Morgan, Purdie and divided Ireland

This is an historical one.  The review below appeared in Ireland Socialist Review #8, winter 1980/81.  I gather that #8 was the final issue of this particular magazine.  Pity; it looks like a good magazine.  Thanks to Liam O Ruairc for drawing my attention to it.

Austen Morgan and Bob Purdie, Ireland: divided nation, divided class, London, Ink Links,

reviewed by Richard Chessum

“We have no doubt that, historically, progressive social and economic developments were associated with Irish nationalism.  We also have no doubt that the current entrenchment of the Irish left in the ‘battle of the nations’ is not justified, either by Marxist theory or by the real needs of the Irish working class.  The Northern state partially collapsed between 1968 and 1972 because of the uprising of the Catholic minority against unionist resistance to reform. . .  The partial c ollapse of the sate did not logically imply that it had to be destroyed by a section of the Catholic minority and replaced by a unitary Irish state. Unless, that is the crisis was seen through Republican spectacles and Unionist hegemony was interpreted simply as a British strategy for suppressing the historic Irish nation.  While it was correct for socialists to respond to events as they occurred, it is not obvious why they should have placed all the chips on the green or orange numbers. . .  It is by no means clear why socialists should pose a national question as the central political question when this merely raises a problem which cannot be solved and also obscures the global class struggle.”

In these words, Morgan and Purdie, the editors of this new collection of essays, sum up their starting point in their quest for a new Marxist understanding of the possibilities for socialism in Ireland.  Many of the readers of Ireland Socialist Review may feel that the starting point is not new.  Indeed, one way or another, socialists, reformist or revolutionary, have been at this one before.  Yet the national question continues to pose itself – or rather, significant individuals and social forces obstinately persist in pushing it to the forefront of political discussion.  One suspects that Morgan and Purdie will have little more success than King Canute in ordering the waves to go back, no matter how many books they edit.  Moreover, it is by no means clear (to use their own expression) how many loyal supporters these latter day Canutes have amongst the contributors to this collection of essays, or how many of these latter might wish to add some sort of disclaimer to the views expressed by them.

When the editors speak in their Introduction of “the varied composition of the seminar” at which the papers upon which this book is based were presented, this is a polite way of saying that there was little common agreement on very basic issues amongst the contributors.  This, of course, does not invalidate the book.  But readers should not be left to assume that those who contributed to it would all assent to the view that the national question is a diversion.  The present reviewer attended the seminar in question (held at Warwick University) and it was apparent that divergence of opinion on fundamentals was as much a characteristic of the seminar as comradely discussion.  It is perhaps a pity, under the circumstances, that the introduction to the book should have been so partisan on behalf of one point of view.


What of the essays themselves?  Clearly a book like this cannot be seen as a coherent set of new ideas.  The contributions are complete in themselves and do not often relate to each other.  For reasons of space, this brief review will concentrate on the respective offerings of Morgan and Purdie themselves – without, of course, in any way implying that the others are less important or interesting.

Bob Purdie has a long record of political activism, especially on Ireland, and his main preoccupation today seems to be to re-think his views of yesterday and publicly distance himself from them.  He quotes his own pamphlet of 1972, Ireland Unfree, in which he expressed the view that “A fusion between revolutionary Marxism and Republicanism is the future for the Irish revolutionary movement.”

This view, he now implies, was based on wishful thinking.  It was only made possible by ‘sleight of hand’, by ‘ransacking the past’ in order to select from it those aspects of Republican history which would give it credence and use them ‘as proof of a line of development’.  Other aspects could equally as well have been selected, to produce a completely different ‘history’ of Republicanism and a totally opposed vision of its future relationship to Marxist socialism.

In a sense, of course, present-day Purdie is right – Ireland Unfree presented a very carefully selected collection of ‘historical facts’ and synthesised them in order to make credible a point of view.  But what ‘history’ does not?  Every historian and every social scientist is faced with a similar problem of ‘selection’.  The Purdie of the past might, with some justification, insist that he is now being unfairly dismissed.  Admittedly, there is wishful thinking in Ireland Unfree.  For example: “We are confident that when the history of Irish Trotskyism comes to be written, it will record that the Irish section of the 4th International played the key role in creating the Republican/Marxist leadership of the revolution.”  The only evidence produced for this was that in Belfast, “a small number of young people. . . have been attracted by the politics of Red Mole which has been on sale there for some time.”

One can almost feel the heat of present day Purdie’s blush at being reminded of this particular piece of selection!  Even so, most of Ireland Unfree was a good deal more sophisticated than this piece of organisational chauvinism.  It made a case about Republicanism which still merits serious consideration.

Ireland Unfree sought to establish that in every historical period from the United Irishmen of the late 18th century through the Easter Rising of 1916 to the present day movement, Republicanism in Ireland has produced leftward tendencies which threaten (or promise) to break through the ideological and political confines of their origins.  It also powerfully expressed the view that those who ignored Irish traditions and experience and merely imported their ideology and politics from outside of them would find their seeds falling on stony ground.

From the egg of Republicanism would be hatched the young of the Irish socialist revolution.  It might surprise the mother who had produced it, who might not realise herself that it was a bastard until the shell was burst, but even then she would fall in love with her offspring when it appeared.  In the meantime every effort should be made by revolutionary Marxists to ensure that the egg was not prematurely broken but carefully nursed to maturity.  Marxists should support the national struggle not merely because, until the national question was solved, class politics would be secondary in a partitioned Ireland, but because Republicanism was one of the parents of the socialist revolution in that country.

This viewpoint was, needless to say, not entirely new.  Elements of it can be found in various writers, in particular E. Strauss in his book Irish Nationalism and British Democracy – and not least, of course, in the writings of the main inspiration behind the ideas in the pamphlet, James Connolly, the founder of Irish Marxism.


Strauss had spoken of nationalism as the ‘valid creed of every Irish party’ and the consequence of colonial dependence which cramped the development of the Irish nation as a whole (‘every group and class’).  However, “as far as any special group enjoyed a privileged position within Irish society which needed the English connection for its maintenance, its professed nationalism was limited and qualified”.  It was this, he said, which explained “the gradual transfer of leadership of the nationalist movement from more to less privileged groups” and the fact that “the leadership of respectable politics fell with every generation a step or two in the social ladder”.  Rumpf and Hepburn, in their study Nationalism and Socialism in 20th Century Ireland referred to “a trend that recurred in Irish politics right down to the 1930s: radical nationalism tended always towards socialism, while usually remaining distinct from it.  The more moderate the nationalism, the  more conservative was its attitude towards the existing social system.”

James Connolly had referred to the once revolutionary middle class of 1798 and the United Irishmen, bowing the knee to Baal in the later period of the national struggle and having “a thousand economic strings in the shape of investments tying them to English capitalism as against every sentimental or historic attachment drawing them towards Irish patriotism.”  He concluded “only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.”

The arguments of Ireland Unfree were essentially extensions of the arguments above.  The Purdie of yesterday argued that developments in recent years, especially in the Catholic ghettos of the north, meant that it was now possible for Republicanism “to base itself much more firmly on the working class” than in Connolly’s day.  This, in turn, meant that the possibility was opened up that it would “integrate working class revolutionary ideas – Marxism – into its thinking.”  It is, however, this possibility which present-day Purdie now strongly dismisses.

In his essay in the present collection (“Reconsiderations on Republicanism and Socialism”), Purdie quotes Eamonn McCann with approval when the latter implies that Wolfe Tone sought not a class war on behalf of the men of no property, but a war to liberate the men of some property by using the men of none; he quotes Marx as saying that the leaders of the Fenian ‘sect’ were “mostly asses and partly exploiters”; he points out that the Land League stood for peasant proprietorship, not land nationalisation; he refers to the “throwback to militarist ideas” which characterised Irish Republicanism after 1921, and quotes a biography of Peadar O’Donnell in which O’Donnell is reported as saying that Sinn Fein in 1926 constituted “a really right wing group of cranks”; he suggests that the Provisionals were “correctly regarded as a backlash against the attempt to reorient Republicanism towards Marxism”; and finally quotes Gerry Adams’ interview in Hibernia in 1979 in which Adams stated that he knew of no-one in Sinn Fein who was a Marxist or influenced by Marxism.

However, the Provisionals were under pressure from their new recruits in the working class ghettos to appear to be “on the left”.  They therefore looked for “socialist ideas” which “could not be branded as Communism”.  Ruairi O Bradaigh epitomised the outcome of this “line of development” when he spoke of the “Comhar na gComharsan (Neighbours Co-operation) philosophy. . . founded on the right of worker ownership” as being “native Irish as well as co-operative or distributist in character.  For us in Sinn Fein it is our socialism just as for Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, his Ujamaa or Familyhood is the basis of African socialism.”

Distributism, as Purdie points out, is a theory based on the desirability of a wider distribution of private property, as opposed to common ownership, and a creed which can be traced back to Catholic social thought.  Since distributism is utopian in a world of multinational capital, it follows that for Purdie neither it nor the Republicanism which embraces it has much of a future.  Socialists therefore would do well to dissociate themselves from Republicanism before they too have only the past to celebrate.  It would be harsh and unfair to view Purdie as a rat deserting what he now sees as a sinking ship; rather, his essay expresses, in part, the remorse felt by a former member of the crew who now feels that he did a disservice to the cause he believes in by being on the ship in the first place.

The essay by Austen Morgan, “Socialism in Ireland – Red, Green and Orange” – is easily the longest in the collection (nearly a quarter of the book) and one cannot resist the feeling that little would have been lost had it been more concise and edited to make possible the inclusion of other contributions which, as the editors say, were “regrettably” left out.

Morgan expresses more explicitly and takes to their logical conclusion many of the criticisms of the pro-Republican left which are implicit in Purdie’s new standpoint.  And arguably he goes further.  Connolly, he says, in attempting to synthesise class and nation perspectives, merely confused socialism and nationalism, and “tumbled headlong into green cotton wool”.  He “tried to plant socialist theory in the very heart of Irish nationalism”, but the nationalist plant proved stronger and overcame Connolly himself.

“As for Connolly’s writings, most can be despatched as nationalist”.  Moreover, “since Connolly, socialism in Ireland has regressed.”  When post-Connolly socialists have “tried to develop the so-called Connolly synthesis of social and national struggles, they have slipped into nationalism with less perspicacity than those who consciously opted for the nation perspective in the first place”.  States Morgan: “In trying to recreate the Connolly synthesis. . . two things have generally happened to Irish socialists.  They have become enchanted by nationalism’s lyrical but simple, heroic but foolish, problematic of Brits Out/United Ireland, to be realised in the violence of guerrilla war or the aesthetic virtue of cultural identity. . . in both cases the political outcomes have been much the same.  They either joined the national revolutionaries or tail them- socialism is abandoned or it is prostituted.”


There follows a sustained attack on those who, like Michael Farrell and People’s Democracy, seek to recreate the Connolly synthesis (‘green socialism’) and those who, like the British and Irish Communist Organisation. Do a public relations job for unionism and loyalism (‘orange socialism’).  However, even ‘red socialism’, ie the attempt to employ a purely class perspective, does not met the theoreticians’ requirements in analysing political questions in Ireland:

“The history of Marxism. . . has periodically given rise to polarised theoretical solutions; on the one hand, simple national solutions within actual or potential nation states, and on the other hand, simple international solutions which disregard the configuration of states.  The former can be characterised as a nation perspective; socialists who start with a given state often become committed to the associated nation. . . the latter can be characterised as a class perspective; socialists who start with the goal of internationalism do so because of a commitment to the working class. . . the two perspectives provide only partial accounts of a given social formation.  The former tends to over-emphasise the state and politics, the latter civil society and economics. . .  Theoretically, the respective biases are politicism and economism.”

Since therefore, according to Morgan himself, both nation and class perspectives are needed, the criticism of Connolly and his later followers must be, not that they attempted to achieve a synthesis of the two, but that they went the wrong way about it, seeking to graft socialist ideas on to existing dominant nationalist traditions.  Because of the sheer weight of the latter within Irish society, they sank the former almost without trace.  However:

“Red socialism, with its lack of emphasis on the question of the state, ill-prepared the left for a crisis of the state.  The subjective non-sectarianism of ‘neither orange nor green’ was, on its own, objectively inadequate to deal with the structural sectarianism of Northern civil society, especially when the crisis was created by a Catholic movement protesting against discrimination.  The development of the crisis saw the issue of the Northern State’s existence posed, and, in turn, the reinvigoration of nationalist and unionist politics.  The goal of working class unity, characteristic of red socialism, gave way to the only hint of agreement in a sectarian polarisation of the left: the main issue, it was agreed, was the Northern State’s existence.”

According to Morgan, ‘red socialists’ who, until then, had not incorporated a national perspective into their class perspective, found themselves theoretically “ill-prepared”, sought to make good this deficiency, and fell headlong into the nationalist trap, tail-ending an armed struggle on behalf of one of the two religious communities in the north.  But what should they have done, given the increasing polarisation between the communities and the drift from the demand for civil rights to the brink of civil war?  And how does Morgan propose today that we should develop a socialism and a political practice which can truly enable us both to avoid the pitfalls of green and orange nationalism and face up to the problem of the northern state?

At this point, the Emperor, having rejected at length the notion of Holy Alliances with either Green or Orange to preserve his theoretical conquests, and suddenly finding himself naked, attempts to dress himself with the remnants of clothes which others have long found wanting and discarded.

We are told there must be “a commitment to grounding political progress in independent working class organisations created by the masses”.  What, one wonders, were the Loyalist Association of Workers, the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Workers Council, the Provisionals?  There must be a political initiative for “the eradication of structural sectarianism. . . through a struggle for a serious trade union commitment to abolish discrimination”.  What, one may ask, were the objective reasons why this did not take place during the past twelve years?  The left should seek “a para-military truce, thereby creating an inter-ethnic balance of fear, and on the basis of a weak foundation, a return to politics”.  What, one wonders, would be the basis for such a truce, and what, one may ask, would be the nature of the politics that would result?  These remain unanswered questions.  Morgan ends with advocacy of the slogan “Never again the 1970s”.  One is left to feel that a more appropriate slogan might be “The 1970s never happened”.


The problem with this scenario is that it was not theoretical weakness which forced socialists in the late 1960s and early 1970s to throw in their lot with green and orange nationalism (almost entirely with green, though one might not guess it to read Morgan’s piece), but the objective situation which they faced.  This is not to say that they were not theoretically weak, but if they were then that was secondary.

To return to the joint introduction of Morgan and Purdie, the northern state partially collapsed because of Unionist resistance to reform when faced with a risen Catholic minority.  That resistance has grown stronger with the years.  The disreputable upstart, Ian Paisley, is now the major political figure within the Protestant community.  The trade union movement has, not surprisingly, been impotent in the face of Loyalist intransigence, most of its rank-and-file membership owing allegiance to a largely unreformed northern civil society and state.

Catholics have their minority position in the six counties reinforced within the trade union movement to the extent that they form a disproportionate number of the unemployed.  In this situation, Morgan’s remedies sound a good deal less convincing that his sometimes perceptive criticisms of other writers and activists.  Connolly at least would have had a more penetrating understanding of some of these problems, and would not have concluded with the kind of pious and platitudinous utterings that characterise the last few paragraphs of this wordy piece.

Given that Morgan strongly opposes a return to the “northern state of Loyalism”, sees no necessity for an independent united Ireland, and shows little inclination to support integration with Britain, his essay sounds ike a disguised plea for an ‘Independent Ulster’, based on an extreme optimism concerning the future role of Protestant workers which flies in the face of a great deal of evidence.

Such supreme optimism was not characteristic of James Connolly, following his attempts to organise the workers in Belfast; nor was it sustained by the civil rights activists and socialists around People’s Democracy after the Protestant backlash of 1968-9 and succeeding years.  Indeed, to many, it would appear today that Protestant working class support for the “Northern state of Loyalism” has seldom been stronger.

Moreover, to speak as Morgan does of “the racism of Irish nationalism countering the racism of British nationalism” equates the ideology and political practice of the conqueror with the conquered, the oppressor with the oppressed.  It needs to be asserted once again that the national question in Ireland will continue to dominate political discussion and activity, not because of any “theoretical weakness” on the part of socialists, but because of the very real dilemma facing northern Catholic workers (and workless) in a divided Ireland.  They are in the unenviable situation of seeking a working class unity which is highly unlikely to be realised.

To pose a national question as the central political issue is said by Morgan and Purdie to “obscure the global class struggle”, and, further, to raise a problem “which cannot be solved”.  But for the working class Catholics in the six counties, there is no practical choice – and until the national question is solved, the class struggle will be deeply submerged, if not obscured

If, to quote Rumpf and Hepburn, “radical nationalism tended always toward socialism while usually remaining distinct form it”, then we can expect, for the reasons given, that, for the foreseeable future, “radical socialism will tend always towards Republicanism, while usually remaining separate from it” (even if we cannot anticipate the ‘fusion’ envisaged in the early Purdie pamphlet).  Doubtless this is a view which would not be opposed in its essentials by some of the contributors to the Morgan/Purdie collection, whose own essays merit serious attention by socialists.



Posted on February 22, 2013, in Civil rights movement, Economy and workers' resistance, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, James Connolly, Officials, Partition, Political education and theory, Reviews - books, six counties, twenty-six counties. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Morgan, Purdie and divided Ireland.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: