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Kieran Allen’s falsification of history

Andrew Johnson

18 April 2007

Kieran Allen, the leading figure and chief theoretician of the Socialist Workers Party, has recently written an article (“The Death of Radical Republicanism”, available from the SWP website) which claims to provide the socialist response to the Provos’ surrender. The article is of interest, not only for its superficial critique of Sinn Fein, but as an illustration of the evolution of one of Ireland’s larger left groupings. It is also worth examining as Allen goes out of his way to attack our predecessor organisation, Peoples Democracy, and our history and programme.

Allen strikes a familiar tone, by criticising two allegedly false tendencies on the Irish left in their attitudes to republicanism – those of Peoples Democracy and the Workers Party. As we shall see, his critique is fundamentally dishonest. He doesn’t explain what the SWP’s response to the republican movement was, not least because that position changed radically down the years. But, having knocked down two straw men, he gives the impression that the SWP, under Allen’s wise leadership, represented the golden mean. 

This is a standard technique in Allen’s articles and in the SWP more generally. The article’s purpose being to orient SWP members to the latest turn in the line, not to stage any genuine examination of the situation or provide a realistic Marxist analysis.

What Peoples Democracy said

The most important point to make is that Allen’s critique of our record is based on a total misrepresentation of what we really said. It is no wonder that Allen doesn’t quote any PD statements. As it happens, we never acted as cheerleaders for the Provos’ armed campaign – in fact, we constantly counterposed mass and class struggle to the physical force tradition. Our view of the republican struggle was that it contained the potential to break through the limitations of republican politics, and that the anti-imperialist mass movement in the North could grow over into an all-Ireland anti-capitalist movement. Our big mistake was that we tended to believe there was an inexorable historical process leading to that conclusion, and we failed to put enough emphasis on the possibility that republicanism would not only fail to break through its limitations, but would actually be thrown backwards. 

For all our mistakes we were miles in advance of the economist tradition in Irish socialism and its failure, then and now, to see the national question as a democratic question of major importance to the advance of the working class. Allen, in order to excuse his own record, is forced to provide an analysis that criticises the Provos for their surrender without suggesting that the continued occupation of the North or the partition of the country is an issue for anyone.

Allen continues in this vein, until it is hard to see how many more distortions could be fit into so few paragraphs. We never, for example, claimed that the revolution in Ireland was simply a matter of expanding the struggle in the North to include the semi-colonial Southern state. We did argue that there could be no socialist revolution in Ireland without forging the unity of the Irish working class – it is Allen who wants to erect a Chinese wall between North and South. Nor did we say that the Protestant working class was incapable of playing a progressive role this side of Irish unity, a falsehood Allen has repeated for many years. We insisted that unionism was incapable of playing a progressive role – a distinction lost on economist socialists.

The extraordinary thing is that Allen isn’t arguing from a position of ignorance. He is well aware of what PD’s position was, not least because PD’s position was worked out in close collaboration with Tony Cliff and the International Socialists in Britain. The only conclusion is that Allen is deliberately falsifying the record.

The Officials and secularism

Allen contrasts our alleged failings with those of the Workers Party. We hold no brief for the WP, and in any case the WP are able to defend themselves. But even here Allen cannot give an honest argument. In the past, he has produced useful critiques of the WP’s politics, and particularly of the Bew-Patterson academic version. But here he ignores his own previous positions, and comes up with the novel argument that the WP’s hostility to the Provos was dictated by a militant secularism, “unconsciously shaped by the European experience of empire”, which took a one-sided view of the Enlightenment to insist that the Irish people must grow out of their Catholicism.

This is arrant nonsense. It is true that the early Provo leadership included some conservative Catholics such as Sean MacStiofain, and the Officials’ propaganda flagged this up. But the split in the republican movement at the beginning of the Troubles had very little to do with secularism. It was caused by the Officials’ adaptation to Stalinist and reformist politics, and their abandonment of traditional republican positions such as abstentionism. This conflict was sharpened by the explosion in the North, and the critical issue of defending Catholic ghettoes, which ran up against the Officials’ rigid stages theory.

There are two points of interest here. The first is Allen taking aim at secularism, which he explains by reference to the pro-war “left” in Britain, and those socialists who fail to match the SWP in uncritical enthusiasm for the Iraqi insurgency. This suggests that Allen is rewriting the history of Irish republicanism to justify the SWP’s recent accommodation to political Islam. The second is that, in the past, Allen used to contrast the “left republicanism” of PD with the “gas and water socialism” of the Militant/Socialist Party. The SP escape his lash this time, apparently because the SWP have now adopted much of their programme on the North.

Back to gas and water!

Allen lambastes Peoples Democracy’s (and the SWP of the time) understandable attempts to form a united front with a revolutionary republicanism in the period up to the mid-eighties in order to draw a line under more recent attempts by his own organisation to cooperate with a reformist and counter revolutionary republicanism of today – it is very recently indeed that the SWP proposed a new party of the left that would include both Sinn Fein and the Irish Labour party! Its just weeks ago that the SWP bolstered its episodic campaign against water charges with a rather shaky alliance with Sinn Fein ‘community workers’ (and an even more shaky alliance with the PUP/UVF ‘community’ workers).

However, in standard SWP practice of ‘bending the stick’ Sinn Fein are now to be cast into outer darkness as rightists and frantic attempts made to recruit their base to the true socialist movement of the SWP.

It is at this point that the Allen article descends into incoherence. His central charge is that the republicans now collaborate with imperialism, but he is unable to make anything of this charge because, from the economistic viewpoint of the SWP, the whole national question is supremely unimportant. Not only that, but it is clear from the article that Allen and the SWP believe the Sinn Fein line that their collaboration has paid off and that there are important victories for nationalism contained within the partnership.  He is reduced to the childish expedient of reducing Sinn Fein’s crimes to a tactical difference over water charges in the North – a conflict he misunderstands and misrepresents.

The list of errors is nearly endless.  Allen opposes collaboration with imperialism, yet the SWP election campaigns in the North made nothing of the Good Friday agreement, the St. Andrews agreement, partition or the continuing British occupation of the North.  In fact, a spokesperson for their campaign in Derry dismissed partition and sectarian discrimination as issues that had been ‘sorted’. 

The issue of policing, taken as a touchstone in the article, is not new.  Sinn Fein have been offering support for the police for years, conditional on changes to save face that they didn’t get.  Socialists oppose the conditional offer as much as the final capitulation.  In fact in the Northern election, given an opportunity to raise the issue, the SWP ducked aside with the fatuous slogan: Policing? – policing won’t solve poverty!

The real howlers come when the article deals with: “The distant shape of a bourgeois solution to the Irish ‘problem’…” We learn: “Economically, it is an island that is strongly wedded to the Anglo?American empire, fully embracing flexible markets…” and “Under this wider schema, there could be a more closely intermeshed Ireland, where the British?Irish sovereignty is pooled in the North.” 

This echoes arguments put forward by the SWP progenitor organisation, the International Socialists, 40 years ago and shows how difficult it is for the economist current within socialism to learn anything from history.  Then, the argument was that the British had nothing to fear from a united Ireland – in fact they probably planned to introduce one! Thirty years of war later, the republicans reduced to a pulp and forced to abjure all their programme, with Irish capital opposing unity, changing the constitution and rejecting joint authority time and again, with the British spending billions and with agreements that state over and over the indefinite continuation of British rule, still the SWP see Irish unity as a done deal!

Reduced to squabbling about non-payment of water charges, Allen completely distorts a campaign that was unable to make an impact in the recent elections and, after 3 years of work, has had its biggest demonstration of under 700. He ignores Sinn Fein’s alternative method of defeating water charges – to get into government.  This would surely be an effective strategy if Sinn Fein opposed water charges or if the colonial government had any real freedom of action.

In fact the programme for government in the North has an economic component, to which Sinn Fein has already agreed, based on wholesale privatisation and deregulation.  It is the utterly reactionary nature of the Northern settlement and the right-wing nature of the Provos programme that socialists have to explain, not a squabble about tactics.  But try explaining that to someone who lives in a make-believe world where Sinn Fein was part of the left and where he claims that the Catholic church has been brushed aside as an agent of political control!

Allen argues that Sinn Fein’s transformation into an establishment party provides socialists with a golden opportunity. And this golden opportunity lies in the movement against water charges! Allen holds out the prospect, by implication if not in so many words, that non-payment of water charges could halt the move to all-Ireland neoliberalism and give an alternative outlet to Paisley-voting Protestant workers. (When Allen writes of the decline of traditional Protestant employment in shipbuilding, he gives a false impression that the Protestant working class in the North is suffering rising levels of unemployment – the construction-led boom in the North passes him by)
Non-payment is thus invested with a radical potential that Allen denies the mass movement against British imperialism ever had! This is surely gas and water socialism in its most literal form, and a revealing glimpse of what the SWP’s revolutionary perspective really is.

But even to follow this organisation to its logical end is self defeating when one is dealing with the SWP.  On May 8th the organisation demonstrated outside Stormont.  It could have taken up the central issue identified by Kieran Allen of the Provos selling out on the national question by joining a protest by Derry republicans.  It could have taken up the central issue identified by Kieran Allen of water charges by joining a trade union protest – the announcement of 500 job losses in the water service was made later that day.  It did neither of these things.  It chose the day and the place where imperialism bent every sinew to restabilise its rule in Ireland to protest against imperialism – in Iraq!

This is an organisation that speaks in tongues.  It arguments have no meaning even to itself.  They don’t guide its own actions, let alone those of workers.


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