It was not that Marxist ideas ever came to repel me. I have long viewed them as probably the most efficient and insightful model of political economy making explicable the economic system the world labours under. It was the Marxists that I encountered that turned me off and brought to mind Marx’s own comment that had stayed with me from jail days: when socialism is in the hands of the sects and cults there is no longer socialism. In my view Marxism is at core an economic system of thought which political slogans, no matter how loudly or passionately chanted, simply fail to express the essence of.
When asked to review Undoing The Conquest I didn’t relish the task but agreed to do it as a favour for a friend. I didn’t expect it to be as good as Francis Wheen’s uplifting Karl Marx nor did I dread it being as dry as Louis Althusser’s For Marx, both of which I had been reading at the same time.
The short book is the culmination of a series of seminar papers delivered in Dublin in 2012 and commissioned by the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum, a body pulled together by Irish socialists concerned at the economic malaise afflicting the country and determined not to allow the architects of austerity to go unchallenged. Its accessible lay out and structure meant that bite size chunks would make a reading manageable and considerably less daunting than trying to hold on to some difficult to grasp meta-narrative that winded its way through a series of complex concepts.
The book is thematically organised in three sections: democracy, the state and imperialism and from the outset the editors are keen to dispel the conceptual usefulness of ‘betrayal’. They are keen to make the point that the prism of betrayal offers a very opaque view of strategic orientation. Political forces do what they do not because of personal appetite but out of class interest.
‘Betrayal’ is a word often flung around political discourse, there is always somebody backsliding, selling short or behaving treacherously. One of the more significant but less memorable moments in our recent history was when Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness accused physical force republicans of betrayal. The irony of what one Sinn Fein member described as ‘company and context’ seemed to escape McGuinness as he made his ‘traitors’ denunciation while standing alongside both the leader of political unionism and the leader of the British police in Ireland. It sort of meant the word could mean anything while at the same time meaning absolutely nothing.
In seeking to devalue the explanatory power of the betrayal concept Gareth Murphy's paper asked the question Who are Ireland’s Ruling Class and in whose Interest does it Rule? In a paper so short I, with a sense of relief, did not anticipate anything as dense or as theoretical as Goran Therborn’s What does the Ruling Class do when it Rules?
He takes the view that feeling 'betrayal' is pointless, concluding that somebody like William Martin Murphy was not guilty of betrayal of his nation when national freedom meant something different to him that it would to a socialist.
To Murphy freedom meant the freedom for him to expand his business empire and grow at the expense of British industries. His was a freedom in relation to the freedom of British business and a freedom to exploit the Irish working class to enrich himself.
That he chose William Martin Murphy rather than a more recent example probably deprives the author’s contention of added ballast and the certain resonance it would have gained. For if this is William Martin Murphy’s nationalism then its spirit very much guided Tom McFeely, whose profit before people ethic was the moving force behind the debacle of Priory Hall which resulted in the great Dublin lock out of residents from their homes.
Gareth Murphy’s contribution contends that the accusation of betrayal is often a misnomer for what is in fact class interest. The Irish national bourgeoisie rather than betraying people is simply being loyal to profit and it would be unwise for socialists to ever expect anything else from it.
Tommy McKearney, one of the moving forces behind the Forum, in his paper The Politics of Class in a Divided Society, warned of the serious limitations of an ultra leftist response to the problems posed by reformism, economism or ‘gas and water’ socialism. McKearney would see this very much as Lenin did those who were waving ‘little red flags’ while at the same time waiving any serious socialist strategic orientation. His paper called for class to displace community in the North. But he is aware that this objective has eluded every socialist strategist who has yet applied their mind to the matter.
Kevin McCorry in his paper The State: Republicanism and Democracy, claimed that capitalism is a history of wars, and socialism a history of mistakes. Socialism has not been without its wars either or its war criminals and one wonders if a socialist world could ever be war free. Despite the Marxist belief in the ultimate withering away of the state, politics is never going to wither away: and politics always implies conflict. To believe that it will be non-antagonistic conflict is wish being father to the thought. The alarm sounded by Marx that our future will be either socialism or barbarism in itself does not act as a guarantor that socialism itself will not resort to barbarism. The word gulag always conjures up a haunting image of the type of spectre that has stalked the world of socialism.
There are a number of other papers in this book that catch the eye including contributions from Eddie Glacken, Eugene McCartan and Gareth Mackle. None are dull.
In spite of class remaining for Marxists, the defining societal cleavage, the motor force of history without which society will never be understood, nor corrective strategy developed, I have tended to find class more complex than Marxists often make out. Recalling the focus of both Erik Olin Wright and Nicos Poulantzas the binary classification employed always seemed a truism that did little to inform serious socialist strategy. As economic categories there is capital, and there is labour but, as Poulantzas suggested, to read politics off from this like some registration plate on a car is strategically dubious. In response to Engels’ insistence that the economy only determines the political structure in the last instance Althusser maintained that ‘from the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the “last instance” never comes.' A Marxist politics not shackled by economic reductionism which at the same time is mindful of Ellen Meiksins Wood’s rejoinder to those who would Retreat From Class, is a project to which more Marxist time should be afforded.
Critics might take the view that the collection of essays is standard fare for old style Marxism and that there is no serious advance on what passed for Marxist thinking within the Irish radical left in the '70s and '80s. While there is nothing of a serious strategic nature that leaps out from its 89 pages, this would be to ignore what its purpose is. This book makes no grand claim to be a socialist blueprint. It is basic, pretends to be nothing else and is pitched at familiarising people with ideas at their first point of contact. In some ways it has a feel of socialism for beginners, outlining and breaking down key ideas in some instances through case studies as with Eddie Molloy’s paper on the North of Ireland. Rather than presenting initiates with the tablets of stone, it aims to get people talking in Marxist language which in turn might act as a discursive gateway leading to a more analytical engagement with Marxist ideas.
The Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum, 2013. Undoing The Conquest: Renewing the Struggle. www.socialistrepublicanforum.wordpress.com