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Rendering Nationalism More Profound

A Festschrift for Anthony Coughlan: Essays on Sovereignty and Democracy, Edited by Frank Keoghan, Ruan O’Donnell & Michael Quinn

Reviewed by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

1 December 2018

Dr. Anthony Coughlan had a distinguished academic career as head of Dublin University’s Social Studies Department for thirty-six years. To the general public, and particularly those of it who are politically conscious, he is better known as a tireless campaigner for democratic causes, most notably civil rights in Northern Ireland and opposition to the bureaucracy of the European Union. In themselves, these facts would justify this collection of essays in his honour. They justify, too, analysing the said essays and his work critically.

Certainly, there can be no disagreement about his overall direction.  Northern Ireland was a political slum as, arguably, it remains. The EU was designed to develop away from a truly democratic Europe and it is fulfilling its aim. The question is whether the strategies advocated and supported by Coughlan and his admirers are the proper means of correcting these situations.

Tony Coughlan is the acknowledged pupil and heir of the late Charles Desmond Greaves, the one time Irish expert of the Communist Party of Great (sic) Britain, founder of the Connolly Clubs and President of their successor, the Connolly Association. Greaves’ Communism was that of the Popular Front, the cross class coalition first of opponents of fascism and then of those seeking democratic governments running welfare states. Save where they were imposed from outside by the Russian Army, such fronts tended to have short life spans, either from the natural turn of the democratic pendulum, and/or from the treachery of their bourgeois elements. Despite this, before and after the Soviet implosion, the Communist Parties have tended to stick to people’s fronts for all mobilisations. The trouble with this strategy is not that it is initially one uniting all classes with an interest in building democracy. That is often the soil from which the workers can rise to take state power. The problem is that official Communist Parties work to maintain the fronts’ class unity long after it is possible for the workers to so rise. Their aim is bourgeois democracy at whatever cost to workers’ interests, or even, in practice, to democracy itself.

It is not surprising that popular front strategies are advocated particularly by the Stalinised Communist Parties. They are the finished product of a process that led to another of their dogmas, the idea that a socialist society can be established within the boundaries of a nation state. Greaves and Coughlan both accept this, with Coughlan following Greaves in emphasizing in the brochure for the latter’s memorial Summer School his idea that ‘the most important political task for democrats and the Labour movement [is] to join in an international campaign in defence of the Nation State as the fundamental focus of political democracy and the only mechanism which history has evolved for imposing social control on private capital.’ The contradictions of this idea are obvious. If an international campaign is possible and necessary to defend the nation state, does not this imply that a potential confederation of nations will be more effective in imposing social control on private capital?  Indeed, in an age of globalization, can any mere nation state, let alone one the size of Ireland impose such control on multinational corporations with budgets larger than its own? Above all, this approach covers a retreat even beyond ‘socialism’ in one country to single countries regardless of their class nature. It is back to the capitalist autarchy of Ireland in the forties.

These two ideas are synthesised to a greater or lesser degree in a third of the articles in this collection.  Others include three personal evaluations of Coughlan. They include the longest and worst, Ray Kinsella’s denial of any ‘basis for retrofitting atheistic Marxism onto Connolly’s rough-hewn but incontrovertibly Catholic social principles’ (This is despite Connolly’s own words) and his denunciation of the EU (and Sinn Fein) for ‘secularism’ which brings him close to the Le Pen wing of Euro-scepticism.  Three more articles concern the cases brought with Coughlan’s support or initiative to ensure greater democratic Irish oversight of EU developments. One of these was brought by Patricia McKenna on the occasion of the Irish Republic’s Government support for the repeal of the constitutional divorce ban, a move which the writer feared might reinstate the said ban; he is glad to have been proved wrong. Three articles concern the organizational side of Coughlan’s political career, the Connolly Association and his role in it and the Greaves School. Then there are three articles on a variety of theoretical topics, related to Coughlan’s work. These are Owen Bennett on Historical Revisionism (good, but too short and sketchy), Priscilla Metscher on Desmond Greaves’ histories (confused in parts) and Fr. Micheal MacGreil on Prejudice, the only article concerned directly with Coughlan’s old day job.

All the above are contributions from a wide range of political positions. Not only is the Communist Party represented but so are independent socialists, Greens and Christian Democrats. The remaining six articles are politically homogenous. They deal with the theories behind the strategy of Coughlan and his comrades for democracy in Northern Ireland and against the European Union.

There is only one contribution on the first of these, compared to the five dealing somehow with the European question. This is understandable; Brexit is an immediate issue, whereas it is easy to consider the northern troubles as having been put to bed on Good Friday ’98.  On the other hand since Brexit is quite likely to end illusions in the peace process, both the events that led to the struggle that preceded the process, and the struggle itself deserve more investigation to thwart malign possibilities.

There is one point to be emphasized. Though small in itself, it is revealing as to the continuing blindness of the defenders of the strategy of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) to the weakness of its position. In his article, Kevin McCorry raises the old saw that People’s Democracy’s Burntollet march aborted the possibility of a rapprochement between Northern Ireland’s politico-religious communities. (Regrettably, in his contribution, Deaglan de Breadun agrees in passing) McCorry suggests that the Waterside police riot of 5 October ’68 caused many moderate Unionists to flock to the cause of civil rights. The march of 16 November was ‘one of 15,000 Derry people, both Catholic and Protestant’; proportions of each are not, and probably cannot be given. McCorry continues to state that Terence O’Neill’s reform package was passed within a week and the NICRA Executive declared a truce to allow matters to quieten. Then PD ruined matters by the Burntollet march and cross-community relations deteriorated, leading to the loyalist invasion of the ghettoes the following August. This has been the mantra of the early civil rights activists since they began to be challenged by revival of the armed campaign. It might be expected that McCorry would have evidence for his view that a march by a small group of students could have broken a consensus united by horror at police brutality. If he does, he does not present it. In fact, after 5 October, the tendency was for the Unionist community to group itself defensively behind the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the marchers having been breaking the law, after all. Nor were O’Neill’s reforms impressive. (Only in Northern Ireland could O’Neill be considered a ‘liberal’). The key plank of one person, one vote in local elections was not granted until after the provincial general election had given an apparent majority for moderate Unionism. McCorry is correct in his criticism of PD’s lack of organized structure, but NICRA’s inability to hold the line for a peaceful transition to a democratic Northern Ireland had deeper causes only some of which he mentions.

This reviewer remembers reading Greaves’ pamphlet ‘The Irish Question & the British People’. He was struck by its detailed listing of Unionist attacks on democracy, but also by its lack of analysis of the social forces underpinning these practices. If Greaves was the begetter of NICRA (and he played a role in its founding), it is not surprising that it raised unrealistic expectations amongst its supporters, nor that its leaders failed to dampen them. The actual aim was to persuade the government of the United Kingdom to force its provincial administration to grant its demands. What was not admitted was the peculiarly subversive nature of those demands towards the status of the Northern Irish Protestants. One Person One Vote would mean an ending to Unionist patronage in many areas.  The abolition of Derry Corporation would ensure such an ending in the city. A points system for housing would end much Unionist patronage in this sphere. Disbanding the Special Constabulary would mean that no longer would many Protestant families be able to relieve themselves of unruly males for periods and be paid for it.  In fact, British Rights for British Citizens threatened to bring down a whole structure based on curtailing these rights. The NICRA leaders knew this but preferred to believe the structure could be chipped away. However, the United Kingdom knew this, as well which made it fear to end its policy of noninterference. Various alternative explanations for NICRA’s weakness have been given; McCorry’s is that it was begun too late and should have started two years earlier at the height of a period of trade union militancy. How far this could have worked is unclear. In fact, what the British did fear was the danger that atrocity from the security forces might stimulate a response in the Republic. It would do so, after 5 October and after Bloody Sunday, the latter date producing the beginnings of a specifically working class response nipped in the bud by the Republic’s Government. Such a response would tend towards an all Ireland campaign for working class democracy, perhaps the only call that might quickly win northern Protestant workers. Understandably, the NICRA leaders could not admit the possibility that their campaign might provoke atrocities. Almost as abhorrent to them was the idea that it might lead to an all-Ireland struggle, least of all one splitting the popular front on class lines. Instead, they preached a perspective of a six county agitation that would enable Protestant and Catholic to live in harmony. Possibly it would have done this indeed in fifty to an hundred years.

As the armed struggle got under way, NICRA’s leadership was marginalized. Its members were as bewildered by events as anyone. McCorry does not go into this period, avoiding, for example, Coughlan’s extraordinary proposal that any Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland lay upon Britain the enforcement of democratic norms in tandem with allowing its province full freedom of international trade. Today, he supports Sinn Fein demands for political democracy, but insists on the need for more ‘breaking down barriers between nationalists and unionists than has been seen heretofore’. How this can be done he does not say. He ignores, also, the likelihood that the achievement of Brexit will destroy the Good Friday Agreement, and that though this will be accomplished in a manner benefitting the right, it can leave potential for new agitation, particularly along a hard border. However, such agitation could be cross border and unacceptable to McCorry.

As for Brexit itself, there are five contributions, as befits the immediate relevance of the matter. The author of each has put a lot of time and effort into writing it and each provides interesting reading. Finbar Cullen gives a useful Marxist analysis of Republicanism and Socialism, though, significantly, he stops short of Marxism’s internationalism. Tommy McKearney echoes Cullen’s call for socialism, which he equates with a much needed welfare state, only to carry his one state socialism to the extent of denouncing immigration. Eoghan O’Neill provides some useful statistics somewhat neutralized by historical inaccuracies. Eoin O’Muirchu eschews the figures but provides a shorter and more accurate historical background. All are agreed in attacking the EU, usually giving good reasons. It is undemocratic, anti-socialist, reinforcing the powers of the multi-nationals and enforcing first the cheap money policies that caused the slump and then the retrenchment policies that caused austerity.

Clearly their cure for all this is Irexit, Ireland to follow Britain’s example and leave the EU.  However, this is mentioned only by implication and in passing. Its most definite formulation is McKearney’s call for the EU to be replaced by a ‘wide network of supporting sovereign states’. This coyness enables the contributors avoid confronting the very real problems that Irexit would bring, just as Brexit has done only more intensely for a weaker economy. While everyone recognizes the malign role of the banks (besides the ECB), nobody offers a solution. McKearney does not question how long his ‘sovereign states’, could stay within the network, if sovereign. Only O’Muirchu dares raise the possibility that, after Irexit, Ireland might ‘go back under the wing of mother England.’ His answer is ‘real independence’ for Ireland, and he sees a leading role of the workers in achieving this only as a Plan B if the propertied classes fail to take up the role.

There are two problems with this. Firstly, there is the idea that the propertied classes might lead in the fight for ‘real independence’. They won’t. It must be suspected that giving them such a role can only hold back the working people from taking over. Secondly, O’Muirchu’s treble choice of EU membership, acceptance of British imperialism or real independence excludes a fourth possibility. That is one of working class (rather than bourgeois ‘sovereign state’) solidarity across Europe to lead to a confederation of workers’ republics. The struggle must be mounted economically against austerity and the banks from the ECB downwards, politically for greater democracy and no EU military arm (PESCO) that will complete its transformation into a proper, bureaucratic, state.  In the coming Euro-elections, if it is impossible to run candidates on such a programme, candidates should be asked if they will support it and be supported, in turn. It will be a difficult task but not an impossible one. Whether the contributors to this volume would regard it as desirable is another matter. They are against PESCO, certainly, but it seems to be dogma to them that the EU is incorrigible and they don’t  realize that this has to be proven to the general public. As for making Euro links on a class basis, they are uninterested. Their aim for the republic is Sinn Fein Amhan (Even tho’ SF itself is abandoning this), and Socialist demands are merely a means to this end.

As a whole, the festschrift reminded the reviewer of an occasion in Tsarist Russia when a Menshevik sought to ‘render more profound’, a formulation of George Plekhanov, then at the height of his powers and prestige before his decline. Very properly, the Menshevik was mocked for his presumption. The problem as regards the contributors here is rather different. Nationalist theory is far less sophisticated than Plekhanov’s. Indeed it was a sign of his decline that he succumbed to it.  On the other hand, any qualitative change in the profundity of nationalism will stop it being nationalism. Only Finbar Cullen seems to recognize this and he sidesteps the problem by making his gripe one with its most revolutionary Irish form, republicanism. In trying to render nationalism more profound, the contributors have failed; their subject remains less profound than international Socialism.

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