On 9 November 2018, 7:30 at the London Welsh Centre, 157-163 Grays Inn Rd WC1X 8UE, Rayner Lysaght, author of "The Republic of Ireland" and many other books, debated Sean Matgamna of Workers' Liberty on the perspectives of Irish politics.
Solidarity 485 carries interviews with Lysaght and Matgamna outlining the ideas they will debate.
Rayner Lysaght: Threading together struggles
T: How would you sum up the idea of permanent revolution in a few words?
L: The development of the proletarian revolution out of what starts as a democratic bourgeois revolution. Then the proletarian revolution has to be internationalised.
T: How does the experience of the last 50 years in Ireland, with the 20-odd years of the Provo war and the 20 years since, relate to that idea?
L: The failure was that there was no revolutionary socialist party to take the lead when it began in 1968-9. You had an agitation which was attacked by the state, and then that brought a response from the South which the Provisional movement believed could give support for an aggressive armed struggle. The aggressive armed struggle itself was seen as one that could be kept and should be kept within the Six County boundaries. It couldn't be won that way.
T: So are you saying that the decisive loss of the possibility of permanent revolution came back in 1968-9?
L: There were always potentialities, particularly in the strikes [in the South] after Bloody Sunday [January 1972]. The Irish government handed over the British Embassy [in Dublin] to be burned - that's what they did: I was there, I saw it - and then the British government prorogued Stormont [the old Northern Ireland parliament]. But the Republicans, the provisional Republicans didn't realise what was happening. They thought they only had to carry out a few more actions, and they would win.
T: What would it have looked like if the potentialities for permanent revolution had been realised?
L: It would have meant proletarian responses - strikes, occupations of British-owned factories - and then possibly a movement from that to the development of alternative governmental powers. It's difficult to say what would happen if you got that far. As Trotsky pointed out, you cannot assume that revolution in other countries would be a carbon copy of the Russian experience.
T: You say that the problem was the lack of a revolutionary socialist party, but in fact revolutionary socialists were more strongly-placed in Northern Ireland in 1968-9 than they have been at any time since.
L: The left was relatively strong in 1969? It depends what you mean by "the left". There were relatively small and underdeveloped nuclei in Belfast (Farrell, Toman) and in Derry (McCann), along with individuals, some of whom were more sophisticated, but who were active, if at all on an individualist basis. The rise of the People’s Democracy gave the revolutionary left more credibility but the faultlines soon affected it.
Moreover much of its support was essentially cross-class nationalist. This is particularly true of, perhaps, its greatest success, putting in Bernadette Devlin to Westminster. Her victory was one of a cross-class nationalist unity campaign. It was repeated in 1970, but by 1974 its bourgeois elements and those they influenced had moved to the SDLP. Bernadette had failed to organize a socialist base and she came third in the first general election that year.
The same sort of confusion was true of the republic. The [Irish] Labour Party had a relatively large left then, but it wasn't going to play a role in a proletarian revolution.
Some of the left is much stronger than it was in 1969. There was no question then of groups like the Socialist Workers Network today [group linked to the SWP in Britain] getting seats in the Dail.
There were mass mobilisations in the North then. Those developed only after the invasion of the ghettoes in in 1969. There might have been a mobilisation in the South if there had been a revolutionary socialist party. But there wasn't.
Now in the Six Counties the Provisional movement has all but hegemonised the nationalist population. There was no such hegemony in 1969.
T: Anyway, what happened, happened. How do you see the idea of "permanent revolution" in Ireland now? Starting from now?
L: There's the neo-liberal problem. Peter Casey [a maverick right-wing candidate] got second place in the presidential election [on 26 October]. He represents a feeling that has been pushed around by the mainstream media, and in response by the alt-right,that the undoubted economic failures of neoliberalism are due to its social and political aspects, of liberalism, not to the economic side of privatisation and deregulation, which is pretty much accepted by those people.
The peace process is in danger. The peace process wasn't a great peace process. Its whole principle was very dubious. The collapse of the Stormont coalition [DUP - Sinn Fein] government was not the end of the world. But there is the danger that if the whole process collapses we're back to the bloody armed struggle, for which the dissident republicans are pushing.
Whether the Provisionals will revert to armed struggle, I don't know. They are pretty far gone into reformism. Without the rifle in hand, the Republican is a reformist.
We remember what happened to the Stickies [the Official IRA of the 1970s]. They kept up some sort of armed struggle until 1972, then they gave up because they thought they could get a democratic Northern Ireland, which I think is impossible.
Until the struggle is treated as an all-Ireland struggle, it won't be permanent revolution.
T: You talked of permanent revolution as proletarian revolution coming out of a democratic bourgeois revolution. What sort of democratic bourgeois revolution do you envisage, starting from now?
L: The potentialities of working-class revolution would be threaded together with the democratic struggle. The British government is not really interested in running Northern Ireland democratically (its wiser members may recognize it as an impossible task). This fact can stimulate actions by workers in the South. That can start the chain reaction. It will need a revolutionary organisation to do it. Whether there is one strong enough to do it is another question.
T: What would be the democratic bourgeois objectives of this democratic bourgeois revolution, the demands comparable to land for the peasants and a Constituent Assembly in Tsarist Russia?
L: The demands would be, in the North, what the Provisionals are maintaining, except that they're not doing much with them except using them as counters over the restoration of the coalition government. The liberal demands for the right of abortion and equal marriage - which we now have in the South, after all the years of the liberal Unionists saying that they couldn't have Irish unity because the South was too illiberal.
There's the language issue, the whole question of the symbolism of flags. And there are many other points. The Brits are in fact doling out money to the sectarians - to Sinn Fein, mind you, but also to people who are known Loyalist murderers.
The question is: can these problems become sufficiently extreme to move the South?
Also, if there is a hard Brexit there could well be a bigger crisis around the Border. That would be an extreme expression of the overall democratic deficit in the settlement of 1921.
T: The hold of the Catholic Church in the South has been shaken through a series of scandals. How do the old arguments about "Home Rule means Rome Rule" look in the light of this?
L: As to “Rome Rule”, the republic is now considerably more liberal than Northern Ireland on day to day issues.[DUP leader] Arlene Foster raised a liberal critique of the southern state in 1991, including its ban on abortion. Now she's on the wrong side on that issue.
A more sophisticated Unionist would be justified in remarking, however, that there is still much work to be done. Too much of the education system and of health is under religious (mainly Catholic, of course) control. That has to be combatted.
T: Have the Irish Trotskyists, over the last 50 years, been adequate on the fight against clericalism?
L: I think we played a pretty principled role — demanding legal contraception, divorce, abortion and gay rights even when many on the left were putting their toes into the water on the special position of the Catholic Church. I do not think this is a field in which we made many mistakes. The one criticism of our role is that we were like the fabled horsefly on the coach wheel. Still, we propagandised and agitated.
T: What is your assessment of the political journey through which Gerry Adams and those around him took the Provisional Republicans?
L: It was done more intelligently than before. But it's not new. In the 1880s there was the New Departure which brought a lot of Fenians into the Home Rule party. Then the Treatyites fought a civil war to enforce a limited Dominion status.
Then there was De Valera and Fianna Fail, then Clann na Poblachta, then the Officials.
There is a consistent failure of analysis in the Republican movement. It has the idea that the movement is the Republic virtually established, so they can just send people out with guns and bombs and they will win the support of the majority.
They find those methods just kill off the support for an united Ireland, an independent Ireland. They abandon the armed struggle, which is probably a good thing, but then the alternative is just a step to reformism.
Now the Republicans are even talking of going into a coalition government [in Dublin] as a minority partner with one of the bourgeois parties.
T: What is your summing-up on the development of the revolutionary socialist currents in Ireland over the 50 years since 1968-9? And of Irish Trotskyism in particular?
L: At the moment the two dominant Trotskyist bodies are the Socialist Party, which now calls itself Solidarity, and the Socialist Workers Network. Both the SW and the SP see the struggle in Partitionist terms. The SP, which is even more determinedly Partitionist than the SWs, tries to do work with the Unionist workers in East Belfast, but it doesn't get very far. The SWs claim to be crossing the sectarian divide, but its vote is overwhelmingly from the nationalist population.
Both of them have done fairly good campaigns in the South. The SP ran a good campaign against water charges, but it is very agitationally confined. Its Marxism is not very developed. The SWs are maybe at a slightly higher level.
What went wrong over the 50 years? There wasn't a revolutionary organisation that could do what was necessary. The bad thing that [Sean] Matgamna did [in the Irish Workers Group [of the late 1960s] was not so much splitting the organisation, as instilling the idea that internationalism was simply anti-nationalism. It was almost going back 60 years, to William Walker [a Belfast socialist of the early 20th century].
The idea that any initiative by revolutionaries for what could be deemed nationalist aims is wrong affected the League for Workers' Republic [the main product of the IWG split] even after it broken with Matgamna.
You mustn't fight nationalist struggles as a nationalist, but you can't avoid them either. National struggles are usually a struggle between an oppressor nation and an oppressed nation, and the right side is with the oppressed nation.
Our comrades in the North [in 1968-9] were rather intoxicated by getting lots of people onto the streets. They called it People's Democracy. We founded the Irish section of the Fourth International in 1971, and by the time we united with PD in 1978 we in fact the larger group, which tells you something.
By then then the Provos' campaign was on in earnest. They had the blood of the martyrs, they were the people who were doing things.
T: Sean will debate what you say about him never supporting national struggles at the meeting on 9 November! Leave that for now. The LWR became the Irish Lambertists [linked to the "Lambert" group in France]. Why did they collapse?
L: The LWR increasingly became almost Stalinite in their attitude to discussions. Then Carol Coulter, who was probably their leading theorist, was given the boot. I don't know when they wound up. I still see Paddy Healy from time to time, but how far he could be called a Trotskyist now, I don't know.
T: There's been some attention recently to the Saor Eire group of the late 60s and early 70s. What's your assessment of that in hindsight?
L: They were urban guerrillas. It was rather disastrous. We had hopes of them, I admit. Perhaps we could have won some of them if we knew what we know now. We now know much more, for example, about what the Irish Trotskyists from the late 1930s to the early 1950s said.
T: Simultaneously with the political developments, we have seen the rise of the "revisionist" school in Irish historical writing. What is your assessment of that trend in historical writing?
L: Basically, it was going to happen anyway. The history departments in the National University of Ireland were dominated by opponents of republicanism.They were encouraged in the 1960s by the opening of the economy It raised exaggerated hopes of how much things would be better. The old Sinn Fein economic nationalist idea of "burn everything British except their coal" was discredited. The revisionists saw their chance of rationalising this mood.
They raised some important questions. But in fact they have tended to parrot the traditional Republicans on some issues. A lot of Republicans argue that Connolly abandoned socialism and simply became a Republican in the last 18 months of his life. The revisionists say the same. It's not true. So you get agreement between the revisionist and the traditionalist Republicans.
If you read Conor Cruise O'Brien's States of Ireland, he attacks Connolly’s analysis on the base of three or four quotations. That wasn't a proper investigation. I would suggest that Cruise O'Brien should have read all of Connolly! But his whole approach there and in other works was dependant on subjective forces – perceptions. He was almost as hostile to considerations of economic factors as he was to the IRA.
The revisionists have become very opposed to any working-class mobilisation, for any idea. Another revisionist, David Fitzpatrick of Trinity College Dublin, came to speak to the Labour History Society, and his idea was that there is no such thing as labour history and we should look instead at the history of work.
Peter Hart produced a book proving to himself that the IRA was simply a Catholic sectarian organisation. He used the example of a number of murders of Protestants in south Co.Cork in April 1922, backed by long chunks of a document produced by British intelligence saying that very few Protestants helped the British forces, so that that was not a factor. He left out a passage saying that there were many Protestants helping the British forces in that one particular area.
I deal with a lot of this in my pamphlet The Great Irish Revolution.
Sean Matgamna: Building workers' unity
T: In 1968-9 there was a political explosion in Northern Ireland, focused around democratic issues. Do you think that explosion had within it the potential to develop into an all-Ireland socialist revolution?
M: No. The Irish working class was divided in the North, and between North and South. Everything that roused up the Northern Ireland Catholics antagonised a large and growing part of the Protestant population.
T: So are you saying that the Northern Ireland Catholics should not have rebelled?
M: No. The Catholic civil rights movement was a progressive upsurge of oppressed people. Its great political weakness - perhaps especially the weakness of the left within it - was that the civil rights demands were allowed to appeared to Protestants to be demands for them to lose some of what the Catholics were seeking to gain – houses, jobs etc. Then they came to be seen as the thin end of the wedge for an IRA attempt to force the Six Counties into a united Ireland.
The leftists who were prominent in the civil rights movement after the police batoning of a demonstration in Derry in October 1968 were destructively ultra-left. They saw their main enemy as the liberal Unionists then seeking reforms; they were even willing to make alliances with the worst die-hard Unionists against them.
Bernadette Devlin, one of them, would get elected to the Westminster Parliament as the Westminster Parliament in an April 1969 by-election for Mid-Ulster, but as the Unity (Catholic Unity) candidate. Ian Paisley would allege on US television that before the February 1969 Northern Ireland election the same Bernadette Devlin came to his house and proposed to him collaboration to bring down the liberal Unionist prime minister Terence O’Neill. I don’t know that this was ever denied. It fits in with the logic of what PD said it was doing in that election.
I didn't say that at the time that because the struggle was divisive, they should have bided their time. I don't say it now.
T: How could those leftists have done better?
M: As AWL’s predecessor said at the time, by including class demands for increasing the total number of houses and jobs at the same as they demanded equal rights.
T: If they'd done that, would it have created a dynamic of "permanent revolution" (merger of bourgeois-democratic revolution and working-class socialist revolution)?
M: It might have made the struggle less divisive, and helped a possibility of building a strong socialist organisation within it. No more, and certainly not "permanent revolution".
In fact the "constitutional question" - the relationship of the 6 Counties with independent Ireland and with Britain - came to dominate. The leftists made no attempt to relate to it. At the beginning all the prominent socialists said that the "constitutional question" should be avoided. Even the Republicans (then led by the Stalinists who would become the "Officials") said that. That left the "constitutional question" to be shaped by the Provisionals on one side and the Paisleyites on the other.
Lenin wrote in What Is To Be Done? that Marxists must be able to offer answers on all the big questions of political and social life, not just the "socialist issues". We must be like the "the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears... to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands".
The leftists did not have those answers on the "constitutional question". The only conceivable answer was and is a federal Ireland, with regional autonomy for the Protestant north-east. That should have been combined with confederal links with Britain. The 26 counties then had been fully independent for decades. Socialists could and should have proposed confederal links with Britain, to conciliate and reassure the Northern Unionists. The UK and Ireland in fact formed such a confederal link when both joined the EU at the start of 1973.
All that would have limited the communal polarisation, and increased the chances of building a strong socialist organisation. But there was never, in the events of 1968-9, and after, a possibility of "permanent revolution".
T: What is your assessment of the Provisionals' military campaign, which started from early 1971?
M: I'd said in the 1960s that there was no possibility of the Republicans launching a revolution. I was wrong on the question of whether they could launch a physical-force movement. They could and they did.
Unfortunately, I was not wrong that they were incapable of launching or leading a genuine Irish revolution. Sinn Fein today repeats for maybe the fifth time an old pattern: the physical-force revolutionaries of one period, once they have to recognise that their military campaign is a dead end, become the reformist constitutional nationalists of the next period.
T: Do you think the Provisionals should have bided their time?
M: A socialist would never have voted for the Provisional IRA war that started in March 1971. What would its objective be? The Northern Ireland Protestants could not have been, and should not have been, coerced into a united Ireland. The Provisionals should not have launched their war.
Once that war got underway, socialists had to respond to it as a fact. We responded by giving them critical support against the British army.
M: Because they were part of the revolt of an oppressed people, even if they were not doing what we wanted to have done. To an extent they were something not far from a militia of the Catholics held within an oppressive state structure.
We backed their right to fight, and rejected the idea, then very common on the British left, that they could be dismissed as "individual terrorists". We were the only British socialist group to have our headquarters raided by (armed) police (in September 1973) because of what we said on Ireland.
But we did not construct fanciful ideas that the Provos were other than what they were, as a lot of people who should have known better did. We criticised the Provisionals, over "Bloody Friday" in July 1972 for example.
T: And later?
M: Really there was not one Provo war. There were two Provo wars, at least. The first, in 1971-5, had the goal of driving Britain out of Ireland, and succeeded in ending Orange Home Rule in Northern Ireland.
The Provos won that objective within a year of the start of the bombing and shooting. The British abolished Belfast Home Rule in March 1972. There was then a ceasefire by the Provisional IRA for a couple of a weeks (June-July 1972) and a ceasefire by the Official IRA (from May 1972) which has lasted ever since. Their ceasefire came in response to a big demonstration by Catholic women in Derry against them, in protest at one of the most stupidly savage episodes of the war: they captured and then shot an 18 year old member of the British Army who had come to visit his family in Derry.
The aftermath to the abolition of Belfast Home Rule was a confused period. The Provisionals resumed their war after mid-1972, now without much of a clear effective objective. Instead of sectarian Protestant rule in Belfast, in the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement Britain offered the Catholics essentially everything they were going to win with the Good Friday Agreement 25 years of war later - namely, constitutionally-enshrined power-sharing, no government in which Catholics did not have a part. The Orangeists had had a veto over an all-Ireland state. Now the Northern Ireland Catholics got a veto over Protestant majority rule in the Six Counties.
It would have been better if the Provo war had stopped after that. It didn't. Britain proceeded to set up a power-sharing government in Belfast in January 1974. The Provo war's main effect now was to exasperate the Orange working class. The SDLP, the constitutional nationalists, were the main pillar in the power-sharing government, because the Unionist component in it did not have enough support among Protestants. That first attempt at a power-sharing government was brought down by a great Orange general strike in May 1974.
Britain then decided to call a Convention to work out an agreed constitution for the Six Counties. The Provisionals called another ceasefire for about a year, for most of the period during which the Convention met. Predictably the Convention resolved nothing.
Then what might be called the Provisionals' second war was launched. This was a war against Partition, but it had no coherent rationale.
In 1971 the Provisionals had adopted a new programme called Eire Nua, which advocated an Ireland of four federal units, one of them a nine-county Ulster. That contained what might have been the beginning of a negotiated settlement for Protestant autonomy.
Now there was talk of a long war, twenty years of war. Over the time the Provisionals dropped federalism and talked instead of getting Britain to act as a "persuader" to push the Protestants into a united Ireland. In fact, as the 1974 general strike had shown very powerfully, Britain had no such power of "persuasion" with the Protestants.
"Persuasion" here meant financial, political and military coercion. The Provisionals' war was now a war to compel Britain to force the Orangeists into a unitary Irish state, with an unmediated Catholic majority. It was a piece of absolute political nonsense.
With the hunger strikes of 1981, in which ten Republicans died, the Provos developed a new political dimension - “the Armalite and the ballot box”.
In 1985, the Anglo-Irish Agreement gave Dublin a share of political power in Northern Ireland. Arguably the Provisionals won that, but in practice it meant little. Executive power remained exclusively British.
T: Couldn't you say the Provisionals' war won the Good Friday Agreement of 1998?
M: You might say it was a concession to the Provisionals. But in essentials the same thing had been won by 1974. And the Good Friday Agreement was possible only because the Provisionals had tacitly accepted that they had been defeated in their war.
Then Sinn Fein accepted the Good Friday Agreement - after fighting a war for the twenty years after Sunningdale for what? To put Sinn Fein and the Paisleyites into government in the Six Counties!
T: Has the Good Friday Agreement been a success?
M: On a certain level, yes. Overall, peace has lessened tensions. But there are still "peace walls" on the interfaces between working-class communities in Belfast.
I argued against voting for or endorsing the Good Friday Agreement at the time, but that was not because I thought it could do no good at all. I thought socialists should not take political responsibility for a system of bureaucratically-balanced institutionalised sectarianism.
T: How do you assess the impact of the European Union on Ireland? [Britain and Ireland joined the EU in January 1973].
M: The border had remained high for military reasons. One consequence of the end of the military struggle in Ireland, since the mid-1990s, has been a rush to catch up on 20 years of European economic integration.
Ireland has benefited greatly from membership in the EU. There have been tremendous economic and social advances.
The question of Irish unity might now conceivably get a Yes in a referendum in Northern Ireland. I would like a united Ireland. But such a referendum majority would not necessarily resolve the issue. History suggests that the Protestants would never accept it unless there were arrangements to meet their concerns.
T: The traditional Protestant-Unionist objections to a united Ireland cited the lower social and economic development of the South, and the clerical domination of its politics. The economic growth and liberalisation of the South over the last decades have changed things there.
M: Have you heard the new Irish joke? The Protestants of Northern Ireland now object to Irish unity because the South is too liberal and the people there have stopped listening to their old spiritual advisers!
The Northern Ireland Protestants' objection to a united Ireland was never just a negative thing, of complaints about the South. It was also their own positive identity as British-Irish.
Some scheme of local autonomy for the Protestant north-east is still a necessary part of any plan for a united Ireland. It is encouraging that even the Provisionals now say: "British identity can and must be accommodated in a united Ireland, and I believe nationalist Ireland is open to constitutional and political safeguards to ensure this" (Mary Lou McDonald).
For centuries the fear of a foreign military landing in Ireland to use Irish disaffection against Britain shaped British policy in Ireland. Now the whole of the EU is intervening! The whole of Europe is on the side of Ireland against Britain on the question of the Border within Ireland and Brexit.
The EU dimension also (as long as Brexit can be stopped) provides the confederal links between Britain and Ireland which could facilitate a united Ireland. In fact, in spite of and because of the long history of conflict, there were already special links between Britain and Ireland before 1973. Irish people had full citizen rights in Britain, including voting rights, as soon as we got off the boat.
T: As you say, the hold of the Catholic Church in the South has been shaken through a series of scandals. How do the old arguments about "Home Rule means Rome Rule" look in the light of this?
M: Indisputably, “Home Rule” did became “Rome Rule”. Honest people have to acknowledge that. The sort of things once depicted in sensation-mongering anti-Catholic tracts such as The Awful Revelations of Maria Monk came to exist in independent Ireland. You had cases of women escaping from Magdalene Houses and, in effect, seeking political refuge in Northern Ireland or in England. The priests ruled Ireland in a regime which included predatory sex against children wrapped in impenetrable layers of hypocrisy and cant. Self torturing nuns beat and abused generations of Irish children.. Schools in the North were segregated at the insistence of the Catholic Church.
Ireland is now experiencing its third revolution. The first was the revolution in land ownership, the second was the political revolution 1916-22. The third is the end of what might ne called the revolt against Rome Rule.
In one of his articles on the Home Rule crisis of 1912-4, Lenin comments on the fear of “Rome Rule” that it wouldn’t and couldn’t happen because England, which under the then-projected Home Rule would still have overall control, wouldn’t allow it.
In fact England allowed the Northerners to run an Orange sectarian state for 50 years. In fully independent Ireland we had a theocratic state, more so than in fascist Portugal or Spain in the mid 20th century.
If Ireland had remained united, the presence of the North might have made a different. But we can’t know how things would have gone if a united Ireland had won Home Rule and then expanded it.
None of that justifies or excuses the partition that was imposed on Ireland, or the Orange sectarian Home Rule regime set up in Northern Ireland.
T: Have the Irish Trotskyists, over the last 50 years, been adequate on the fight against clericalism?
M: I don’t think so. A background dispute on that question, about an anti-religion piece which I wrote, contributed to the split in the Irish Workers’ Group in 1967-8.
T: What is your assessment of the "revisionism" of recent decades in Irish historical writing?
M: "Historical revisionism" began about the time of the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. To a serious extent it is a healthy movement.
It debunks the Republican revolutionary tradition - but it cannot but be good to establish the facts. Much of the tradition is encrusted in mysticism and other sorts of nonsense. Serious Irish history-writing really begins with the revisionists. Up to 50 or so years ago Irish history-writing was little more than an ethnic-sectarian chronicle.
But it included the idea that things that had seemed immutable could be changed, and were changed, by revolutionaries overcoming great odds. Dressed up in talk of the upper classes as a mere British garrison “alien in race and creed”, it held within itself an idea and a story of class struggle.
All of that passes down to the working-class revolutionaries. Historical fiction and confusion, cultivated or otherwise, never did anyone any good.
There is a historical parallel. There was a great agarian socialist tradition in Russia in the 19th century, the Narodniks. They killed the Tsar in 1881. The ideas of that movement dominated the intellectuals for a long time.
Then a sort of revolutionary debunking of that tradition developed, showing that Russia was heading for capitalism rather than agrarian socialism. Some of the debunkers came to use a Marxism reduced to economic determinism, which is not Marxism. As Trotsky put it, "the sharp knife of Marxism was the instrument by which the bourgeois intelligentsia cut the Populist umbilical cord".
The revolutionary Marxists claimed the heroic Narodnik tradition as its own, without the mystification and confusion.
The Irish revolutionary tradition - the plebeian revolutionary trsdition, the Fenians' - is ours, the socialists', the Marxists'.We can benefit from the work of the revisionists, even if often in conflict with them and in criticism of their conclusions.
T: Finally: there has been some attention recently to the Saor Eire group of the late 1960s and early 70s. What is your assessment?
M: Saor Eire was a strange hybrid, a mixture of people with revolutionary political motivation and gangsters. They robbed banks and killed a policeman. A brave Marxist, Peter Graham, got entangled in their affairs and died at the hands of certain members of Saor Eire.
What they did could never have made any sense. 26-Counties Ireland was a functioning bourgeois democracy. Even according to Guevarist theory, such as it was, guerrilla warfare in such conditions made no sense.
I had personal connections with some of them, but never thought what they did made sense, or was serious revolutionary politics, still less working-class politics.
In Irish history, the way things were going was often telegraphed by funeral marches. In 1861 the funeral of Terence Bellew MacManus was a tremendous demonstration of the Fenian revolutionaries.
In 1915 the funeral of Diarmaid Ó Donnabháin Rosa was a formidable nationalist affair, at which Patrick Pearse made his famous oration declaring that "Ireland unfree will never be at peace". It presaged the nationalist Rising in the offing.
In 1970 the funeral of an unarmed Garda, Richard Fallon, shot down by Saor Eire people robbing an Arran Quay bank, produced a great sponaneous popular demonstration against what Saor Eire stood for and did.
Some people of the Mandel Fourth International wove fantasies around Saor Eire. But what it did never made sense. What the Mandel Trotskyists did and said in relation to it made no sense either.
More background reading:
Sean Matgamna: A Workers' Guide to Ireland. An illustrated history of Ireland, from the Viking invasions to 1993. First published 1993; published as e-book, 2016.