Permanent Revolution & the Irish Question
by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght
10 May 2011
In his contribution to the Irish Republican Net: ‘Irish Republicanism, Socialism And Permanent Revolution’, Sean Matgamna describes the writer as ‘shaping and capering’ and with ‘odd conceits such as using the third person pronoun for himself’. Lysaght finds this an improvement on Matgamna’s previous attacks on him. He is not quite sure what the bould Sean means by ‘shaping‘ and, like Matgamna, he is rather too old to indulge in ‘capering’, but he finds the charge of his describing himself in the third person a great improvement on accusations of being a ‘tattle tale historian’, let alone an anti-semite. After all, this charge is actually true!
There is inevitably a certain amount that is true in the rest of Matgamna’s two recent articles (the other being ‘What Exactly Was the National Question ?’ on his own ‘Workers’ Liberty’ website); nobody could write as much without being accurate some of the time. It cannot be denied that Permanent Revolution cannot be ‘emptied of its central content - working class activity and working class socialist revolution’ without destroying its full socialist potential either before or after its progress can topple the counter-revolutionary power.
This is, after all, precisely what happened to force the IRA to end its armed campaign. It made war rather than attempting to mobilise mass, particularly mass working class, action to agitate for Irish unity, found that it could not get beyond stalemate and sued, through Sinn Fein, for a six county settlement with thirty-two county dressings. This is what the Irish Section of the Fourth International feared might happen and was a major cause of dissension between it and the Republicans. The RMG/PD support for the armed struggle was critical and for three reasons. The struggle had already begun when the organisation was founded. A republican unilateral ending of the struggle would have been a surrender, closing the door not only to revolution but to any lasting minimal democratic improvements in Northern Irish life. Finally, on the positive side, the section anticipated, from the beginning how British excesses would stimulate working class activity beyond cross-class mass action as after Bloody Sunday and during the Hunger Strikes. Sean Matgamna should know this. Lysaght wrote defending Permanent Revolution for Ireland in 1972, Matgamna told him he would reply to it, but did not show him anything. Later, in the eighties, Lysaght wrote at least two articles explaining his position for Matgamna’s publications, though only one was published. (The other, a statement of his position in rebuttal to the out of context quotations used by ‘Donal R’ in Matgamna’s platonic dialogue was not published, perhaps for resons of space.) Matgamna has no excuse for claiming ignorance of Lysaght’s line. On the other hand, beyond general hostility to Irish national aspirations and a belief in the immediate proletarian political potential of the Northern Irish protestant working class, Lysaght does not know what Matgamna’s overall perspectives are or were on the Irish struggle at any one time.
This essential slipperiness was a feature of Matgamna’s political practice when the IWG split. It is worth recalling that the present polemic was begun by his denouncing his opponents in that fight as organising ‘an anti-semitic witch-hunt disguised as anti-Zionism’. When challenged to produce evidence for this, he could produce only an accusation against him by G.Lawless that he was pro-Zionist that was not aimed to justify his expulsion, but to point out the heterogeneity of his faction.
Since then, he has muddied the waters further. He asserts that Lysaght’s assertion of the national question’s importance in the faction fight is reading ‘his peculiar line..........anachronistically on to the IWG dispute.’ In fact, Lysaght insisted that the question was objectively important, that it affected people’s positions, including his own, but that the undeveloped nature of IWG meant that the debate was concentrated on the nature of party organisation and, above all, on the iniquities of one G.Lawless. Nonetheless, the national question was there, the elephant in the room. Moreover, aspects of it were brought to the fore in documents by Lysaght, Lawless, E.McCann and P.Donovan. (something like a hundred times more than the Anti-Zionist reference that Matgamna uses to justify his claim of an anti-semitic witch-hunt) They weren’t brilliant. (looking back, there was little that was brilliant on either side in the fight). Lysaght’s own contribution was full of bad formulations, though he continues to consider that he was correct to oppose the blanket hostility expressed by Matgamna towards Irish national democratic tasks. On the whole, McCann’s contribution was the best, in that it tried to diffuse the anglocentricity that worried many on both sides by proposing an orientation to the Fourth International. (No doubt, this is bias, but the writer does not remember McCann writing anything as good politically since then). Certainly, it did not deserve Matgamna’s contemptuous dismissal of it, though that was better than his complete silence on the analyses in this writers’ document. When it is remembered that Lawless’ main denunciation of Matgamna was that he was a ‘Walkerite’ (after the anti-Home Rule labour leader), the national question can be seen to have played a role in the dispute. There must be a suspicion that it was Matgamna himself who kept it from appearing as a bigger issue, knowing that his own allies were divided on the matter. Certainly, the Irish group that sprung from his faction, the League for a Workers’ Republic, had no truck with his opposition to Permanent Revolution in Ireland; how far this contributed to their breach three years after the IWG split the writer cannot say.
The question is: how was the national question an issue? At that time (before October 1968), the partition question was not as acute as it would be subsequently. Most non-unionists believed that it could be reformed. Only a few isolated Republicans disagreed; they did not include even all the future leaders of Provisional Republicanism. Contrariwise it is doubtful whether even Matgamna’s ‘Jackie ‘ believed then that this would be done through the good will generated by the occasional talks between government ministers north and south of the border. However, there was a difference within the consensus. On the one hand there were what might be termed the moderates (liberals, constitutional nationalists, republicans, stalinites (of course) and some social democrats), who favoured reformation through the six-county civil rights struggle. On the other hand, many socialists recognised that these would not be enough without attacking the economic foundations of the unionists’ support, a recognition, albeit inadequate, that would fuel the attempts by the early People’s Democracy to march under slogans of ‘One Person, One Job’ and ‘One Family, One House’. (As the former IWG member, C.Toman, of PD confessed later, these slogans underestimated Unionism’s essential undemocratic nature.)
So partition was not yet an issue, nor was Permanent Revolution per se. However, there were other aspects to the Irish national question. Though diminished in numbers since the collapse of its border campaign, the Republican Movement ‘hadn’t gone away, you know,’and was very active. It could not be ignored; it was the nearest thing to a mass revolutionary movement in Ireland, with a large component of working class members. On the other hand, it was being unduly influenced by various Stalinites who, though often disagreeing tactically, were agreed in urging the movement’s abandonment of its revolutionary content, its arsenal, in order for it to head a peaceful struggle for a chimerical united independent capitalist Ireland in which their co-thinkers could come to power.
Any group claiming to be Bolshevik-Leninist would have had to criticise the republicans’ new course, just as it had to criticise the limitations of the Labour Party’s current flirtation with socialist ideas. The IWG did try to do this, but, being the IWG, its propaganda tended to zigzag from one extreme to another, sometimes resembling left labourism, sometimes traditional physical force republicanism. In time these contradictions could have been overcome; time was not allowed.
Two other aspects of the Irish national
question were more immediately relevant at that time than physical force
or partition. Entry to what was then the European Economic Community
was an issue that had to be faced. At that time, it was mainly the left
that opposed it from Labour to Republicans and Stalinites; today’s right
wing opposition cannot be said to have existed. What should be the Bolshevik-Leninist
response ? Matgamna lept in with both feet. He said ‘In or Out of the Market,
the Struggle Goes On’ was the original British Trotskyist slogan. Perhaps
it was; certainly, as an internal guide to practice, it was reasonable;
there could be no slackening of the class struggle to allow for the sort
of cross-class alliance favoured by the Stalinites. As a slogan, it was
Matgamna remarks that his article did not cause a dispute: that Lysaght, ‘when, towards the end of 1967, he became involved (sic) in the IWG, tried to object to it’. There are three points to be made here: two of them to correct howlers. Firstly, as Lysaght has stated, he joined the IWG around May/June 1967, not ‘towards the end’ of the year. Secondly the writer did not try to object; he did object to Matgamna’s article in the Dublin branch. He did not produce a document on it because he was a new member, trying to learn and not wanting to rock the boat and not thinking that a single article was worth a full document. Thirdly, despite this, there a dispute was developing over the said article, since C.Hussey produced a document criticising it, ironically in the same IB that contained Matgamna’s ‘Trotskyism or Chameleonism’, the opening salvo in the struggle in which Hussey would be one of Matgamna’s most enthusiastic supporters. The elephant in the room had begun to trumpet, not loudly, but clearly.
The matter of the article was not buried in the faction fight. Rather it contributed to a larger cause for concern on the national issue. Besides the expulsion of Lawless’ circle, Matgamna urged that the IWG proper be associated with his British-based Workers’ Fight group, as it was called then, to form a politically homogenous ‘International’ for these islands. Numerically, as yet, Workers Fight was in no position to dominate, but the instant homogeneity advocated for the double organisation, including Matgamna’s immediate supporters seemed likely to give him political control if he won. After the EEC article, Lysaght and others feared such dominance and joined Lawless; they did not want to follow a duodecimo Gerry Healy. (No doubt Lawless shared many of Healy’s less admirable traits, but he did not pontificate as Healy did.) These doubts were confirmed by two other factors. There was Matgamna’s strident denunciations of Irish nationalism, without even token mention of imperialism. There was also his dismissal of McCann’s proposal to affiliate to the USFI, that would have opened the groups’ perspectives to a wider variety of influences. Matgamna’s objections to that body did not add up to discredit it in the way 1914 discredited the Second and 1933, the Third International. It is accurate to say that, even with hindsight, Lysaght considers his doubts justified; his disagreement with Matgamna on the national question is known, and, to his knowledge, Matgamna has never found an international vanguard organisation that lives up to his own exacting standards.
Two points must be made in summary. Firstly. This dispute began because Sean Matgamna described the split in the IWG as being caused by an Anti-Semitic witchhunt disguised as Anti-Zionism, and that it had nothing to do with the Irish national question. This writer has shown that, on the contrary, the national question, though played down by Matgamna’s faction, was an issue far more than the single mention of Zionism on which the Anti-Semitic accusation is based.
The second point is more important. Matgamna’s
hostility to Permanent Revolution fuelled his hostility to nationalist
tasks. This helped disarm his allies when Northern Ireland exploded in
August 1969, leaving the ghettoes without any organised political support
in the Republic, a vacuum filled by Provisional Sinn Fein. As he recognises,
the present peace process is likely to unravel, with reduced British subventions.
In this situation, Permanent Revolution must be more rather than less relevant,
if it is not to enter a repeat of the Provo strategy. Certainly, Matgamna
does not offer any viable alternative.