the British Left and Ireland

Philip Ferguson plf13 at it.canterbury.ac.nz
Thu May 1 02:30:57 MDT 2003


Richard Fidler in relation to Ed George wrote:

> Also, Ed says in relation to Ireland: "I'm... intrigued as to what more
> Susil would have had us do. Run guns, perhaps? Organise an International
> Brigade....?"
>
> Susil can answer for hmself if he comes back, as I hope he does. But I
> think a strong case can be made out that the British left could and
> should have put the Troops Out demand at the centre of its concerns, and
> that with a few exceptions it failed to do so. Phil Ferguson, among
> others, has made a strong case to this effect on this list.


The Bolsheviks told the British CP in the early days of the Third
International that they would be judged not by the fine words they wrote
in their newspaper, but by how many of their members got thrown in jail
for agitating for Irish and Indian independence.

The Third International's membership criteria made it clear that
organisations in the imperialist world had to supply *material
assistance* to liberation struggles against their own bourgeoisies (ie
the British communists had to supply material aid to national liberation
movements fighting against British imperialism).

So Ed should not be too quick to be horrified about the British left
running guns to Ireland.  It had its place, even though no outfit on the
British left was prepared to do it.

And, after all, why should it be only the duty of the Irish republicans
to get guns for themselves to fight British imperialism.  Should the
British left really not help them in this?

It seems to me that the British left, in common with the left in the
imperialist world, has grown too comfortable with bourgeois democracy
and too comfortable sitting in Labour Party branches passing resolutions
about gas and water or trying to outmanoeuvre the right as to who gets
to be ink monitor in the local LP branch.

In my brief time in the British IMG in the early 1980s I wrote a
document on Ireland, pretty basic, going through Marx, Engels and
Lenin's positions on Ireland and the British left.  This document seemed
to mystify everyone I came across in the IMG apart from a couple of
comrades who I had worked with outside the IMG around immigration
controls and a few other issues and who joined the IMG at the same time
as me (and left a few years later as well).

Within the IMG, I was a member of The Faction, which was led by veteran
IMG leaders like Brian Grogan and the awful cabal of long-time US SWP
loyalists like the Harrises and Gortons.  At the first Faction
conference there was a political orientation document a couple of pages
long which managed to only mention Ireland once, even though there was a
British army of occupation in the north and ten Irish freedom fighters
had just died on hunger strike.  When I got up and said this was very
inadequate, to say the least, people like Grogan were just mystified.
At the time, these eejits had just discovered the black question and so
their other main orientation, apart from the 'turn to industry' was to
'build a black liberation movement' in Britain.  How they were going to
do this with a virtually all-white membership with no experience of even
having black friends and in the context that they hadn't managed to
build a Troops Out movement, left me in a state of amazement.  I
realised these were people not to be taken seriously and I left the IMG
shortly afterwards, and then went to Ireland and joined a movement that
(at least at that time) meant serious anti-imperialist business.

I lived in Britain through the hunger-strikes.  I watched the British
left rush into CND to organise protests against non-existent nuclear war
while largely ignoring the real war going on in their name in Ireland.
I watched them mobilise 250,000 people in CND marches, while not even
being prepared to mobilise their own memberships for hunger strike
protests.  Of course, they all wanted the soft recruitment and paper
sales opportunities of respectable big CND marches and Ireland didn't
offer that - precisely because it involved challenging *British* imperialism.

The bulk of the British left should hang its head in shame that it did
bugger all during the Irish hunger strikes.

A classic case of this was my first experience of a British left group
meeting.  I lived in Brighton for a while when I first arrived in
Britain from New Zealand and I met a few British SWPers on a bus to a
big union demo in London.  They invited me along to the local British
SWP branch meeting.  The meeting included a report back from their
recent central committee meeting.  The report, given by one of their
national leaders (I can't recall who it was, possibly Chris Harman),
said the SWP central committee had decided to 'de-prioritise' Ireland.
(Given that they hadn't done much on the issue for a number of years, it
was hard to see how it could be de-prioritised any further).  But the
really interesting thing was the 'rationale' for this.  It was that
British workers were backward on Ireland and you couldn't make any
progress with them on the subject!  I would've thought the backwardness
of British workers on British imperialism would be a good reason for
*prioritising* the issue!

Of course, these same groups rush these days to criticise Sinn Fein for
selling out.  Yet, to me, a big part of the responsibility for the
rightward evolution of SF, is that the British left ducked the Irish
issue.  If the left had've worked consistently around the issue and
provided the solidarity the struggle in Ireland needed, the SF
leadership might not have abandoned so completely the struggle for Irish
freedom.  Instead, they were denied the solidarity they should have got
and, left fairly isolated, opted to work within the ambits of
imperialism in Ireland.  Also, since the British left denied them
solidarity, they became increasingly dependent on their US supporters, a
chunk of whom were far from sympathetic to the ideal of a socialist
republic in Ireland.  So, overall, I've a lot more respect for Adams and
co, even though I regard them as sell-outs these days, than I do for the
bulk of their British left critics.

There were, of course, a few exceptions on the British left.  The
British RCP made Ireland and race (especially immigration) their two
priorities.  Individual British leftists also worked away for many years
in groups like TOM (Troops Out Movement) and a few got involved in the
Irish struggle, notably Rose Dugdale who did time in Ireland for her
military activities and is still wanted in Britain.  Rose was a
high-flier who taught at university in the US, worked for the UN (or the
ILO) and was an adviser on foreign aid to the Wilson government, who
threw it all aside, along with her inheritance, to get involved in the
Irish liberation struggle.  Most of the British left, by contrast,
wouldn't cross the street to put up a poster.

I dare say that Susil found the British left's blindspots on British
imperialism as frustrating as I did.

And I leave out here the attitude of chunks of the British left on the
Malvinas War, where the biggest left group opposed even calling for the
withdrawal of the British fleet and argued that since Buenos Aires had a
stock exchange and a military junta, it was wrong to take Argentina's
side.  (Well, I didn't leave it out entirely, I couldn't help myself in
making some kind of comment on the Brit left and that war!)

Philip Ferguson



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