Revisiting People’s Democracy and the ‘Burntollet’ march
Last week I watched a video of a public meeting at the CP’s Dublin headquarters marking the 50th anniversary of the explosion of the civil rights movement onto the streets of Derry and the wider six counties. One of the speakers was Tommy McKearney, someone whom I respect a great deal. To my unpleasant surprise, however, Tommy wheeled out the old Stickies and CP attacks on “ultralefts” going destructively ahead with activities which unnecessarily provoked violent clashes instead of listening to the advice of more seasoned folk like Betty Sinclair.
It’s hard to know where to start in responding to this, so I’m linking to two articles on the People’s Democracy organisation, the civil rights movement and Burntollet. One is by Matt Collins, from SWN/People Before Profit looking back on the events as a Marxist today and the other is by John McAnulty, a veteran of PD and the movement back then and an active Marxist still. John agrees with much in the Matt Collins article, which defends PD, while also noting a few things Matt got wrong.
Before linking to these, I just want to say something about Betty Sinclair and the question of ‘experience’. Tommy is dead wrong to say Bernadette Devlin, Michael Farrell, John McAnulty and the “ultralefts” should have listened to Betty Sinclair because she was older and more experienced. This is because age and experience can cut either way. Age and experience can lead to timidity and conservatism, and this is exactly what Betty Sinclair represented politically.
In New Zealand, the most important battle between the working class and the bosses and their state was the 1951 waterfront lockout, which went on for 151 days and ended with a crushing defeat for the wharfies and their allies. Two completely different conclusions were drawn by people who went through that experience together.
A section of trade unionists and political activists involved drew the conclusion that it was a mistake to ever take on the capitalist state and spent the rest of their political lives arguing for the politics of timidity, often while still calling themselves “communists”. They put much energy over the following decades into discouraging militant industrial action by workers, especially if there was a chance of the state getting involved.
Another section of trade unionists and political activists drew the conclusion that the challenge was now on to prepare the ground for a future confrontation with the state, one in which the balance of forces and the political terrain would be different and this time we would be able to win.
In the early 1960s, the CPNZ split in line with the Moscow/Peking split. In New Zealand, however, the CPNZ went with Mao and China and a minority group set up the pro-Moscow Socialist Unity Party. The SUPers were people who drew the conservative conclusions from 1951 and the CP were the folks who drew the more radical conclusions from 1951. The SUP were the New Zealand equivalent of the Betty Sinclairs and they spent the rest of their existence putting out fires for the bosses and the capitalist state, while the CPNZ followed a course much more committed to workers’ struggles. (I should say here that I was never a supporter of the CPNZ, for other reasons, but I always regarded them as working class fighters and the SUP as conservative union bureaucrats and followers of the Labour Party.)
Betty Sinclair did not know better than Michael Farrell and Bernadette Devlin and John McAnulty in 1968. Her ‘experience’ had taught her political timidity and conservatism and always to avoid the radical option. Her position, mirroring that of her organisation, was one of abject reformism in relation to the six-county state. Tommy used to know stuff like this, so I’m sad to see him engaged in deciding to forget it.
Anyway, here is the Matt Collins article: http://www.rebelnews.ie/2018/10/05/2450/
And here is the John McAnulty article: http://www.socialistdemocracy.org/RecentArticles/RecentUnderstandingBurntollet.html
People should also look at the excellent documentary made by Bernadette for the 1968 Committee in 1988, marking the 20th anniversary of the first major civil rights march in Derry. As she points out in the doco, practice is the ultimate test for theory and PD were proven right when their Belfast to Derry march (the Burntollet march) was greeted on its arrival in Derry by thousands and thousands of people. The masses endorsed the “ultraleftism” of PD and not the timid conservatism of Betty Sinclair.
The nonsense about PD “ultralefts” mucking up the civil rights movement is also effectively demolished by Daniel Finn in Field Day Review (2013) – see The Point of No Return? People’s Democracy and the Burntollet March.
Posted on November 12, 2018, in Bernadette (Devlin) McAliskey, Civil rights movement, Democratic rights - general, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Irish politics today, Partition, Political education and theory, Republicanism 1960s, Republicanism post-1900, Revolutionary figures, Unionism, loyalism, sectarianism. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.