Red Banner – An Appreciation May 5, 2016Posted by guestposter in Uncategorized.
Many thanks to Dan Finn for this appreciation of Red Banner.
The latest copy of Red Banner came with a note and an editorial explaining that this would be the last edition of a socialist publication that has been in print for nineteen years. I’ve been a loyal reader for fourteen of those years, and I’ll be sorry to see the end of a magazine that has made a real contribution to socialist thought in Ireland. Red Banner was never linked to a political organization, and the resources behind it were minimal, but it was always worth reading; you could find the most incisive, well-informed reviews of important books like Conor McCabe’s Sins of the Father or Eoin Ó Broin’s Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism in its pages, and much else besides.
The articles were eclectic, and didn’t follow a strict editorial line. But there were three strands of content that formed a clear pattern over the years. One was the series of articles on ‘Socialist Classics’, which gave smart, accessible and unpretentious summaries of works by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Kropotkin, Gramsci, Korsch, Lukács, C. L. R James, Victor Serge, and a whole range of other writers. Each article could stand on its own, but added together they would serve as a great introduction to Marxism for someone new to the field, and I’d love to see them anthologized in some way (there’s easily enough material there for a book). Another strand consisted of articles on Irish history, which would put much of the work published in academic journals by tenured historians to shame. For a sample, have a look at this terrific account of how the Democratic Programme was adopted by the Dáil in 1919 (one notable feature of that essay is its use of Irish-language sources: Red Banner always published articles in Irish, some of which were collected in book form a few years back with the title Faoin Bhratach Dhearg). And then there were the articles by James Connolly, republished for the first time since his death and bringing his eloquence and savage wit to a new generation of readers. Many of those articles seemed so fresh and topical, I sometimes wondered if the Red Banner team were simply writing them afresh in Connolly’s idiom.
Here’s Connolly tearing into a journalist mouthing the same hackneyed clichés that are still used against socialists today:
The first qualification of a journalist on a capitalist paper is a perfect readiness to write columns of matter upon any subject which may turn up, without wasting any time acquiring a knowledge of what he is writing about. So with this Cork critic. Every line he writes gives evidence of the density of his ignorance on all matters Socialistic, but he apparently conceives that fact to be of trivial importance for he continues to spread himself out on the question with a recklessness of grammar and an ignorance of economic teaching not to be surpassed by any collection of old women in the land.
The unfortunate Corkonian was aghast at the prospect of a classless society:
Everybody is to own everything, and nobody is to own anything. A nice comfortable philosophy for a considerable section of the world. Take for instance the man without any brains. What need he care if he has none? His neighbour has enough for the two, and as he would have the same right to an even share of the country’s wealth as his brainy neighbour he would be the better off of the two, because he would have everything without worry or exertion.
For Connolly, it was ‘touching to observe how the poor uninstructed instinct of this scribe brought him at once to the point which affected him most—the man without any brains.’ He ridiculed the notion that ‘Socialism means an equal divide of the wealth of the world—an idea which nobody holds now outside of lunatic asylums or the editorial rooms of capitalist newspapers’:
Socialists say the land and all things necessary to life should be made public property and the journalistic tout for the capitalist class shouts out that that means an “equal divide.” Now just to emphasise the foolishness of such talk remember that “all things necessary to life” includes the rivers and canals. Do you suppose then that Socialists propose to divide up the Lee, the Blackwater, or the Liffey, and apportion to each inhabitant of Ireland a share which he can carry away in his pockets? We do not propose to divide anything but the labour and that we hope to divide if not equally, at least equitably. When that division comes off I think that an enlightened community will find for this Cork scribe some function more suited to his intellect, or to his lack of it, than writing articles upon subjects he does not understand.
There are plenty of ‘scribes’ around today who could do with a similar roasting; some of them, indeed, from Cork.
(Connolly’s pamphlets Labour in Irish History and Labour, Nationality and Religion also featured in the Socialist Classics series.)
Although he would probably hate to be singled out, the contribution of Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh to Red Banner really deserves to be highlighted. A glance at the index will show almost sixty articles published under his name since 1997—an article in almost every edition of the magazine. But I don’t think it’s any great secret to regular readers that he contributed a few more than that. (My friend Paul once said to me: ‘Danny, how many different names does Aindrias use when he’s writing for Red Banner? See that article about France there, that’s obviously him.’ I had to point out that while the general point was sound, that particular article was actually written by me.)
Red Banner probably suffered in recent years from having a very limited online presence: there’s a selection of articles on their website, but the vast majority only appeared in the print edition, and I don’t think it ever had a Twitter account or a Facebook page. Last year I mentioned the magazine to a left-wing friend who’s a few years younger than me, and was surprised to discover that he’d never heard of it. While the opportunity to publish material online is obviously a huge boon to socialists, allowing them to reach a much wider audience, there’s still a lot to be said for keeping one foot in the world of print: articles written in that form often tend to be more polished and considered than online posts, where there’s always a tendency to shoot from the hip. Jacobin is the best recent example of a socialist publication that has managed to straddle the two mediums, and I hope Ireland can produce its own space for the kind of analytical writing that you need if left-wing thought is going to make progress.
In the meantime, the Red Banner collective have promised to gradually make their back catalogue available online. Anyone who hasn’t read those articles before should certainly take the opportunity this time round. As they say in my dad’s county, Up the Banner!