Monday 21 October 2019

Liam Weeks: 'Message from the margins shows how socialism learns its lines'

Leaked documents have revealed the hidden debate over tactics and ideologies taking place on the left in Ireland

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as The Covey, the ideological socialist in Sean O’Casey’s ‘The Plough and the Stars’
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as The Covey, the ideological socialist in Sean O’Casey’s ‘The Plough and the Stars’

Liam Weeks

Whenever I read about ideological battles on the left, I am reminded of the character 'The Covey' from Sean O'Casey's play The Plough and the Stars. For those not familiar with the playwright's work, it is one of O'Casey's three plays set in revolutionary Dublin in the early 20th Century.

The Covey, an ideological socialist preaching endlessly against the prevailing nationalist sentiment, is probably the least endearing of O'Casey's characters in The Plough and the Stars. Compulsory reading for my Leaving Certificate, I got to know every word of The Covey's anti-bourgeois monologues, often drawing from his beloved ''Jenersky's Thesis on the Origin, Development, and Consolidation of the Evolutionary Idea of the Proletariat''.

It was not a subjective interpretation or bias that led to a dislike of The Covey. O'Casey, despite being a committed socialist himself, intended it this way, as is evident from the unambiguous manner in which he describes the entry of The Covey: ''He is about 25, tall, thin, with lines on his face that form a perpetual protest against life as he conceives it to be. Heavy seams fall from each side of his nose, down around his lips, as if they were suspenders keeping his mouth from falling. He speaks in a slow wailing drawl, more rapidly when he is excited.''

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I had flashbacks to The Covey's monologues last week with the release of internal party documents from the Irish socialist movement. They comprise discussions between the Socialist Party and its international parent, the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI).

For those of you unfamiliar with the CWI, it has its origins in the Militant Trotskyite organisations from the 1970s, which tried to secretly take over a number of social democratic parties. This policy was dropped in the 1990s, primarily because it had failed, but also because of a sentiment that the labour parties had become part of bourgeois capitalism, and could not be saved.

Instead, the CWI decided to contest elections with its own sections across a number of countries. Perhaps surprisingly, the most successful of these sections has been the Irish branch, the Socialist Party, which now contests elections under the Solidarity banner.

In keeping with the habits of revolutionary socialist movements elsewhere, the CWI likes to keenly monitor the activities of its branches, the nature of which is shown in the released documents. They are a fascinating insight into the internal machinations of socialist party politics, erstwhile a secret garden to most.

Aside from providing night-time reading for political junkies and those wishing to re-engage with discussions over Trotskyism from a misspent youth, these papers reveal that any concern about the influence of unelected external bodies on our political parties should not be limited to one, larger, all-island party of the left.

In general, the tone of the International Secretariat (IS) of the CWI from the leaked documentation is somewhat critical of its Irish wing, despite being the most electorally successful of its affiliates.

The IS suggests that Irish socialists are in danger of becoming too electorally opportunistic, and reminds them that nothing should distract from what should always be the number one priority - the revolutionary class struggle.

In one memo just after the 2016 Dail election, the IS implies that the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA, and the precursor to Solidarity) was not radical enough during the campaign, reproaching it because "the idea that tax rises and a fairer distribution of wealth - in effect a more progressive capitalism - would be a solution to the economic and social crisis in Ireland was pronounced".

The IS would instead have preferred its Irish comrades to promote "the democratic nationalisation of the banks… It would also have been possible to call for public ownership of the main sectors of the economy". It complains that there were "too many concessions to what we might see as the current consciousness and ended up by, objectively speaking, arguing for a fairer capitalism".

In one sense, this internal debate could be seen as a healthy discussion over policy and ideology, something which we often decry as being all too lacking in mainstream parties. But, in another way, it could also be interpreted as an attempt by an international organisation with a subversive past to steer the policies of one of our national parties and its parliamentarians.

What if the AAA had decided to enter Government after the last election? As unlikely as this may sound, in 2016, combined with its People Before Profit ally, the socialists won as many seats as the Independent Alliance, the group that ultimately put Fine Gael back into office. How would voters react if AAA Cabinet ministers of the Irish State were receiving these messages or directives from its international partners? We'd have to rightly wonder who was making policy in their respective departments - the minister, or the Committee for a Workers' International?

It is not just on economic matters that the Socialist Party was reproached by its international czars. The CWI was critical of the over-emphasis which the Irish section has placed on feminism and minority rights in an attempt to recruit a mobilised youth vote. The CWI warned that "in their anxiety to recruit as many as possible from a layer who have been radicalised by issues related to gender oppression, comrades in Ireland are in danger of making too many concessions to the consciousness of that layer".

The CWI found troubling that "a tendency has also developed of some leading Irish comrades seeing all struggles through the prism of the women's movement, rather than seeing how it interconnects with other struggles", and argued that "if we adopt wholesale the language of petit-bourgeois feminism, it will not help us in this vital task".

In particular, they criticised the Socialist Party for getting involved in the ''I believe her'' campaign following the Belfast rape trial in 2018: "We have to be careful not to go along with the conclusion of many petit-bourgeois feminists that every accusation of sexual assault made by a woman against a man has to be accepted as proven regardless of evidence."

In fairness to the Irish Trotskyites, they did not take this rebuke lying down. Responding to a criticism of the Socialist party in not calling for an Eirexit, one of its TDs, Paul Murphy, claimed: "We always tell the truth to the working class. But we present the truth in the way which is most digestible to the working class at a particular time."

Digestible truth is an interesting choice of words that not surprisingly attracted some media attention. What does this Orwellian-type language mean? That the truth should be revised in such a manner that it pleases the palate of the working class? Some might call this ''alternative facts''.

It is difficult to know how to interpret this dialogue between the different socialist movements. Quoting Trotsky, Paul Murphy argued that "ideological struggle within the Party does not mean mutual ostracism but mutual influence".

It may be naivety on my part to express concern about the missives of external actors. After all, those on the far left would likely argue that the current Irish Government already kowtows to undemocratic international bodies in the form of the EU, and multinational corporations such as Apple and Amazon.

But, just as we rightly ask questions of Sinn Fein and to whom it answers, so too we should ask these questions of all our parties. Be prepared, though, for a response that will sound like O'Casey's The Covey has been brought to life.

Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc Government & Politics at University College Cork.

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