Return to Recent Articles menu
Obituary: Bob Purdie 1940-2014
by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght
4 January 2015
Bob Purdie was always dedicated. Whether as a Marxist revolutionary or an academic, he gave himself 100% to his calling. He came to show equal dedication to Christianity and to the Scottish Nationalist Party. The change in his allegiances cannot be said to have been a tragedy for him; his last letters to this writer were those of a contented individual. Nonetheless, it was a misfortune for the left.
The writer met Bob first in 1970 when he opened the door of his flat to him. He came with a letter from Gery Lawless proclaiming him to be “one of the good guys“. For once Lawless was making a strictly accurate assessment. Politically. Bob Purdie was one of the good guys at that time; personally he remained so to the end.
It was in these early seventies that the writer knew him best. There were at first certain mutual suspicions on both sides. In particular, like many others, Bob tended to assume that the fact that the Official Republicans had more obviously socially enlightened, even socialistic policies than the Provisionals left them open to real Marxism. The writer warned him that their movement’s progress thither would be hobbled disastrously by the fact that its political mentors had been influenced by Stalinite illusions that appealed to the weaker assumptions of Republicanism. The result of these was the idea of the possibility of the workers taking state power peacefully and in clearly defined stages. For Ireland this was said to mean the achievement of a democratic six county territory that would agree to rejoin its twenty-six county brethren in an enlightened democratic entity that would proceed, equally peacefully, to establish a socialist society.
How far Bob responded to these warnings and how far to his own observations is unclear. What is certain is that by 1972 he was disillusioned. His pamphlet Ireland Unfree is a work produced in a hurry and with a number of errors that sectarians were able to use to dismiss it. None of them could challenge publicly its central argument. This was that the northern struggle had to spread to the south, and maintain itself by making a sea change into a proletarian struggle before achieving Irish unity in its only possible form: a Workers Republic in the vanguard of the world struggle for socialism. Later, in his edited collection, Ireland, Divided Nation, Divided Class, he would dismiss this work as infantile. He did not disprove its argument.
By the time the book appeared, it seemed that events were occurring that would end Bob”s revolutionary career. A new leadership in the International Marxist Group placed him with the minority. Despite being an official parliamentary candidate in February 1974, he found himself increasingly marginalised. He won a Scholarship to Ruskin College and it was used as an excuse to end his career as an official IMG Organiser. When he went to Ruskin, he was still in the FI, wearing its badge proudly. To his amusement, one fellow student asked him “What the thingy with the four meant?” Then academic studies occupied his time increasingly with the encouragement of the IMG leadership group which tended to go out of its way to handicap his participation in its work. He got a degree and a doctorate at the price of a decisive part of his militancy.
He continued to struggle for socialism subjectively. He became a stalwart supporter of the Irish Labour History Society, co-founding its Belfast Branch during his sojourn there, despite opposition from members of Official Sinn Fein, and later editing the society journal. He remained a patron after he returned to Scotland.
From 1979 to 1991, Bob was one of the organisers of the Lipmen Trust Seminars. Though the writer attended, he does not remember clashing politically with him. One problem was that Bob was not very good at the sort of close range polemical argument produced by serious political disagreements. On one occasion, at an History Workshop in Brighton he declared “What a pity that such a good person as Rayner should get it all wrong”. Typically, he never explained how or where the writer’s account of his subject, the period 1968-88, was inaccurate. Whether or not this was simply a misplaced kindliness towards a personal friend remains a mystery. Certainly, other political discussions would end with him declaring firmly “You will not convince me”. It must be added that, from all accounts, this firmness stood him in better stead in his role as a college lecturer.
It was, then, not altogether surprising that he rejoined a branch of the Church of his ancestors.In the early seventies, Gery Lawless had once invoked him at a meeting as a repentant Orangeman, a charge he laughed off as “typical of Gerry; he sees every Protestant as Orange,” whilst he took pains to stress to this writer the tolerant, unbigotted nature of his family background. Certainly, this was the Christianity he embraced, yet even this embrace represented a retreat from analysis to faith. On one occasion, the writer remarked that he was amoral, to which Bob replied that for him amorality equalled immorality. An attempt to explain to him that morality itself varies according to, basically material, circumstances fell on deaf ears. The change in his personal philosophy was accompanied by a change in his practical political view. He was no longer a Marxist, of course, and he tried to rekindle the ashes of Labourism in Northern Ireland. After this failed, he moved further to centre his thinking on a constitutional change that would result in a six county state independent of both the rest of Ireland and of Britain. He seemed to welcome the 1998 agreement as a step in that direction. Whether he continued to do so the writer does not know.
This position accompanied a firmer stand on a matter more important to Bob. The one issue that he continued to defend from his revolutionary days was the right of Scotland to self-determination. On his return there, he took his position to the point of joining and supporting actively the Scottish Nationalist Party, albeit as a lone socialist voice. In one of his last letters, he remarked on the likelihood that a revived Scottish Socialist Party would make a welcome reappearance, but that he would be too moderate to join one. Sadly it seems likely that by moderate he meant lacking in physical health.
His academic-reformist career produced two books. Politics in the Streets is a well researched account of the civil rights agitation that resulted in Northern Ireland”s thirty years war. A useful reference work, its narrative tends to blandness. His study of the politics of Hugh MacDiarmid has been reviewed on this website; here the weakness is the absence of any relationship of its subject’s politics to his most significant feature, his poetry. The writer was about to send Bob a copy of his review when he heard of his death.
Bob Purdie’s political trajectory has lessons for revolutionary socialists. His marginalisation and eventual alienation was academia’s gain but the revolution’s loss. He was, after all, one of the IMGs working-class comrades in its leadership (the only one of his time according to Tariq Ali). His departure should have set alarm bells ringing. Instead, his opponents seem to have heaved a collective sigh of relief. Whether or not they believed consciously in Raymond Molinier’s formula “Trotsky’s party built by Stalin’s methods,” (and they did not go as far in this as Gerry Healy) they went far towards it. In Britain, in particular, tight organisations can be built too tightly, cracking them so that they break into many feuding parts, and leave many individuals like Bob Purdie disgusted with the overall perspective of which each part claims to be the guardian.
Bob Purdie had his weaknesses, as everyone does, revolutionary or otherwise. His experiences caused these weaknesses to be of decisive and debilitating importance. He remained what was for him perhaps of greater importance, a good friend and a good person.
Return to top of page