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The Left Archive: “Militant”, 1979 May 6, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Left Online Document Archive, Militant.
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militant-79

This issue of Militant from October 1979 provides an interesting contrast with the previous one posted in the Archive. The concentration on economic issues is more marked. Granted the previous issue which appeared in 1972 was specifically a special Irish edition, but the tone is significantly different. The conflict had, of course, become entrenched. Many players had left the field, and perhaps the sense that there might be rapid (or revolutionary) change had finally dissipated.

That said it is a little jarring to read an editorial about the British Labour Party conference. That this was close to the heart of the ‘Marxists’ (aka Militant) is undeniable. But, it indicates a certain focus unlike, arguably, any other formation on the Irish left during this period. That it is followed by a further editorial about Sile De Valera is only odd if one doesn’t recognise it for the full frontal attack on Fianna Fáil. That said, there is a certain quaintness about the language which talks of ‘cynical attempt to pretend to young people who desire to change society, that Fianna Fáil represents their interests). The ‘young’ people. Always something of a disappointment…

Joe Higgins writes about the traditions of Labour in Cork. We read about the Pope, and how ‘the money spent on [his visit to Ireland] is a pittance in relation to the overall wealth of the Vatican’. We learn that polling in the North indicated a reservoir of support for an ‘intervention’ by the Labour movement and hostility towards the traditional parties – who almost inconceivably some thirty years later remain dominant. Who would have guessed? A crisis in the USA, ‘Mass Politics, Not Individual Terror’ on the North, a letter about the unionisation of McDonalds, and bevy of Letters on union matters… It’s strange how nothing has changed and yet everything has changed. And, of course, no mention of another rival on the left, Official Sinn Féin,. Indeed no mention of any other left forces beyond Labour and the Trade Unions.

As ever with Militant it is worth noting the strong visual presentation of the paper. There is a professionalism here (although in fairness to OSF, they were pretty good at that too) and the paper is used to push a coherent and consistent message. One may question some of those messages, although not their sincerity. Impressive.

Comments»

1. Garibaldy - May 6, 2008

Seems to me a more positive attitude towards the Trade Unions than there exists among a lot of groups today. Also, on the British LP thing. Seems to me perfectly natural that an organisation in both parts of the island would address that.

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2. Jim Monaghan - May 6, 2008

There is a touch of the stopped clock about it. A stopped clock being right twice a day (assuming it is not a 24 hour one).
It would be interesting to see where the Grantits (IRSP fellow travellers) and the Higgins people stand or see themselves relative to it. I would venture that the Grantites, with Woods) effectively are now like the old IMG with regard to Irish Republicanism while the Higgins people are stiil in the stream of this Militant issue.

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3. WorldbyStorm - May 6, 2008

Interesting you should mention the IMG Jim. Something from them coming up over the next couple of weeks.

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4. Jim Monaghan - May 6, 2008

The IMG original expert on Ireland was Gery Lawless late of the fifties campaign. I beleive he might still be around.
He was succeeded by Bob Purdie. Bob lectures at Ruskin and has drifted towards the Scottish Nats. Very nice guy.
The Irish problem got caught up in the faction fight over Guerrallism in the Fourth International. Mandel and co were more optimistic at the idea of Guevaraism being a model than I was.The American SWP was the minority. The American SWP are like leftwing mormons now, terribly sectarian.
Gerry Foleys “The Test of Ireland” was the polemic against the Guevaraist IMG.
His Theses on Irelanf from 1972 is still fairly interesting but a bit dated.

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5. Mark P - May 6, 2008

Jim:

The answer to that question is relatively straightforward, at least in so far as it concerns the Socialist Party. The SP see themselves as holding essentially the same politics on the North as the ones they were arguing for in this paper, and in the paper in the archive from some years earlier. The slogans and the conjunctural analyses change, but the overall analysis has remained. As I noted in the comments thread on the 1972 paper, that kind of consistency is pretty much unique on the Irish left, whether you agree with their focus on working class unity or not.

The answer as it concerns the Woods group (Socialist Appeal in Britain) is much less straightforward. This is an issue of no great significance even by the small standards of the Irish left. The Woods group has no organisation in Ireland and in Britain it consists of a few dozen ageing men and some younger people imported from Spain. But it is sort of interesting from a leftist anorak point of view (a category in which I include myself, yourself and most of the other people who read some of the left archive articles).

The Woods group has a strange dual character. On the surface it presents itself as a replica of the British Militant circa 1971, nestled away in the Labour Party reprinting endless documents from the late Ted Grant. It has even resurrected Militant’s most embarrassing feature, it’s lamentable refusal to take a position in favour of gay liberation, something that lgbt MIlitant members successfully fought to change from the 1980s onwards. It has also adopted the occasional bombast of Militant’s tone and now uses an exaggerated version of it for pretty much any occasion.

Underneath the surface however quite significant departures from the politics of Militant in 1971 (or any time) are apparent. One such departure is their completely uncritical championing of Chavez – as compared to the old Militant approach which was much more realistic about the limitations of third world nationalist or reformist figures, Allende most famously. Another is their approach to the British Labour Party. Formally they still hold to the old Militant approach, but in practice they don’t actually conduct work inside the LP because there is no work to be done there. Branches don’t meet or, if they do, they consist of a few careerists. Party conference is powerless and anyway most of the Woodsites were expelled long ago.

Another is their line on Ireland. Their current position on Ireland is unclear in many ways, but a few notable changes can be deciphered from their association with elements of the IRSP and the quite spectacularly dishonest book about Ireland written by Woods. They have now decided that the IRSP or “republican socialism” represents Marxism in an Irish context.

This was announced in Woods book, without any indication given that he spent decades supporting Militant in Ireland, which to put it mildly, did not hold this rosy a view of the IRSP. The problem here is not that Woods and his followers have changed their mind, but that they don’t explain that they have changed their mind and account for their old “mistakes” and their new reasoning. Instead they present the new line as if it had always been their view.

The new line is not however very clearly worked out. For instance, they still make broad arguments against individual terrorism. These arguments sit very strangely in a book which lauds the IRSP. It’s particularly jarring to see them make these arguments and then progress to talking about the wonders of Costello et al, without applying these arguments to the INLA or explaining why, for whatever reason those arguments don’t apply.

Another area of confusion is their attitude towards Southern politics. They don’t seem to have anything to say about the subject at all in recent years. When the Woods group split from Militant, they were arguing that the Irish Militant should stay in the Labour Party. This was not a point of view which had any support in the Irish Militant, because the people on the ground here saw continued work in that party as a dead end (I think in fact that Militant left precisely one person behind when they left the Labour Party), but it was certainly sincerely held by the Grant/Woods people in Britain. In so far as they commented on southern Irish politics since, the Labour Party was still seen as the place for Irish Marxists to be. But the IRSP, in so far as they have a functioning organisation, are organised on both sides of the border. And yet the Woods group says not a word about whether their pro-IRSP approach is to apply to the South as well as the North, nor do they advise their IRSP associates to join the Labour Party in the South. (I must confess that I would almost consider rejoining the Labour Party just to see the hilarity that would ensue should something as bizarre and unlikely as IRSP entry work in the Labour Party ever occur.)

Because of the lack of clarity, it is difficult to fully assess their new line on Ireland but, to be fair to them, I think that it is still some distance removed from that of the old IMG. They cheerlead the IRSP, for instance, but they don’t seem to have developed a positive view of the Provisionals, either in their current incarnation or in the previous incarnations that the IMG spent so much time adoring. This isn’t just a question of organisational preference but represents a political distinction: they are pro “republican socialist” rather than simply pro republican.

They also continue to make arguments against individual terrorism and in favour of workers unity. The IMG, I suppose to their credit, were more aware that such arguments do not fit with cheerleading for any armed republican faction and so they didn’t bother with them.

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6. WorldbyStorm - May 6, 2008

That’s a very detailed response, thanks MarkP.

Only one left behind though after leaving the ILP? Now thats what I call cohesive!

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7. Mark P - May 6, 2008

Yes some of that was down to the cohesiveness of the organisation, but there are other factors to take into account.

As I understand it, the organisation was, by the time leaving Labour was under serious discussion, near its lowest ebb. Being in Labour was no longer helpful and was very clearly damaging the ability of the group to build and argue for its politics. There simply was no pool of radical young people or militant trade unionists involved in the structures of the Labour Party in the early to mid 1990s (and there hasn’t been any significant such pool since). It made sense to put up with bouts of witch hunting and with having to be circumspect in public material about some issues, while doing so gave the organisation a hearing with these kind of people.

By the time Militant left the ILP, not only was there no audience within the LP, the fact that Militant was in the LP was hindering work with the limited audience that existed outside the party. Going to LP meetings in that period was, for a Marxist, a deeply dispiriting routine and the Militant rank and file was very pleased to stop doing so.

If the organisation had left the LP 10 years earlier, there probably would have been a significant split. But by the time it actually did leave, nobody was interested in arguing for continuing work inside the LP.

As a side issue, it’s worth noting that Militant Labour (as the independent group became) still, at this time, maintained a long term perspective that the LP would swing to the left again and that Marxists would rejoin it. It was only over time, as the LP continued to move to the right and jettison its residual reformism that Militant Labour and now the Socialist Party wrote it off.

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8. Mick Brody - May 6, 2008

“They cheerlead the IRSP, for instance, but they don’t seem to have developed a positive view of the Provisionals, either in their current incarnation or in the previous incarnations that the IMG spent so much time adoring. This isn’t just a question of organisational preference but represents a political distinction: they are pro “republican socialist” rather than simply pro republican.”

While I cant see anyone other that those of the status qou having a positive view of the provisionals(one of thankfulness for shoring it up and at the same time misrepresenting Republicanism. ) In all honesty where is either the Republicanism or socialism or the IRSP? Take away the red stars and starry ploughs and you’re left with no policy documents, no programmes.

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9. deadmanonleave - May 6, 2008

Not sure that reads right, did you mean to say “where is the Republicanism or socialism OF the IRSP?”?

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10. Mick Brody - May 6, 2008

Yes, I did. I’m not trying to have a go at them for the craic either, maybe its a result of trying to maintain a multi-tendencied party?

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11. WorldbyStorm - May 6, 2008

Sorry Mick, you’re talking there about the IRSP? Multi-tendency? Is it really?

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12. Mick Brody - May 6, 2008

How would you view it then, WBS? Is support for national liberation not a form glue that would hold otherwise opposed thought togeather?

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13. Mark P - May 6, 2008

“Multi-tendency” seems a bit grandiose, as it implies formally organised tendencies or factions coexisting. Whenever the RSM has had open factions it has tended to take the form of violent feuding. “Incoherent” might be a better way of describing the fact that the politics of IRSP members often have little in common with each other beyond a shared allegiance to (a) a United Ireland, (b) the dead INLA activists and (c) “socialism”.

Individual IRSP members have more developed politics, but the organisation itself doesn’t and never really has. There have been people affiliated with the IRSP who call themselves Maoists, Trotskyists, Left Communists, left republicans and probably half a dozen other things. This, incidentally, is something to bear in mind when you consider the recent dalliances between the IRSP and the Woods group. The fact that some elements of the IRSP leadership are hanging around with Woods, writing for his website and turning up at international events doesn’t mean that everyone in the IRSP agrees with them.

The most interesting thing about the IRSP is their relative failure to recruit in recent years, when really the going should have been better than it has been for a long time. There just doesn’t seem to be much actual organisation there.

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14. WorldbyStorm - May 6, 2008

It’s a good question of yours Mick, but I can’t help but think that while you’re right that the national liberation struggle was the nominal glue, beneath that one would find in different measures, ideological divisions, power centred on access to equipment, etc, etc… Of course we see it in other parties and groups. Even, or particularly, SF between the leftish elements and others, and within the left. In a way the splintering of the IRSP was a grim example to many other formations and might well have led to some of the excesses we’ve seen in terms of discipline etc. A long way one way or another from Seamus Costello’s vision (someone I admire quite a lot as it happens – despite seeing flaws in said vision).

MarkP, that’s another interesting point you raise about an inability to recruit.

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15. Garibaldy - May 6, 2008

Mark’s point may well apply in Dublin and the south, but much less so in the north. The IRSP Easter parade is much larger than it has been for years, and clearly in areas like Strabane and parts of Derry and Ardoyne in Belfast it has grown in influence. The question however is whether this has been for political or other reasons. I’d agree that it remains ideologically incoherent, as it has always been.

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16. Mark P - May 6, 2008

That’s interesting Garibaldy, if they are growing in the North. They remain almost invisible in the South. I suppose that the North would be where you would expect them to find things easiest. PSF have grown significantly, but that growth has been into the SDLP’s electoral territory and there is a substantial republican constituency who could be attracted by a more traditional republican appeal.

There isn’t that same broad constituency in the South. PSF aren’t taking an existing swathe of support for granted in the same way. Significant support for them is a relatively recent phenomenon. But at the same time, there is a smaller base of ex-SF activists. Eirigi seem to have recruited a fair few of these and they are a lot more visible than the IRSP in the South. At the same time, RIRA seem to have churned through a small but fairly constant trickle of alienated young men, many of whom end up in prison for membership. The IRSP don’t seem to have made inroads into either recruitment pool.

How significant is their actual organisation in the North now? By this I don’t just mean how many people can they get to a commemoration but how many actual activists do they have? And what do they actually do with their activists?

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17. Garibaldy - May 7, 2008

The IRSP can’t attract the type attracted to violence now due to being on ceasefire, while I think Eirigi probably view them as amateurs, coming from a bigger and successful organisation, though ostensibly their politics would be very similar.

In terms of signifance and activity, what I was suggesting above is that the growth in membership of a movement does not always mean growth in political activity, but can mean more activity in other terms. This seems to have been the case in Strabane, and recent arrests in the south of Strabane people may hit them hard, depending on how that pans out. This type of movement does not operate the same way as a party, so attaching young people to a movement via say a flute band is clearly not the same as attracting them to a branch.

I’ve no idea if they do advice work, representing people before tribunals etc that forms a large part of the activity of other political parties in working-class areas of NI. They have been organising more of their own meetings/discussions, putting up posters, participating in broad left meetings etc, and as far as I know still produce their paper. They have also been prominent in residents’ protests in Ardoyne. It seems fairly clear they could stand in elections if they wanted but probably prefer to avoid the morale-sapping vote that would follow.

I wouldn’t say they have successfully jumped from a movement to a primarily political organisation, but in areas of NI quantity can have a quality all of its own.

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18. Garibaldy - May 7, 2008

I meant to add that part of their problem is what to do with the recruits due to an absence of political vision.

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19. NollaigO - May 7, 2008

Militant and the National Question:

This political grouping has had an easy ride on this Blog. To gain a beginning of a critical insight into Militant/SP, I can do no better than quote from an analysis developed by a former member, Marc Mulholland:

“..Over time, I grew increasingly doubtful about Militant’s take on the “national question”. I’ll have to fill in some detail here. It’s worth noting that, as far as I can tell, only really Peter Hadden developed Militant’s position on this while I was a member.

Militant ostensibly based our analysis of the national question on Trotsky’s theory of “Permanent Revolution”. We argued that the bourgeoisie were incapable of solving the problem of the border. Only socialism could do this. First and foremost, this would be based on the massive impetus given to the forces of production we assumed socialism would unleash (with no demonstration that would impress an economist). No “want”, no “crap”, to borrow from Marx. Secondly there would be a “socialist united Ireland” (I seem to remember the “united” was later dropped) in federation with a socialist Britain. So as not to frighten the horses, “federation”, in so far as it was defined at all, was corrupted from the common-sense (“bourgeois”) understanding of the term (domestic parliaments subordinated to a superior parliament responsible for foreign affairs, only the latter enjoying sovereignty) to mean a free and equal association between sovereign entities – what we might normally mean by a treaty relationship. The substance of such a “treaty” was not spelt out.

Militant’s position was a pseudo-radical repudiation of “stages theory” – the idea that national democratic revolution was a prior condition for socialist revolution. It was based on a misunderstanding of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent (better translated as “uninterrupted”) Revolution. Trotsky argued that, unlike their Jacobin forebears, the modern bourgeoisie (where they were politically subordinated to imperialism or semi-feudal reaction) preferred to compromise with reaction rather than struggle resolutely for national democratic demands. National democratic “tasks” include the consolidation of a sovereign state based upon a fairly homogenous people sharing a consciousness of common ethnicity or citizenship. It stands opposed to fractured semi-feudal assemblages (the Tsarist Empire, Habsburg Empire, etc) or foreign “imperialist” rule.

Trotsky argued that the unwillingness of the bourgeoisie to struggle for a modern liberal nation state stemmed from their fear that a mobilised working class would escape their control and move towards the seizure of power on their own behalf. Trotsky did not argue that national democratic demands were somehow only capable of resolution through the socialist transformation of society. A nation-state, if there existed a sufficiently popular basis, and even the establishment of democracy, could well be sustained by capitalist society.

For Trotsky, the “stages” theory was incorrect only in that a resolutely national-democratic revolution would necessarily be led by the working class rather than by the timid bourgeoisie (as in the February Revolution, 1917). The working class would not artificially limit itself to national democratic demand but would push forward to achieving power in its own class interests (October 1917). This in turn would generate a process of international revolution, pulling in its train countries where advanced nation-states had been consolidated and which were thus ripe for socialist transformation (Germany, France, Britain). Thus “uninterrupted” revolution.

Trotsky did not see working class power as necessary for the completion of the national democratic stage of revolution. In fact, they were opposed, one transcending the other. He simply argued that if the working class led a national democratic revolution it would tend to push on to workers’ state (though, without a poised revolutionary party, this was likely to be abortive). Without the Bolsheviks, or even in the absence of Lenin, the Kerensky regime might arguably have consolidated (it is a pity it didn’t). There was indeed a revolutionary wave with workers in the lead in Western Europe, in the period 1944 to 46, but here the drive towards regimes based upon working class power was arrested, and national democratic regimes did (thankfully) consolidate.

Furthermore, forces other than the bourgeoisie or the working class could construct modern nation-states, as with the Bismarckian unification of Germany or the Mejia Restoration in Japan. Nation states could even be imposed in democratic form by exterior military forces (Japan and Germany post-1945, Iraq now?). [For more, see my Daily Moider, ‘No More Permanent Revolution’, 14 August].

Trotsky condemned “two stages” if this meant socialists imposing a self-denying interregnum between national-democratic revolution and “proletarian revolution”, as the Mensheviks had counselled. He did not mean that socialism was necessary to carry through national democratic demands (clearly a nonsense if he had).

The point is, national-democratic demands clearly are, in Marxist and classical Trostkyist theory, a “stage” preceding socialism (socialism, after all, is supposed to see the gradual dissolution of nations and states, to be replaced by “associated producers”, whatever is meant by that). It might require a working class revolution to overthrow a regime (semi-feudal or imperialist) inhibiting national democracy, and this might “grow over” into a workers’ state, but this does not make the construction of a nation state a “socialist” task. If history has produced peoples unwilling to combine in a nation, it is not for socialism to cajole them into so doing.

Militant argued the contrary. They held that capitalism itself, not just the bourgeoisie, was incapable of sustaining national democratic revolution in Ireland. Capitalism could not provide the material incentives that would draw protestant workers into the Irish nation. This could only be achieved by socialism. It was not just that the bourgeoisie were too timid to fight for Irish national self-determination, as Trotsky might have argued, rather that only socialism could convince protestants in Ulster to demand all-Ireland self-determination. (Why socialism requires protestants to do so was not made clear).

For Militant, it became a socialist aim to actually create a nationalist consciousness rather than to find structures to express existing consciousness. This flew in the face of classical Marxism (which does not, a priori make it wrong, but the novelty was unacknowledged).

This was pseudo-radical because it meant that Militant ducked the reality of the Irish “national question”. Militant did not seriously attempt to construct demands to cater for the actually existing competing identities in Northern Ireland. (Other groups did brave this difficult territory. Social republicans, such as People’s Democracy, candidly argued that protestant unionism was reactionary and a transient non-national minority dependent on British imperialism. A united Ireland, preferably but not necessarily socialist, was appropriate. It was not dependent on minority protestant approval. The British and Irish Communist Organisation, on the other hand, insisted that Irish protestants in Northern Ireland were a nation and, as such, they had a right to democratic self-determination. Partitioned Ireland, preferably but not necessarily a socialist Eire and socialist UK, was appropriate. It was not dependent on minority catholic approval). Militant’s answer to the “national question” was simply: “socialism”.

Militant set an impossible standard for “capitalist solutions” – they were all equally failures if they did not eliminate sectarian or national tensions. By this standard, no act of national self-determination has ever been legitimate. Self-determination for the 26 counties, for example, left an embittered protestant minority in the south and a sundered nationalist minority in the Six counties. Thus, by Militant’s logic, Irish Independence should be considered no more progressive than unmitigated Union with Britain.

This sounds hyper-radical, but in fact, Militant’s position on partition was an enormous evasion of thorny questions. Socialism, somehow, would overcome “sectarian” division in Ireland (but not, curiously, the national division between Britain and Ireland, otherwise why not argue for a Socialist Union of Great Britain and Ireland?). Until then, any capitalist solution (Partition, Unification, Joint Authority, Power-Sharing, or whatever) was equally fruitless. There was, in truth, no “transitional programme” (much beloved by Militant otherwise) on the national question.

In fact, Militant’s “socialist” solution was actually conservative. Any attempt to re-balance the competing claims of the nationalist and unionist communities in capitalist Northern Ireland (the dreaded “two-stages”) was likely to provoke sectarian discord. As the priority was always to maintain maximum working class unity, all the better for achieving that “radical” socialist solution to the national question, any thing which rocked the boat was reactionary.

Given that historically the unionists had the upper hand in Northern Ireland, such boat rocking could only really come from nationalist self-assertion. Any perceived dilution of the Union understandably provoked protestants and split the working class. Indeed, it is the case that the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) vote always peaked when catholics were quietly subordinated. If they asserted themselves, the working class cleaved on “sectarian” lines. (Had Militant the courage of its convictions, it would have agreed with the NILP’s arm’s length relationship with the Civil Rights Movement, or with Communist Betty Sinclair’s disavowal of street confrontation with the state, as inevitably leading to sectarian polarisation).

In effect, the catholic minority had to subordinate themselves to the demands of working class unity, which meant not challenging protestant unionism until such a time as a sufficiently strong socialist movement eliminated the very psychology of protestant unionism. (For some reason it was never explained why the process might not work the other way, i.e. a united socialist movement would eliminate catholic nationalism. This, on the face of it, seems much more plausible).

Thus, when I joined Militant, the Anglo-Irish Agreement was deprecated because it would provoke an explosion of unionist anger and thus be a blow to working class unity. Consideration of whether it might have improved institutional recognition for Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland, or indeed if it unfairly diluted British identity, were not weighed and balanced to determine whether the Agreement was progressive or not. The Agreement provoked unionists, thus it had to go. Militant ideology was a pseudo-radical variety of Labourism, and as Labourism must in Northern Ireland, it leant towards the unionist status quo (again, not indefensible, but not acknowledged by ever-so-radical Militant). There was to be no rocking the boat until socialism (in effect Militant) led the working class.

Okay, a bit of a diversion from anecdotage here. I’ll get back to it next time. This will be useful as, in truth, Militant ideology on the National Question was incoherent. The Organisation never openly repudiated positions it had covertly abandoned. For example, the dropping of “For a Socialist United Ireland” from the crest of the Militant newspaper was explained (after I pointed out its disappearance and one leader had denied it ever existed) by the polarisation of the working class since the 1970s. As if protestant workers toyed with all-Ireland nationalism in 1972! Thus, a diachronic approach will give some idea of the obfuscating accretions that served to obscure Militant’s evasions.

The full critique can be read on:

http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/Pages/Sectariana/Articles.html

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20. WorldbyStorm - May 7, 2008

In fairness NollaigO, I would actually probably have a view of Militant closer to that you subscribe to, but that said, I do think on the presentation side (and aspects of campaigning) they did reasonably well.

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