigns of blood and destruction. The greatest threat right now is not that more British people will be blown up or hacked to pieces by terrorists, but that working people will be divided along colour, religious and ethnic lines, and fear and racism will fester. And those in power will puff out their chests as champions of some abstraction called “Britain”, and laugh all the way to the bank.

“Is human nature compatible with socialism?”

Usually I say that a question is a good question before I answer it. But this is not a good question. It’s a totally irrelevant one.

The idea behind the question, which I hear often, is that for a socialist society to work human beings would have to be superhumanly selfless and good. It’s a stupid question because socialism is the exact opposite: it’s about creating a society which, in contrast to capitalism, does not demand insanely utopian ideas about human nature, which we will examine below.

I stand back from making any bold pronouncements about “human nature” because that’s something that operates completely differently in different contexts, in different situations. Children brought up by dogs find it very difficult to function among humans. Humans living in, say, Ireland, tend almost universally not to eat one another. Humans on life-rafts, isolated in the ocean, or trapped in plane-wrecks in mountains, often eat their dead or even kill the weakest for food. In famines cannibalism becomes widespread.

The dispossession of the rich and the rational planning of the economy by the people themselves would provide for full employment, shorter working hours, better pay, better services, full access to education at all levels and more democratic participation. This is a new context in which people live out their lives and form their characters. It’s unreasonable to say that it would not produce a different, better human being.

We can generally count on people to want to earn wages and have good consumer products and public services, and to learn as much as possible. Where are the conflicts with human nature? Where does socialism place too great a burden on people’s self-interest?

On the other hand, the shockingly innocent demands capitalism places on human nature are very clear.

 

  1. Pro-capitalists believe that if one small group of people has the lion’s share of the money, they will tend to invest it in socially-useful areas. Of course this is utopian: these people, left to dispose of the riches of the planet as they see fit, will tend to look after themselves. This means corruption, environmental destruction, exploitation, war, gambling and economic chaos. It’s pro-capitalists, not socialists, who ignore self-interest.

 

  1.  Or on the other hand, they believe that when people only look after themselves, it actually benefits everyone! So today in Europe there are trillions sitting in bank vaults and tens of millions unemployed. If one measly company then invests and creates 100 jobs, this is hailed as a great vindication of capitalism. Bosses don’t create jobs, they corner the market on jobs. The boss’ self-interest means I only get a job when it suits him to give me one, and I only get it on his terms. The workers’ collective interest is to own the wealth in common and invest it according to need, not short-term profit.

 

  1. That if someone’s born in poverty they have just as much chance as someone well-off of making it. Never mind the pressures of survival and various cultural pressures that exert themselves as well. Never mind the fact that rags-to-riches stories are freakishly rare. The idea that we can all succeed if we put our minds to it goes against both cold hard figures and any experience of human nature.

 

  1. The other side of the coin from number 3: that if the vast majority of us don’t become rich, it’s due to a lack of motivation or some other innate inferiority. Any skipping, smiling innocent idea is always joined by a dark, sick, twisted evil twin of an idea.

 

  1. There’s another funny idea that the problems of capitalism all arise from something called “crony capitalism”. That if you leave the capitalists to themselves without state interference, there will be no (or at any rate fewer) monopolies, corruption, price-fixing, reckless gambling, bail-outs, oil-spills or financial crises. This is rooted in the utopian idea that an unregulated boss class will ever be able to resist corrupting and co-opting the government, or that figures in the state will all be able to resist the temptations toward cronyism.

 

  1.  The idea that democracy can function when there is massive wealth inequality. The people who believe this would be the first to call a government irresponsible and tyrannical if it failed to look after the interests of big business first and foremost. The rich fund the main political parties and provide the personnel. Not only have politicians close personal contact with huge numbers of the rich minority, they are forced by the demands of running a capitalist economy to take care of their interests first and foremost.

 

Fundamentally, any defender of capitalism must hold utopian assumptions about human nature. Capitalism as a system, on the other hand, encourages and rewards humans for behaving in an anti-social way. It spends hundreds of billions on advertising, much of this consisting of appeals to our irrational or vicious instincts. It actively degrades human nature even while it propagates the stupid idea that sucking up to the rich will make you rich too.

Those who attack socialism pretending to be hard-headed realists don’t actually know how loose the ground they stand on is. In fact, they typically don’t have any kind of a grasp of the facts, just a preconceived schema. Look at the following, from an article on the Russian Revolution:

http://frontpagemag.com/2012/steven-plaut/just-what-was-fundamentally-wrong-with-bolshevism/

“The other problem of the Bolsheviks was that, at least in the early stages of the “Revolution,” they were truly captivated by utopian delusions.  The problem of all utopians is that they advocate systems and ideas that can only work with imaginary idyllic humans, but never with real human beings.”

Notice how the author deals in generalities, not specifics. This is because the specifics don’t uphold the argument. The Bolsheviks made no utopian assumptions about human nature. Enough said. The problems with the Russian Revolution were not in fact problems of “human nature”. There was no sudden epidemic of laziness or whatever other unspecified problems the above author implies.

“When they discover that real human beings refuse to knuckle under and behave according to utopian expectations, the utopianists respond with violent rage [...]The most violent terrorists and oppressors of others have always been the utopians.  The French Revolution turned violent and the guillotine was introduced to attempt to terrorize actual humans into behaving according to the expectations of the utopianists.  The leaders of the Soviet Revolution were no slower or more squeamish in following the same route.”

Again, this is based on a schema, not on reality. The wealthy classes in Russia, funded and backed by foreign governments and armies, tried to overthrow the revolution, which had the undoubtable support of the majority.

A vicious civil war took place, which the Bolsheviks obviously couldn’t win without violence! Failure to “knuckle under” didn’t feature as a major issue. Failure of the already-backward economy to withstand nearly ten years of continuous war, well, now we’re talking. That was an enormous issue, one the Bolsheviks dealt with better than a chaotic capitalist economy could have.

The French Revolution turned to terror, similarly, as a result of huge military pressure and internal plots. The author here is talking about the guillotine, not the Vendée or the Federalist revolts, the terrors which killed far more people. None of these terrors, however, were a result of frustrated utopianism. The most “utopian” project of the French Revolution, the abolition of feudalism, was a roaring success.

Here’s my favourite piece of the article:

“The greatest strength of capitalism is that it actually works with real human beings, people who are lazy, base, narcissistic, self-indulgent, foul-smelling, mean-spirited, and unsophisticated.  Capitalism does not require idyllic fictional humans in order for it to work.”

I don’t know where “foul-smelling” comes from, but anyway. For capitalism to work we would need a world in which a small number of very powerful and wealthy people NEVER take advantage of their wealth and power, and ALWAYS put workers’ interests and environmental concerns before profit.

A world in which everyone has a superhuman dogged determination to succeed in business and an impossible amount of luck. A world in which for some reason – like too much social welfare, or laziness – they choose not to employ this luck and determination.

A world in which, despite the massive inequalities that exist, ALL politicians and civil servants stand above, detached from and disinterested from society as a whole, and are totally impartial.

The pro-capitalists impose this vision on society, and when human nature resists, explanations must be found. Strikers are demonized as selfish, lazy and undemocratic. Great revolutions, when the masses shape history, are dismissed as the conspiracies of “utopians” and “terrorists”. Their problems and limits, rather than being discussed, are latched onto to fill out a prefabricated explanation.

Capitalism is utopian. Socialism is hard-headed realism.

archbishop meme

Image  —  Posted: May 16, 2013 in Uncategorized

First of all, I have to say I’m about 4 years late in writing something about this book, which was published in 2009. But I picked it off the shelf at a good moment.

The book does a fine job of assembling and presenting a lot of information on the wealthiest and most powerful people in Ireland. Their dodgy dealings and luxurious lifestyles are particularly well-documented. However, what makes me, and presumably most readers, very angry, only provokes Cooper to very mild and measured criticism. He scrupulously presents both sides of the argument and often makes the dodgiest dealings inaccessible behind torrents of micro-detail that anyone who’s not a businessperson will find impenetrable.

He shows no such expert attention to detail or high-minded concern for justice when it comes, in the concluding chapter, to the trade union movement.

meme on matt cooper

The conclusion of the book can be read in a new light in 2013 after 5 years of austerity. Cooper writes:

“There is a considerable body of evidence from international experience that shows how countries that concentrate on cutting spending rather than increasing taxes recover from slumps far more quickly.” (p. 411)

This “considerable body of evidence” refers presumably to an influential paper by two economists Reinhardt and Rogoff which argued for austerity. However this paper has recently been proved to be nonsense. It relied on selective sampling and was further distorted by a Microsoft Excel error!

The conclusion is even more interesting when it comes to the trade union movement, like it says in the meme above.

“The great power battle in Irish society in the coming years will be between the government and the unions, as the government attempts to reduce the unaffordable cost of the public sector and, as a secondary consideration, tries to do something to stimulate the wealth-creating and productive private sector.”

If it is innately wealth-creating and productive, it’s fair to ask why the private sector needs “something to stimulate” it.

There’s a lot more we could say on that, but the arguments have been gone over and over again, and the hostile mood toward the public sector which was a feature of 2009 is now much weakened.

The interesting part is how Cooper predicts a “great battle” between unions and government. And why wouldn’t he predict this? Austerity – returning business to profitability by a scorched-earth policy that reduces the mass of the population to misery – demands that the government deals a serious blow to the trade union movement and attacks its members.

We know how things have gone in reality. Governments since the start of the crisis have avoided conflict. Any serious opposition – DEIS schools, medical cards, household tax – has revealed them to be cowards and liars.

The most serious obstacle to austerity, the trade union movement, followed this line. Bureaucrats in the leadership with 6-figure salaries and no desire to rock the boat fed on and encouraged a sense of despair among members. The Croke Park deal deferred the issue, with pain to workers, strain on services, and no resolution.

Recovery has not come and the second Croke Park deal has brought the conflict out again. The “great battle” between unions and government must happen; it is incredibly unlikely that the issue will be avoided until some new equilibrium is reached. We may be approaching that battle.

If I have to go on a different bus from usual, I forget about it in 24 hours.

If my bus gets stuck behind pickets, even for a few hours, I’ve forgotten about it after a week.

If I get a pay cut and attacks on my conditions, I have to live with it, on and off the job, for the rest of my life.

So pick a side.

This article relays first hand evidence that people are raging over the limited nature of the abortion legislation being proposed.

I was on a stall today on Henry Street campaigning for abortion rights legislation going beyond X to protect women’s health as well as life.

Overall I want abortion legalised on request of the woman – but with a poll back in November showing 82% are in favour of abortion to protect health, that’s the appropriate demand at the moment. Demands for X are not enough because the X case legislation was always going to be very basic and limited – it would not necessarily have saved Savita’s life, for a start.

On questions around austerity, people are angry but also depressed, so they don’t respond so well to stalls on the issue. But every abortion-related stall I’ve been on has been very good. People see the issue as clear-cut despite the best attempts of media and politicians, and they see as well that we can win.

Today, undoubtedly because of the publication of the proposed bill, the mood was there. There was a constant queue of people at the stall lining up to sign the petition. People were incredibly generous and hungry for our written material.

Key point from all this: from my observations today, women and men are not placated by this legislation – they’re  frustrated at its limited nature. 14 years in prison for an illegal abortion! 3 doctors to decide if a woman’s suicidal or not! Added to that the inherent limits of the X case issue. This will only affect a tiny handful of women, and that only at that terrifying point when their medical state is so bad they will probably be permanently damaged anyway, or it might even be too late to save them.

Before the Savita case I had never gone into the issue of abortion much but now I’ve learned 80% of what I know from talking to random people on these stalls in Dublin city centre. In sharing some of the points I and those I spoke to were making I hope as well I can convey a sense of how it is to get out on the street and campaign on the issue.

Larry Murphy, one of the most hideous sex offenders in the country’s history, got back out on the streets after 12 years. These laws propose putting away women – including those who may have become pregnant as a result of rape – for 14 years! Now presumably very few would serve the full sentence. And to be honest, the full outrageousness of this is evidenced by how impossible it is to imagine it being carried out. Maybe ten or twenty hardened god-botherers in the whole country would support a woman being put into prison for a decade just for getting an abortion.

Another source of anger is the panel of doctors who are to act as witchfinder-generals to decide if a woman’s “genuinely” suicidal or not. These people don’t seem to understand how ugly it is to put a vulnerable person in front of a panel of judgers, questioners and implicit accusers; to place upper-middle-class professionals in a position of regulating, controlling and judging people who are three times disadvantaged – through being female, being pregnant, being suicidal.

At a conservative estimate, 12 women every single day have to travel to England to get an abortion. The ferries are often visibly replete with dejected-looking young women according to one frequent traveller. This bill will not make a blind bit of difference to the vast majority of those women.

The main thing that’s making people grit their teeth is the fact that a reactionary rump in Fine Gael is standing between justice and the vast majority of the Irish people who want abortion to protect life and health. Where do FG and FF find these clowns? How come they stand so far to the right of most people? Why are they with the mere 10% who oppose abortion in all its forms?

Well, they’re so used to pushing the interests and world-view of the 1% economic elite, pushing the views of 10% must come very easily to them.

In any case nothing is monolithic. Even in that 82%, a lot of people have worries and anxieties about abortion. Only around 35% in that poll wanted abortion on request of the woman. Among this roughly half of the population who want to liberalise abortion but have concerns, either side in the debate can win the upper hand. A while ago, one woman came up to sign our petition thinking we were anti-choice; when I explained to her our position very clearly, she agreed with an air of “well, obviously”, that abortion should be allowed in order to protect life and health, and she signed it anyway.

This majority have ifs and buts that these politicians can seize on and mangle and dribble over until they look like massive issues, aided by the media and by the spectacularly well-funded anti-choice campaigns.

Why do the politicians want to play on people’s fears like this?

Politicians are mostly male, white and rich. Speaking generally, they are divorced from the real world where there are crisis pregnancies, rape, poverty, incest and a need so great that you will spend €1,500 and go to England just to escape from having to raise a child. The real world is also a place where €1,500 is a crushing amount of money. These issues only present themselves, if at all, as abstract ideas that can be swatted away with a complacent platitude about there always being a better option. In short: these representatives of bosses’ parties are predisposed to lack sympathy or understanding for pregnant women who can’t have a child for medical, economic or psychological reasons.

They don’t want abortion. Some think it’s an intrusive issue that just rocks the boat. Better to sweep it under the rug. Some think it’s evil and in any case banned by Jesus. Some see a chance to rally support for themselves around these social issues when they haven’t a leg to stand on after one vicious budget after another – talk it up, then big yourself up by taking a stand on it.

The influence of powerful and wealthy local religious groups and individuals on TDs must be a big issue as well. One lad I was talking to, for instance, speculated about what kind of influence the Knights of Columbanus have behind the scenes.

In any case, after delaying any action on X for two decades, the Irish political establishment have built on their feats of evasion by narrowing the debate at every turn. How better to avoid the issue than to do exactly what FG TD Peter Matthews did on Vincent Browne the other night, niggling about the constitution, avoiding direct answers, and, when all else fails, saying “sure we’ll all die anyway.”

Imagine if a pro-choicer used that argument!

The aim is to stun and paralyze opposition, then chop up this relatively clear issue in a marathon of irrelevant questions and sanctimonious moralizing.

It isn’t working, or at least  huge numbers are staying immune. The next objective will be to get people to see the need for organisation and action to win over the wavering elements and force things to change.

I don’t mean to romanticise the stalls, by the way – there’s always older women that look at you with something like horror (though I don’t mean to stereotype, some of the people on stalls who I’ve learned more from that anyone else have been older women who know the issue a hundred times better than I do.) Then there’s people who roar about murder as they walk by. Then there’s the strange suited young man who walked right up among us when we were setting up one day and said “Fuck yous all.” Sometimes there’s types who argue with you rationally at first before degenerating into rabid sexism or medievally prudish attitudes.

They are a minority. No more than two incidents of this kind per stall. The most interesting phenomenon are the numbers of people – three or four instances per stall – who initially think we’re “the other crowd” even though our position is very prominently and unambiguously displayed. People are so used to seeing anti-choicers on stalls around town and so unused to seeing anyone representing the silent majority. The 10% punch above their weight through single-mindedness and huge resources from America and the support of our own weakened but still powerful Catholic church. They also understand through long experience the importance of organisation and activity – something our side generally still has to learn.

 

Appendix – a questionnaire

Does Peter Matthews think that a fetus and a woman have the same value?

Does Peter Matthews think that a fetus and a man have the same value?

Does Peter Matthews think that a non-viable fetus that’s going to die anyway has a greater value than a woman?

There’s a report that’s seen a lot of coverage in the British media that tries to outline a “new model” of social class in the UK. It’s very interesting to read and provides some useful facts and analysis.

http://soc.sagepub.com/content/47/2/219.full.pdf+html

At the same time it’s got massive problems that make its conclusions border on raving nonsense.

It identifies seven classes in society, ranging from the “elite” to the “precariat”. This is based on economic capital, but also cultural and social capital. These last two are foggy and uncertain concepts but still worthy of studying. Basically they mean, respectively, how much “high culture” does the person enjoy and how many rich friends do they have.

As a consequence, a person with an OK amount of money but who doesn’t have much cultural or social capital gets put in a separate class. Sure, it’s significant how many rich friends you have, though this is likely to be a reflection of your own wealth ninety-nine times out of a hundred; is it significant what type of culture people have access to and enjoy, significant enough that you have to make up a whole class?

How the classes relate to one another and through their interactions make up the society we live in; I’d have thought that was a really important matter, but the survey isn’t really interested in it.

The survey poses itself as against a “traditional” view of classes. Now I hold to what they might call a traditional view, that there’s a working class (a class that gives labour for wages), a capitalist class (a class that gives wages for labour) and intermediate layers of professionals, small businesspeople, etc. Imagine if the breakdown was as follows:

Capitalist class – 6%

Working class – 63%

Intermediate layers – 31%

 

As it happens, these figures are not from my imagination, they’re from the Great British Class Survey. Only that survey imposes artificial divisions. It pretends there are seven classes, rather than essentially two:

 

Elite – 6%

Established Middle Class – 25%

Technical Middle Class – 6%

New affluent workers – 15%

Traditional working class – 14%

Emergent service workers – 19%

Precariat – 15%

 

So the biggest group are the Established Middle Class! The report says that the “Traditional working class” is over-represented in old industrial areas and “traditional working-class occupations” are over-represented in it.

“It is for these reasons that we might see this class as a residue of earlier historical periods, and embodying characteristics of the “traditional working class”. We might see it as a “throwback” to an earlier phase in Britain’s social history, as part of an earlier generational formation.”

We’ll come back to that.

But why are four categories of workers divided into separate classes? The only significant difference between “traditional working class” and “emergent service workers” that the survey notes is that “traditional working class” people seem to have “reasonable house price” while “emergent service workers” earn about £8,000 more per year. “New affluent workers”, meanwhile, earn only about £7,000 more than “Emergent service workers.” The “Precariat”, meanwhile, have very low income as well as cultural and social capital.

Do these differences signify separate classes? Do these layers have distinctly separate interests? Do they have clearly differentiated roles in society?

No, of course not.

If you chop the working class into four and stick the words “emergent” and “new” onto two of the categories, is that enough to convince me that there are seven classes?

No, of course not.

The working class makes up the majority in society, in Britain around 63%. Some are poorer than others and some know a bit more about opera. But we haven’t entered a classless world just because they’ve closed the pits and the mills.

What is the Working Class?

The authors of this report seem to think that Working Class is a historical stereotype, a vague memory, a ghost haunting the present rather than a living social force.

I was once handing out leaflets on a street when a man stopped to challenge me on the use of the word “working class” in the leaflet. He was only interested in needling me, the way some people are, so the discussion wasn’t fruitful. However from that conversation and many other sources I’ve built up some of the general ideas that people seem to associate with the phrase “working class”:

Living in a city, working in a factory (or sometimes a mine), the working-class person wears overalls and a flat cap and is probably racist. Another variety of working-class person is one who lives in a council housing estate and is unemployed, improvident, substance-abusing and sexually irresponsible.

These are historically-originated and politically-loaded stereotypes, the latter enjoying little existence outside the Daily Mail. They are not scientific designations of class.

Society under capitalism is fundamentally divided in two. On the one hand a small class controls credit and most of the wealth in society, and its members invest that wealth as they please. This is the capitalist class. On the other hand the majority use their physical abilities to create the goods and provide the services to keep society running. Each individual in this class must find a capitalist to hire them, or they will not have access to wealth.

This is the key distinction in capitalist society. Not how many rich friends you have or whether you can play the piano. The question is: do you work or do you own? Which side of the equation “labour + capital = product or service” are you on?

There are nuances of course. What about farmers? What about students? What about small businesses? What about academics? These are subordinate questions.

To state that society is divided into labour and capital is not to paint the final portrait of capitalism; it is to draw the first faint lines on the canvas which will be entirely invisible when the painting is completed, but which determine the position of every major feature of the picture. All minor details are dependent on, necessary adjuncts to, or irrelevant deviations from it.

Logically, the position that there are no classes anymore, or just shades of middle class, is nonsense. How could Capitalism function without a working majority to create the products and provide the services?

How could it work with a majority that was idle, or who were significant property owners? Academics, administrators, salespeople etc all play an important role. But how could a society function that was made up entirely or mostly of people working these kinds of jobs? What would they have to administer, and what would they eat, and what would they wear? How would they get to work and who would have built their houses? Where would their energy supplies come from?

Such a society could not exist.

How then can you possibly say that there is no working class, or only a very small, dwindling one that belongs to another age?

The confusion arises to a large extent because of the international, globalised nature of capitalism today. The workers who make most of my consumer goods live thousands of miles away. Their factories collapse and burn and I hear about them on the news, and that and the t-shirt touching my skin are the only individual connection we have.

 

Those who say that Ireland (or indeed Britain) has no working class are forgetting not only that without workers, no society can function. They’re forgetting that the Bangladeshi, Chinese and Saudi working classes (and those of many other countries) play a very serious role in the Irish economy.

 

The scarcity of the stereotype of the industrial worker in many advanced capitalist countries is not therefore a sign that “we are all middle class now”.

We have reached a level of technological sophistication in which a complex machine is assembled in several different places; we have reached a level of organisational sophistication and market lunacy in which products are flown all over the world chasing the cheapest labour and the most profitable consumers; we have reached a level of financial sophistication (and again, lunacy) in which unviable capitalist economies can be propped up for years by a gambling capitalist class.

 

But we have not reached a stage in history where consumer goods and machinery fall from the sky. We have not moved beyond class or towards “A New Model of Social Class”. To slice up the working class into four separate classes is nonsense.