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Sylvia Smith - Wed Mar 21, 2018 08:10
Introduction There has been a revival of the working class movement across the world. But if we want to seize this moment, we need to re-embrace scientific analysis. We have to avoid the errors that led us to the weakened … Continue reading


There has been a revival of the working class movement across the world. But if we want to seize this moment, we need to re-embrace scientific analysis. We have to avoid the errors that led us to the weakened state that we find ourselves in.

The fall of the Soviet Union began a crisis for all socialists, even the anti-Leninists. Gone was the largest sources of funding for the worker’s and anti-colonial movements. Gone was the rationale for the existence of left-wing social democrats. The Social Democrats had served as the final bulwark against Communism. Gone was an organic workers’ movement for the Trotskyists to latch onto. The rotting corpses of the trade unions are all they had left. The Anarchists, who ascended during the anti-globalization movement, devoured themselves with lifestyle politics. There was no longer a social basis for the worker-centric politics of classical Anarchism. Class-struggle Anarchism defined itself through opposition to Revolutionary Marxism. It still does, if the anti-Bolshevik smear-jobs still put out by AK Press are anything to go by, . The anarchists were Pharisees denouncing the Priesthood of the communist movement.

The Official Communists were distraught. At least one leader of the CPUSA had a heart attack after learning about the fall of the USSR. They dedicated their lives to what they believed was the most advanced mode of life to ever exist. Allowing for modifications to national particularities. That system had shown itself to be a rotten sham. They had two choices, either deny their official Marxism-Leninism or deny reality. Those that chose the former had long discredited any Marxist alternative through polemic. All they had left was opposition to the far right without any positive beliefs of their own. Those that chose the latter retreated into their ideological bunkers. Their views reinforced by hack historians like Grover Furr.

The Maoists, for their part, kept guerilla struggles alive in many parts of the world. But outside isolated instances, they lacked connection with the workers movement. The Maoists instead based their struggle on rural peasants. While heroic, these struggles too have ended in failure. The Shining Path collapsed. The Naxalite’s have declined. And the Nepalese Maoists have capitulated to developmentalist capitalism. Success is establishing a proletarian dictatorship. Nowhere has the Protracted People’s War thesis demonstrated success outside of China. And that success was in the context of the second world war with the support of the Soviet Union.

No relevant current had any in theory to help them navigate the new world.

But even this enormous setback shouldn’t have prevented organizers from continuing their work. Bourgeois social scientists shouldn’t have been able to declare the “end of history.” For decades our movement suffered the terminal illness of dogmatism; long before we got the Soviet death certificate. This isn’t to say efforts weren’t made by organizers in the past to treat the illness. Nor that there weren’t individual exceptions among communists. But, a fatal commitment to thought processes that damage any movement tainted ours.


Before we can discuss the nature of dogmatism, we need to ask: where does knowledge come from? There’s a field of study, called epistemology dedicated to it. There are even entire departments for it. Epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge. But, to simplify things, there are two main schools of thought. Either knowledge derives from reason or it derives from observation. There are many other schools of thought as well. Some that locate the source of knowledge in social power. Others in divine/intuitive revelation. And many others. But other schools tend not to predominate in society and are beyond the scope of this discussion.

The first school, which says knowledge comes from reason, is Rationalism. Rationalism says that you can take things that are universally true (axioms) and logically derive further truth from them. Lets take the classic Dr. Seuss story “The Sneetches.” The Sneetches without stars on their bellies believed that because all Sneetches with green stars on their bellies are popular, if they use Mr Bean’s star-on machine they too will become popular. This conclusion logically flowed from their premises. But in practice it doesn’t work out. The star-bellied Sneetches, rooting their sense of superiority not in the stated difference. It was the fact they could exclude others from a privileged position in Sneetch society. Of course, this illustration is simplistic, but it gets at the sort of thought process that underlies rationalist modes of thought. Rationalists make logically consistent closed systems that draw truth from the initial premises. Rationalism is the basis of theology, mathematics, Austrian economics, and most idealist philosophy.

The second school, which says knowledge comes from observation, is empiricism. Empiricism says that you must engage with things and study before you can make a statement about truth. An empiricist would look at the history of production and how needs get met. After studying, an empiricist would conclude that many modes of production existed in history. These all met people’s needs for survival. Capitalism is not unique in doing so. Because capitalism is better than feudalism at meeting needs, they might at first come to endorse capitalism. But, the Empiricist would look at history and recognize that the state emerged with class. It was a means to defend inequality. They would see that class society limits freedom. They’d see that market “freedom” for the few is actually unfreedom for the many. By observing, an empiricist would see that capitalism is a violent system. That it’s one which deprives people of the things they need in the name of private property. For the empiricist, if you want a world with freedom and the provision of needs, you’d have to reject capitalism. An empiricist revises their worldview as they learn new facts. One of the claimed weaknesses of empiricism is that it doesn’t make hard claims about truth, only soft ones. Any statement that an empiricist makes is provisional. New information could show that their claim was wrong. But this “weakness” is a strength. It means that an empiricist is more able to correct errors compared to a rationalist. Empiricism is the basis of both hard and soft science.

Empiricism, as a framework, doesn’t start from a blank slate though. You still ideological commitments before you take your data to create an analysis. Like the idea human freedom is worth fighting for. Or the idea that exploitation is bad. These come from a given position in the world. Bourgeois empiricists imagine you can find a neutral position from which to draw conclusions. But one’s commitments and the ideological lenses color their analysis. Our position, as Marxists, is the perspective of the working class and a basic humanism.

Likewise, bourgeois empiricists start from the perspective of individual rather than collective experience. It’s no wonder they often stray into subjectivism. But science isn’t done from the perspective of the individual, it is a collective effort. As Ludwig Feuerbach said in Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, “Even the certitude of those things that exist outside me is given to me through the certitude of the existence of other men besides myself. That which is seen by me alone is open to question, but that which is seen also by another person is certain.” To create empirical knowledge, we need objective metrics and collective analysis. This doesn’t mean knowledge develops in a democratic manner. It isn’t up to a vote if the Earth revolves around the Sun. But, it did take concerted effort over many generations to discover heliocentrism. And combined effort to prove within the framework of physics. Likewise, the methods of science themselves are subject to change. As collective knowledge grows, new techniques to gather and organize information develop. What was once scientific practice in one period may not not scientific in a later one. As Alexander Bogdanov says in The Philosophy of Living Experience, “A scientific point of view is one that corresponds to the highest standards of its times and which takes into consideration all the accumulated experience in a given realm of knowledge. And all experience pertains, of course, not to one or another separate individual person but to all society, or, if society is not unified – if it is divided into classes – then the relevant accumulated experience is that of the class collectivity that is most progressive in that realm of knowledge.” Socialist empiricism takes the collective and scientific approach. Bourgeois empiricism takes individualist and speculative approach.

Empiricism and rationalism aren’t always at odds: they can be complementary in building an analysis. We never have complete information or experience. We’re going to end up taking what we know and deriving conclusions logically from them. And it’s important to try and find logical inconsistencies in our own ideas. Finding them can show we have faulty data somewhere along the way. Deductive reasoning, what rationalism uses, is how we create “heuristics.” A heuristic is: an approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method recognized as imperfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals. In simpler terms: a rule of thumb. To understand the world, so we can operate in it, we do have to make models of it. That means fleshing out our incomplete information through logical analysis. But, we should be clear that these models are provisional. They are subject to update based on new information. Things like democratic centralism, the labor theory of value, and the theory of the vanguard party are heuristics. They are useful for navigating problems we face, but they’re not universal truths ordained by the Dialectic of History. Empiricism, supplemented by deductive reasoning, is the basis of scientific socialism.

Scientific Socialism

“Scientific socialism” was a term coined by Frederick Engels. It refers to socialism that uses observation of history and practice to determine praxis. Utopian Socialists, conversely, base arguments on morality or abstract principles like justice. Those ideas are context specific and not useful for making scientific analysis. Scientific socialists do not see any specific formula or theory as eternal. The notion of an “immortal science” is anathema. Instead, theories have to be justified against the material facts and new information.

Many Marxist organizations have taken the empiricist approach in their organizing. Marx and Engels began their political careers as communists by studying situation the working class found itself in. Before participating in the Revolution of 1848, Engels wrote The Conditions of the Working Class in England. Likewise, Lenin took the material conditions as the starting point for his work. Lenin authored the April Theses, calling for non-cooperation with the bourgeois Provisional Government. Instead he called for proletarian revolution. It was clear that the conditions were right given the events of the February Revolution. But this upended the Marxist orthodoxy which said a bourgeois revolution must be complete before a proletarian one. Lenin was denounced by the Bolshevik paper Pravda, whose editor at the time was Stalin, for “Bakuninism.” But the situation proved Lenin right.

After defeating the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War, Mao focused his attention on economic policy. He didn’t transpose the Soviet model though. Mao saw that the agricultural “revolution from above” in the USSR provoked an insurgency. It had taken the property of the peasants to fund urban industrialization. He knew that such it couldn’t work in the PRC, which had relied in the support of the peasants for its establishment. Mao avoided the kind of failures the Soviet leadership had in Ukraine because he started from the facts rather than starting from theory. But, dogmatic application of theory marred his policies as well. The infamous Four Pests Campaign, unreasonable grain quotas, and the attempt to decentralize steel production were all a result of non-empirical practice. Even if we are scientific socialists in some areas, it does not prevent us from being dogmatic socialists in others. But, when communists are successful, it is because we chose the scientific socialist road rather than the dogmatic road.

Dogmatism in Practice

In contrast to scientific socialists, dogmatists invert the formula. They base their beliefs on rationalist deduction from first principles. Then they twist observed phenomena to fit their worldview. For a dogmatist, certain truths are the starting point rather than the end of analysis. For instance, God’s benevolence, wealth being the result of virtue, or the universality of the Protracted People’s War. From these eternal truths, found in texts of great teachers, dogmatists construct a narrative that can explain any facet of life. Many dogmatists adhere to the teachings of thinkers who themselves were empiricist. For instance, while Mao opposed “book worship,” many people present his quotations as proof something is true. If one has a problem, they can consult the holy book and think through the implications for their answer.

If facts conflict with the conclusions of a dogmatist, there’s a few possible reactions. One is for the dogmatist to deny the facts. To take an example from the world of the hard sciences we can look at the Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko was a prominent biologist in the USSR. He developed a process to convert spring wheat into winter wheat called vernalization. Yet, he also adhered to a theory of biology which held that characteristics were a result of the environment. He believed environmental experience could be inherited. And he rejected the idea that characteristics were passed according to fixed traits and mutation. While his views seem like epigenetics, they’re not. Lysenko rejected the idea of a genetic substrate . He thought you could convert one species into another through external pressure. It would only take a few generations. Soviet biologists, confronted with conclusive proof of genetics, dismissed the data as fraudulent. Lysenko’s initial success with vernalization helped Soviet agriculture,. But, his other theories like cluster planting, caused problems throughout the Soviet economy. Like Kropotkin, Lysenko saw cooperation rather than competition as decisive in nature. He claimed that planting crops close together would make them more effective. They should cooperate and help one another out. Cooperation is important in nature. But, rejecting of Darwinism should only happen if it’s proven false, not because it conflicts with one’s worldview.

Sometimes dogmatists will engage in special pleading for their ideas. Anarchists avoid criticism of their strategies by locating their failure in external forces. But, they’ve failed to succeed where those forces were not present. During the Spanish Civil War, the Stalinist PCE did fight the Anarchists. But, during the earlier Spanish revolt of 1873 the Anarchists failed on their own merits. Likewise, many Anarchist movements have waxed and waned without completing a revolution. There have been movements in Korea, Latin America, and eastern Europe, but all failed. But they still think that if only their same theories were better applied they would work this time. From terrorist bombings throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to general strikes, and factory occupations: the failure to translate into success needs the be addressed as a failure of Anarchism.

Another reaction is to create complex formulations to fit the new data into the system. When the People’s’ Republic of China ran into conflicts with their erstwhile socialist ally, the Soviet Union, they declared it was state-capitalist. The Khrushchev leadership now followed the “capitalist road.” Yet, the structures of the economy were identical to how they existed under Stalin.

Sometimes, dogmatists will claim that their truths are esoteric and unconcerned with the mundane world. The Catholic Church accepts the theory of evolution as not in conflict with the teachings of the Church. But, they persecuted people who disagreed with other literal interpretations of the Bible before. Likewise, many “Marxist economists” wave away failure to describe the economy in monopoly conditions. They say that Marxism doesn’t need a “theory of price.”

Finally, dogmatists might revise their axioms to be abstract or even metaphorical. When confronted with evil, God’s benevolence becomes a sacred mystery beyond the ken of us mere mortals. The third-world countryside of Protracted People’s’ War becomes the slums of the urban metropole. These tactics serve to avoid the problems of doing scientific analysis. They prevent losing the comfort of always having an easy answer.

How Dogmatism Undermines the Movement

Few tendencies are as dangerous for the communist movement as dogmatism. Dogmatism leads to failures, which in turn leads to isolation from the masses. Positive external feedback is lost which only leaves self-reinforcing tendencies.

A textbook example of this is the Revolutionary Communist Party USA. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the organization that would become the RCP-USA was called the Revolutionary Union. They focused on the point of production and committed to militant struggle. As a result, they expanded throughout the country in both urban and rural areas. Their initial success came from a novel understanding of the objective conditions. But, the RU/RCP began relying on the authority of Mao and their leader Bob Avakian. They didn’t develop the critical abilities of their members. Abstract theoretical issues became defining factors of membership. And they demanded intense commitment of members. Those who disagreed with the ideas of the leadership might face a “struggle session.” They were subjected to verbal abuse and expected to self-flagellate. The ideas of the leadership weren’t true not because of scientific analysis. They were true because they had the superior interpretation of Marx, Lenin and Mao.

Members of the RCP/RU, like all followers of Mao Zedong at the time, defended many horrible things. They backed Pinochet’s murder of leftists. Supported the pro-apartheid South Africa forces in Angola UNITA against the revolutionary MPLA. They denounced the Castro government. And they supported the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese “aggressors”. They took these lines because China was “on the socialist road” while the USSR was “on the capitalist road.” China had the correct foreign policy. The USSR’s actions, like supporting African self determination, were imperialism. The RCP/RU confused China’s national realpolitik with socialist internationalism. The same fatal error made by the CPUSA half a century before with Soviet policy.

They based unity on agreement with abstract principles rather than investigation. So, after the death of Mao Zedong, an intense split fractured the RCP. Arguments were based on appeals to internal consistency with Marxists ideology. The leadership held that China had transmuted overnight into a Capitalist country. Their preferred side lost the succession fight. As many as 40 percent of the members believed that China remained a socialist country. They thought it was the vanguard of the world Socialist movement. The splitters created the “Revolutionary Workers Headquarters.” That split would evolve into the Freedom Road Socialist Organization.

Since then, the RCP has degenerated into a transparent personality cult around Bob Avakian. They sell newspapers that use his quotations in place of arguments. They repeat slogans like “without a revolutionary party there is no revolutionary movement,. It’s like a mantra to justify their own existence. Because the “revolutionary” content of the RCP was reduced to the slogans of their leader, they fell into right-opportunism. Particularly after the election of Donald Trump.

Instead of their old left-opportunist calls for immediate revolutionary civil war, material conditions be damned, the RCP uses the front group “Refuse Fascism” to sell a class collaborationist line identical to that of the CPUSA. They reason: 1) fascism is the greatest threat to the workers movement 2) Bob Avakian says Trump is a fascist. Thus, it follows that it must be defeated by any means necessary. For the RCP that means mass demonstrations devoid of Marxist criticism. They want to unite as wide a section of the population as possible. So, they focus on the threat of radical Republicans. The fact such tactics failed to end the Iraq war when the RCP tried them before doesn’t factor in. They don’t treat fascism as a physical threat to be crushed, they treat it as an existential boogieman.

Empiricism is useful for all social scientists. It is useful for Marxists in particular. Marxists are social scientists of revolution. Dogmatism is useful too: it is useful for bureaucrats, abusers, capitalists, and cult leaders. When all your truth comes from an authority like a book or the wisdom of a teacher, it’s a lot easier for those who offer the “correct” interpretation of those doctrines to set themselves up in a position of power.

These people have social capital stemming from their supposed theoretical expertise. They can extract income, respect, submission, and even the freedom to abuse members of their organization. Imagine you’re verbally abused by leading cadre in your party. Take a real example, Socialist Alternative, which had recently won the first city council seat for a socialist in decades. You believe the organization is responsible for the emancipation of humanity. It’s hard to do anything but internalize it as a failing on your end. You’re in the FRSO. Your tiny group wields the four swords of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism-Gonzalo Thought. It’s easy to accept the claims that your party officer, who the new member says preyed on her while drunk, is being targeted by an FBI frame-up. After all, it’s the state’s job to target the one true revolutionary party. You’re in the Socialist Equality Party. Your organization decides that unions are counterrevolutionary. The party chairman begins a union-busting campaign at his privately-owned printing company. It’s hard to dispute this line when everyone who does is purged. And there’s plenty of choice quotes from Marx, who is of course in your eyes the greatest mind to ever live, to support the chairman’s line. Accepting received interpretations of the world trains us to do it more and more in all areas. Dogmatists follow and accept things on the basis of fitting their complete worldview. This worldview includes the formal, or informal, hierarchy of their organization. These are all real scenarios and. While there’s other factors, each was enabled by dogmatism. This doesn’t mean that curing dogmatism will fix all problems of abuse on the left. But, when a body is sick with a poison like dogmatism, other diseases more take root.

Further illustrating this is a choice passage. It’s taken from “A Critique of Ultra-Leftism, Sectarianism, and Dogmatism” by the Movement for a Revolutionary Left:

“Trotskyists almost never learn from practice, their strategies and tactics almost never change as a result of trial and error and sum up. Instead changes in their positions occur through intellectualist dogmatic debate of the order of who is loyal to the true Fourth International (or to the Third), who has the correct interpretation of what Leon Trotsky (or Stalin) meant. Because of the rationalism of their theory of knowledge and the corresponding lack of and often disdain for practice trotskyist groups split into ever smaller groups all of which maintain hostile relations with all other trotskyist groups. The idea that correct thought, rather than current practice, will decide the issues dividing them is pervasive. Trotskyites often focus most of their energy on fighting each other rather than on actually organizing the working class. Because of their frequent obsession with ideological conversion, rather than with, mass struggles, trotskyists are often most overbearing in their attempts to badger people into endorsing their various lines. Out of fairness it must be noted that not all trotskyists groups share in this later categorizations, and hence that they are not defining characteristics of trotskyism. For example, the Socialist Workers Party works in many mass struggles (although some would argue only in order to recruit members) and the International Socialists seem to be rooted in the working class (if only because many of their former student members have taken factory jobs). The most prominent examples of pure trotskyist groups in the U.S. are the Spartacus League and the Progressive Labor Party.”

There are many flaws in the Movement for a Revolutionary Left’s analysis. One of which are the identification of dogmatism as an ultra left deviation rather than an error of both the left and right of the communist movement. Also, their commitment to unreconstructed Marxism-Leninism. But their exploration of the internal failures of the sectarian left is still worthwhile.

If Marxists want to overcome capitalism, we need to plan our strategies and tactics based on scientific socialism. We should look at past revolutionary experience but without treating theoreticians as prophets. Dogmatism would limit our ability to make concrete gains, hinder our ability to make analysis, and weaken our ability to deal with abusive members of our organizations. That’s why we must oppose it. With an empiricist foundation, supplemented by well-reasoned heuristics, we can resume the necessary work of our class.

Sylvia Smith - Mon Mar 19, 2018 19:44
By Sylvia Smith The working class movement is divided into many different trends. Oftentimes these differences are contradictions that have big implications for how to organize and must be struggled out. Whether to support a left wing populist candidate (or … Continue reading

By Sylvia Smith

The working class movement is divided into many different trends. Oftentimes these differences are contradictions that have big implications for how to organize and must be struggled out. Whether to support a left wing populist candidate (or even organize against them), how to relate to the trade unions, and other issues of strategy are questions that in the process of organizing can’t simply be brushed aside in the name of unprincipled “left unity”. Conversely, historical interpretation, political jargon, and other features that define “tendencies” on the Left are unimportant from the perspective of class struggle. Far too often, the latter are confused with the former. But, none of these tactical or strategic questions changes the fact of class struggle. Our goal is the destruction of the wage-system, not a particular strategy being the true means to do so. Anyone who is committed to the emancipation of humanity through the victory of the working class over the exploiting class, by overturning capitalist society, is a genuine revolutionary.

Principled unity between revolutionaries is a powerful weapon for our class. But if we are to achieve unity on a principled basis, we need to know who our enemies are. The first enemy is the capitalist class. This class is the group that pulls the strings and organizes our world for their profit. More abstractly, this enemy is capital itself as a process that turns us, and even the individual capitalists themselves, into tools for its own expansion. Then, there’s the boss. The boss is the capitalists’ task manager and enforcer in the labor process. They might be the nicest person in the world, or share your same gender, ethnic or religious identity, but at the end of the day, as long as they’re a boss, their interests are with capital not with us. Third, there’s the bourgeois State. The state presents itself as “democratic” and belonging to you and me but it’s a wholly owned subsidiary of the imperial capitalist elite. The state regulates and structures our world so that capital can accumulate and property is protected. Even the beneficial things the state does happen for the interests of capital by making us dependent on their bureaucrats and preventing social disorder. It might be that our class needs a state of its own, but the American state that exists now is the enemy of all revolutionaries everywhere. Fourth, like the capitalists’ lapdog the boss, the state has their trained dogs in the form of the cops. As long as someone is a cop, their duty is to enforce the protection of property, suppress the lives of marginalized people, and maintain order for the interests of capital. So, if these are our enemies, when a revolutionary is attacked by them, regardless of their tendency or tactical views, it’s a part of the class war. As revolutionaries, we have a duty to defend even those revolutionaries we may personally disdain or may have acted in uncomradely ways towards us when they’re the target of these forces.

This brings us to the events of March 9th in Austin TX. At midday, the cops arrested an individual whose politics align with the Maoist cell Red Guards Austin, who goes by Dallas, for illegally possessing a firearm as a felon. The laws which Dallas has been charged under are specifically targeted towards the working class and its ability to defend itself. Felons are disproportionately workers, particularly poor, unskilled laborers and people of color. This is not because these groups commit crimes any more than the petty bourgeoisie or white people but because they’re more actively surveilled and systemically targeted by the state. Black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same amounts, yet black people face drug charges at significantly higher rates; this is because the police are actively targeting working class black communities. Restrictions on gun ownership among felons are a racist anti-worker policy designed to maintain the social order that preserves the wage-system. There are countless actions the capitalist state inscribes as felonies which are good from the perspective of the working class and revolutionaries, while there are countless evil acts of the capitalists which are not criminalized but do serious harm. Go AWOL in the army or assault the slumlord evicting your disabled grandma, and you have your right to bear arms stripped away. If you order the massacre of people in an occupied country, or you throw a disabled elderly woman on the street to die, your right to own guns isn’t touched. Dallas “earned” his felony for merely spray painting on a wall as a kid. The right to bear arms, allegedly meant to protect us from a tyrannical government, is only left to those that willingly submit to our globally tyrannical government’s “order.” That the second amendment is a hollow sham based on the lie of bourgeois equality under the law does not mean we shouldn’t resist attempts to roll back what protections it does offer or concede to the disarmament of working class communities. We can’t be under any illusions that the second amendment exists for our class, but Marxists know that rights are asserted by the people, not granted by legal documents. Revolutionaries must demand by action our right to collective armed self-defense. This isn’t about Dallas as an individual; he needs to be defended as a part of the defense of our class as a whole.

As a member of the Communist Labor Party, which is a part of the Marxist Center current, I have very few nice things to say about RGA generally, or Dallas specifically. Red Guards Austin is a highly sectarian and dogmatic organization that embraces all the worst traits of the New Communist Movement of the 1960’s, and many of their dynamics are outwardly very reminiscent of Evangelical Christian cults.You can see how lavish and beatific their praise of Dallas is in their article on his arrest. (Linked below)

There are many examples of RGA’s sectarian practice against many groups within the Marxist Center milieu. For example RGA has launched repeated smear campaigns against Austin Socialist Collective members like Andrew Dobbs with outlandish claims of ASC’s alleged fascist nature (such as accusing Dobbs of being a cop with no evidence). They engage in childish name calling, referring to Marxist Center as “Menshevik Center” with no real understanding of what Menshevism was. RGA has a longstanding history of publicly harassing people who they perceive as enemies. Members of RGA have threatened physical assaults against members of the Communist Labor Party because the CLP runs dual power programs under the name “Serve the People” which is a name they believe should only be used by Maoists. These threats are just posturing, as there is no overlap between the geographic activity of either CLP chapters or any of the Red Guards’ affiliates. This hyper-sectarianism isn’t limited to being directed towards the CLP. RGA has repeatedly attacked as “revisionist” many other groups  that have very similar Maoist politics to them and which have also committed to the revolutionary victory of the working class. RGA has stated their intention to liquidate revisionists by force when they launch the Protracted People’s’ War in their text “Condemned to Win”. Instead of seeing these other groups as misguided fellow revolutionaries to be won over, they’re heretics to be burned in RGA’s righteous inquisition. Further, RGA has behaved extremely dishonestly about their relationship with their front groups like Serve the People Austin, Revolutionary Student Front-ATX, and the former RATPAC-ATX, now Stonewall Militant Front. These groups have leadership and personnel which heavily overlaps with RGA, and share an identical line on every issue. They allow in non-Maoists and non RGA members, but only insofar as they accept the political lines of RGA or are willing to subject themselves to struggle sessions. This defence of Dallas is not borne of any love for RGA, Dallas himself, or sympathy with their Marxist-Leninist-Maoist line; it’s a defence of Communists everywhere.

Many left wing groups act in a sectarian manner. They mistake differences between revolutionaries as differences between enemies. This is one of the worst legacies of 20th century socialist parties. For Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyism was taken not as a bundle of theories and practice that were counterproductive, but instead as an existential threat equivalent to fascism. Likewise, both sides of the Sino-Soviet  split around the world saw each other as threats to be physically liquidated. Even if their methods and analysis were mutually exclusive for the working class to adopt, their true enemy sat with glee in their mansions as our movement devoured itself. Our forerunners wasted essential energy on the wrong target.

A stark example of mis-identifying enemies is when the Communist Party, high on its relative success in the Popular Front against fascism, cheered on as Trotskyists in the Socialist Workers’ Party were thrown in prison under the Smith Act. The CP, under orders from Moscow, temporarily aligned itself with the populist liberal capitalist forces in the US government in order to defeat Nazi Germany and support the survival of the Soviet Union. The SWP, however, saw WWII as an inter-imperialist conflict rather than Nazi Germany being uniquely evil among capitalist powers. This meant it was the duty of revolutionaries to undermine the war-effort and attempt to overthrow their imperialist government.  The Socialist Workers Party organized strikes during WWII while the Communist Party helped break strikes in factories they had a strong presence in. Their line mirrored the line Lenin and the Bolsheviks took during WWI while the CP’s mirrored that of the majority of the Socialist parties of that era who backed their own governments against the threat of German aggression or Czarist despotism. But, the contexts of WWI and WWII were different and so those lines had different implications for the class struggle. Far from Nazi enablers though, the Socialist Workers Party was at the forefront of the fight to physically confront fascists in the United States in the run up to and during WWII. The Communist Party on the other hand, following Moscow’s line during the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, went from fierce opponents of fascism to apologists for German and Italian national interests while withdrawing from the fight against the American Nazi movement. The SWP defended Jewish workers from assaults by the fascists at the same time as the CP was accusing them of being aligned with Hitler. With hindsight, we know that the SWP was wrong to consider the Nazi government in Germany as just another imperialist power, but their line did not change their character as revolutionaries working to overthrow the capitalist class at home. Cheerleading the suppression of the SWP was cheerleading the suppression of the working class movement.

Shortly after the SWP leaders were rounded up, the leaders of the Communist Party were themselves thrown into prison under the same Act by the US government. The irony was not lost on the SWP, who to their credit, stood with their fellow revolutionaries in the CP and fought for all of their democratic rights. It didn’t matter that the CP backed the Stalin regime, had assaulted their organizers, or was aligned with the same forces that organized the murder of Leon Trotsky himself. The class struggle was more important. The SWP rightly saw the CP as fighters for our class, even if they were bitter opponents of their line, and them as an organization within the struggle to overcome capitalism. Even if the SWP’s actions indirectly aided the Nazi war machine, it was clear that they were opposed to Nazism, even more consistently than the CP. Would their their suppression have really helped defeat Nazism or increased the power of the working class?

The fratricidal conflict between the CP and SWP undermined both groups. Instead of cooperating when necessary on strikes or focusing on different parts of the struggle when their methods and ideas did run into conflict, they spent valuable resources focused on denouncing and undermining the other. For every page spent calling Earl Browder a Stalinist stooge in the SWP’s paper The Militant, or trying to show the SWP were Nazi fifth columnists in the CP’s paper The Daily Worker, there was a page not spent giving a voice to black sharecroppers organizing themselves or Italian immigrant meat packers leading a strike. That doesn’t mean laying out differences or criticizing other leftist groups with bad ideas wasn’t important, but denouncing in hyperbolic language, that misidentifies other communists as enemies, does nothing to explore the real stakes and differences.  Both parties held lines and organizational principles, inherited from the necessities of the Russian Revolution, that ultimately led to their degeneration, but defending one another from their common enemy was the revolutionary thing to do.


I have no interest in organizing alongside elements that are destructive and sectarian as Red Guards Austin or Dallas specifically. At least not until they begin acting in a non-sectarian and comradely manner towards their fellow revolutionaries. They represent a current within the working class movement that has destructive theory and practice, and which stands in the way of scientific socialist organizing. But, an attack on them by the state is an attack on a part of the working class movement, no matter how wrongheaded and small that part of the movement is. I hope that members of RGA are able to rectify the destructive aspects of their organizational model which lead them to sectarian attacks towards other currents in the working class movement, but whether they do or not, all revolutionaries have a duty to defend them, insofar as they’re revolutionaries, on principle. It’s clear from details like the cops leaving a “Make America Great Again” hat, and the possible use of an informant, that the police are attacking Dallas not for his faults, but because he is a revolutionary communist.

An injury to one is an injury to all!


More information about the arrest from RGA can be found here:


EDIT: it’s been brought to my attention that there’s also repression of similar degree against a member of NABPP-PC (New African Black Panther Party-Prison Chapter) and SPARC (Supporting Prisoners and Acting for Radical Change) named John “Mac” Gaskins. This isn’t an endorsement of Gaskins’ politics which are largely unknown to the author but both orgs do important work.

More information can be found here:


EDIT: It’s come to the author’s attention that members of RGA are confused as to who this historical analogy is about. I am not comparing them to the Popular Front era CPUSA. I am saying those that would let them hang out to dry are like them. I’d more aptly compare RGA to the ultraleft Bordigist elements that cooperated with the SWP in fighting fascism in NY while simultaneously acting in a viciously sectarian manner towards most of the left and with similar bloody aspirations towards other revolutionaries. But none of these historical groups cleanly map to today. The primary commonality between the historical Bordigist and MLM currents is their total disconnection from any kind of social base.

It’s also incedibly telling that in their criticism they cite my reference to history and past left groups as evidence of my lack of understanding of things when finding historical trends, analyzing sociology in a materialist way, and so on is the very essence of historical materialism. It betrays their lack of familiarity with Marxism as a social science rather than as a dogma. Appealing to Mao’s criticism of the Comintern in no way would free them from reproducing the same tendencies which manifested themselves then in the Comintern.

Dara McHugh - Mon Aug 14, 2017 19:54
David Sloan Wilson describes himself as an atheist, but, he insists, he is a “nice atheist”. The proviso is made necessary by the often acrimonious nature of evolution’s forays into religious study. In contrast to writers such as Richard Dawkins … Continue reading

York Cathedral ceiling. Lots of lovely arches.David Sloan Wilson describes himself as an atheist, but, he insists, he is a “nice atheist”. The proviso is made necessary by the often acrimonious nature of evolution’s forays into religious study. In contrast to writers such as Richard Dawkins who views religion as ‘a kind of mental illness’, Sloan Wilson thinks that the spiritual world has much to teach us about our grubby origins.

For most critics of religions, the operative concern is the truth or not of religious beliefs. For Sloan Wilson, however, that is not the point. The interesting questions centre on the roles that such belief systems play in human societies, and how they make human groups behave. In evolutionary terms, “even massively fictitious beliefs can be adaptive, as long as they motivate behaviors that are adaptive in the real world” [pp41].

This is where Sloan Wilson’s emphasis on the role of multi-level selection in evolution comes in. Natural selection is usually presented as taking place on the level of the individual – why does this dung beetle survive when another does not? But selection can also happen on the level of groups – why does this human tribe defeat the others? As Charles Darwin wrote,

“There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.” [pp5]

In the long-run of evolution, selection among groups can mean that tendencies which make groups more effective (pro-sociality, for instance), win out against those that make individuals more effective at the expense of their group (selfishness, cheating, etc.). Religions enshrine the idea of a common good, encouraging believers to suppress selfish individual desires in the service of this corporate body. In the terms of multi-level selection, religions suppress within-group competition to improve competitiveness at the group level.

“A group of people who abandon self-will and work tirelessly for a greater good will fare very well as a group, much better than if they all pursue their private utilities, as long as the greater good corresponds to the welfare of the group. And religions almost invariably do link the greater good to the welfare of the community of believers, whether an organized modern church or an ethnic group for whom religion is thoroughly intermixed with the rest of their culture.” [pp175]

The human tendency to develop religions and other belief systems is useful because it enables us to develop social systems to deal with unique and difficult social circumstances. In this context, the sheer diversity of religious faiths is a sign of how belief systems can mobilise and organise basic human capacities to cope with different situations, be it the day-to-day existence of a forest-dwelling hunter-gatherer tribe, the water temple infrastructure of Bali, or the economic and social challenges of Korean immigrants to the United States. This capacity for variation means that religious groups can be seen as “rapidly evolving entities adapting to their current environments” [pp35]. Cultural variation enables our basic psychology to be organised in ways that are appropriate to a given social and material environment.

“Cultures are required to orchestrate human behavior in relation to specific environments. An infinitude of cultures are possible to channel our innate psychological impulses in different directions.” [pp204]

That is not to say that all religious systems will be adaptive to their circumstances; from the Protestant Reformation to the communes of Los Angeles, history is littered with the detritus of failed faiths. The variation of religious faiths, much like genetic mutation, constitutes “a process of blind variation and selective retention” [p122] and, similarly, will largely result in failure. The reason that explosions of diversification occur at specific historical periods is a question left unexplored here.

The book’s greatest attraction is in its case studies, which explore the ideas and practices of diverse religions and suggest how various features indicate the adaptiveness or not of that religion to its social environment. This requires a certain level of anthropological and historical rigour, and Sloan Wilson draws heavily on existing literature, applying his own interpretive lens to the findings made by others.

The greatest amount of time is spent on Calvinism and its influence on Geneva. After previously expelling the reformer, political tumult prompted the Swiss city to invite Calvin to lead the Church. Riven by factionalism and on the frontlines of an economic and military conflict, the Genevan authorities realised that they needed to shape up if the city was to survive. Material demands such as the funding of the army called for spiritual doctrine.

“Civic authority by itself was unable to forge such an unruly population into an adaptive unit, which is why the unifying effect of religion was needed. God’s will for citizens of Geneva was to shoulder the burden of the city’s infrastructure.” [pp109-110]

Overcoming division required loyalty and responsibility to shift upwards, to transcend factional groupings. Thus we see that Calvinism emphasises traits such as humility and an absolute faith in God’s will, such that believers will accept their station and role in life without question: “all of life’s afflictions have a purpose in God’s plan, however incomprehensible to us. Our role is to be utterly confident in God’s wisdom and to accept whatever he places upon us.”[pp100]

The tenets of the faith show a concerted movement from the personal to the public – self-direction is comprehensively displaced upwards, to the structures and processes of the Church. The cynical might say that such aggressive depersonalisation pacified the faithful the better to exploit them, but Sloan Wilson makes clear that part of Calvinism’s effectiveness was the willingness to enforce its strictures on elites and commoners alike. By ensuring that elites could not flout laws with impunity, the city could act more like a coherent and cooperative unit. This is an argument that meshes well with the historical work of Peter Turchin, who argues that the rise and fall of empires is closely related to the levels of inequality between elites and commoners. Ideologies that can mitigate against internal divergences can thus be powerful factors in social stability.

But as the Protestant Reformation certainly shows, there are two sides to group-based cooperation. Given the right encouragement, humans are willing to prefer the common good to our own, but we are equally good at dehumanising those outside our groups, all the better to attack or oppress them. Indeed, there are studies showing that football fans are unconcerned, even pleased by the physical suffering of their rivals. These capacities are often mobilised along national, rather than religious lines, and although Sloan Wilson acknowledges the similarity, it is not a topic he dwells on.

Overall, the book makes a compelling argument about the role that belief systems play in enabling human cooperation, offering a welcome corrective to those that simply dismiss religion out of hand. Spiritual beliefs, Sloan Wilson shows, play a crucial role in the material world, and deserve serious study. Moreover, the evolutionary approach he proposes can take us beyond religion and into a deeper understanding of ideology in general.

David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Chicago University Press, 2002.

Review first published in ThinkLeft Issue 2.

Gavin Mendel-Gleason - Wed Jun 07, 2017 11:52
“What is truth?” said Pontius Pilate to Jesus. Or at least this is what we are told he said in the Gospel of John. Can we trust John to have related accurately the words of Pontius Pilate? Most scholars date … Continue reading

Post-truth, or post-irony?

“What is truth?” said Pontius Pilate to Jesus. Or at least this is what we are told he said in the Gospel of John. Can we trust John to have related accurately the words of Pontius Pilate? Most scholars date the book of John as two generations after Pilate’s death. And yet, despite the dubious provenance of the quote, it is a very important question. Indeed it is the central question we concern ourselves with here.

On November 24, 2016 the Washington Post ran a story entitled: “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say”. The article claimed that Russia had been involved in a concerted effort to sway the election in favour of Trump through a sophisticated propaganda war. But perhaps even more significant than the central claim, is that it launched the phrase “fake news” into the media discourse.

The story drew heavily from a think-tank known as PropOrNot who supplied a list of 200 websites that “wittingly or unwittingly” were “reliably” party to a Russian propaganda offensive. The list covers websites of both a left-wing and right-wing persuasion. Some of them are overtly associated with fascists ( or white power movements ( Some of the sources, such as are famously unreliable, mixing nonsense with kernels of truth so regularly that asking the information content would be akin to asking for the nutrition content of corn-studded faeces. However, some of the sites, such as or provide relatively reliable information. And some, such as Films for Action are very hard to see as being in any putative Russian camp.

Not long after the release of this news article, an exquisite dramatic irony began to unfold. Attempts to check up on the story began running into difficulties. The PropOrNot think-tank which featured prominently in the article, was revealed as peculiarly shadowy. When pressed in phone conversations, the lone contact for the organisation declined to state the methodology by which they had determined this list of websites to be “fake news”. How Russia was the lead in this constellation of sites, or how it could be shown that they were reliably in the Russian camp was entirely absent. In addition, the organisation had no address, no list of employees and no donors list.

How could the Washington Post have used this totally opaque and previously unknown think tank as its primary source? Further investigations by Mark Ames uncovered disturbing connections with Ukrainian fascists and the US security state. The news story had begun to unravel. The story was one as propagandistic, and directed for effect by geopolitical actors, as any fake news story to which it was supposed to be drawing attention. Amazingly, the seminal news story on “fake news”, turned out to be “fake news” itself. And to complete the irony, the media outlet which published the story by Mark Ames, was one of those listed by PropOrNot as “fake news”.

The complexity of navigating news derives from the fact that the world of media is composed of actors, with agendas they would like to sell, as well as advertisers to whom they would like to sell us. “Fake news”, as a moniker, is designed for a specific effect, and that effect is to persuade.

The most common approach to the interpretation of news, is, as is often the case, one of the simplest. We simply divide sources into those which are trusted, and those that are not. And this is the approach which PropOrNot is attempting to leverage. By telling us which sources we should not use, they suggest by contrast that the other sources: the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Guardian, are to be relied upon.

This approach presents itself as drawing our attention to disinformation; it implicitly or explicitly poses as not “fake news”, or “true news” while it does so. The stakes are exceedingly high, as the beliefs of the greater population are no small matter. It is the difference between who can rule, under what conditions and how.

This simplistic model can be inverted in any number of different ways, simply by choosing a different ‘a priori’ set of excluded sources and trusted sources. While habitual readers of the New York Times might feel quite content with the quality of their source, the same can be said of those who read only from ‘’ or ‘’. They live in a world ‘through the looking glass’ in which anyone who reads the New York Times is a sheeple reading propaganda produced by globalists.

So how do we read or watch the media? Do we give up on knowing, or is it possible for us to “read between the lines”, so to speak? We can’t very well proceed with any sort of agency in a world in which we are completely blind. We need some way to navigate the rocky shoals of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda.

Karl Popper, the famous philosopher, developed a theory of scientific inquiry. In his systematisation of science, we would first build a model. This model then would make predictions. If the predictions turned out to be false, according to the measured data, we would reject the model.

Unfortunately this approach is too strong, even when our inputs can be trusted. All models are simplifications of reality, and therefore do not capture the full richness of it. They are all in some sense “wrong”. That some data points are not correctly predicted is insufficient cause to reject a model if it works well most of the time.

Popper’s student, Imre Lakatos, described a more pragmatic approach to modeling that is closer to what is actually employed by scientists, which took this need to allow some divergence from theory into a account. The idea is to have a model which captures a good deal of useful properties that we see in the data, and we can provide patches for information that does not fit. When a model is mostly patches, Lakatos would describe it as degenerate.

And yet even Lakatos’ theory of programmes still falls short when applied to news. The situation with news is even more difficult than the problem that the philosophers of science were trying to solve. The data points that we obtain are themselves suspect and not just because of incorrect “measurement” or noise. We can’t trust that they are correct because those relaying the information are attempting to persuade us of a particular belief.

Sifting through this information then means creating a model, not just of the world which accords with the information we receive, but also a model of what it means when certain actors present certain information. Establishing this ‘underlying meaning’ requires a theory which ascribes motive to these actors and allows us to read the subliminal semantics. Thus we enter into the realm of the Hermeneutics of Suspicion.

This may all sound very baroque, but a basic theory of suspicious interpretation is widely practiced, and is sometimes called ‘qui bono’ or ‘Who benefits’? Most people understand the fact that advertisers are not trying to inform us and instead are attempting to obtain profits from commodity sales. Therefore their claims are taken with skepticism. Similarly most people recognise that media organisations require advertisers, and that upsetting their main advertisers could cost them dearly and so whatever ethical benefit there may be in the full disclosure of information which might cause harm to an advertiser, the media organisation may be disinclined to partake.

Perhaps a concrete example of suspicion might be of use. During the second Iraq War, we were told of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. About half of Americans believe that there were in fact weapons of mass destruction before the war. About one third believe that not only did they not exist, but that the public was deliberately mislead. After the occupation, no evidence whatsoever has been provided which would corroborate the existence of weapons of mass destruction, so it is fairly easy to establish that approximately half of Americans are simply ignorant of the reality. However the case for deliberate disinformation is much more difficult to establish, but suffice it to say, my cynicism lead me to fall into this suspicious camp.

Among the suspicious camp, it was widely believed (both before and after the war) that Cheney et al. were interested in oil resources and war profiteering as their primary goal in conflict. This is again, a simple application of ‘qui bono’. This was, indeed, my own model, and was reflected in me chanting along enthusiastically to the slogan “No blood for oil!” at marches.

I still belong to the camp of the suspicious, but my model has changed. The primary motives in the Iraq conflict were the projection of geopolitical power, the dismantling of a semi-autonomous or non-compliant regimes, and the creation of a territory which could serve as a node for further projections of power in the Middle East. One might call this altered model of motive, a theory of ‘imperialism’. The ‘stealing black gold’ thesis suffers from the problem that a number of wars which were fought between the US and allies with oil producing states, but subsequently oil production proved difficult to impossible due to instabilities. Further, the costs of these interventions far exceeds any direct costs which could be covered by the oil. It is more likely that the non-compliance of the states is related to the relative autonomy provided to their economies due to their control of oil, reducing their fears of sanctions or trade wars.

The news media, including Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, all dutifully reported the narrative given by the government during the Iraq war. As a rule, they apply little to no skepticism of the motivations or intentions of the US government or its close allies. Noam Chomsky has for decades collected evidence that this behaviour is systematic. He also proposes the mechanisms and pressures under which this takes place with his theory of the manufacture of consent. This model of suspicion incorporates many of the features required of a model which takes into account the social relations which help to produce effective narratives, namely: incentive, capacity and coercion. Other related approaches used in investigate systematic influence in the Irish context of media surrounding the Irish property market, can be found here and here.

These theories give us information about plausible motives. In turn this enables us to qualify our degree of belief in a source within a specific domain. For instance, while most educated liberals in the United States would currently reject RT news as a source of any value, it was a very good source of information on the bank bailout in the US. When applied to events within Russia itself, or within its sphere of influence, its bias can become more obviously a deterrent to clarity. This makes sense within a framework which incorporates motive, information which can be corroborated and can harm the legitimacy of a geopolitical opponents ruling elite, is more useful than mere disinformation, which is more readily challenged.

Though one might take issue with this or that theory, theories of suspicion are not merely optional approaches with which we can dispense. Accepting all sources as simultaneously true quickly leads almost immediately to inconsistency. Some, such as Gavin Titley, have rejected the apparatus of theory as a lens of suspicion, or at least its suitability for students. Yet filters must be applied, either using the most basic trusted-untrusted dichotomy, or some other more sophisticated approach to modelling the motives of actors in the realm of information conveyance.

Suspicion itself is, however, philosophically complex and problematic. A model of suspicion allows you to reject data-points which might prove inconvenient. They may be the very data-points which invalidate or inform the model of suspicion. This phenomena is known as ‘epistemic closure’. The sensitivity of truth to the rejection of contradictory information is present in many of the seemingly unresolvable political debates that play out. They appear unresolvable because the different groups reject the evidence base from which the other is working to inform their understanding.

We should seek to choose a model which grounds itself in a broader framework which can act as a scaffold from the outside and which is subsequently less sensitive to the information which we are treating skeptically. That is, our deductions should proceed from a different base of knowledge than the knowledge being evaluated. We should produce models of social relations and materiality which are robust in a range of experimental regimes.

Suspicion of the mainstream media is widespread, and growing. Within a Marxist framework we might say that this results from contradictions. These contradictions arise between the narrative that is provided by the media and the counterposed direct experience of those whom they are trying to persuade. While the media may have significant impact in persuasion of events which are far-away and difficult to interpret, when the audience themselves have their own more direct observations, these narratives can quickly become less effective. Economic tensions can often stretch media narratives which hope to keep social peace to the breaking point.

These contradictions breed suspicion, and yet suspicion need not be structured by any coherent argument. There are many who believe in quite improbable conspiracy theories, such as the two men I overheard talking quite seriously about the lizard people who populate the elite earlier today on the street. Suspicion can drift into undirected conspiracism, and perhaps ironically, into credulity of ‘alternative’ sources. One might conjecture that the more absurd the mainstream news is with respect to lived experience, the more conspiracist in interpretation the population is likely to become.

There are no easy solutions to our conundrum which are also liable to be robust. And in the absence of easy solutions, we can expect that most approaches which are applied in practice will range from the inadequate to the absurd. In the end it may be that that truth itself is less important than the trust-networks we form and how they are structured and their impact on our organisational abilities. Religion proved quite organisationally capable over millennia while simultaneously conferring beliefs of one God in three Divine Persons and the virgin birth. Perhaps, in the final analysis what we really need is to start looking at what materiality could form a media and associated trust networks from a perspective that supports our bias, the bias of the labouring class. In the words of Antonio Gramsci:

It is absurd to think of purely “objective” prediction. Anyone who makes a prediction has in fact a programme for whose victory he is working, and his prediction is precisely an element contributing to that victory … Only the man who wills something strongly can identify the elements which are necessary for realisation of his will … predictions made by people who claim to be impartial … are full of idle speculation, trivial detail and elegant conjectures.

James O'Brien - Sat Apr 01, 2017 22:54
Martin McGuinness, Political Strategy and the Civil Rights Movement The death of Martin McGuinness has inevitably prompted reflection on his career, with the reactions varying according to one’s political ideology. For the mainstream, McGuinness’s oeuvre is sharply divided into two … Continue reading

Martin McGuinness, Political Strategy and the Civil Rights Movement

A Provisional Sinn Féin poster featuring Joe McCann and other Official IRA members (via Irish Political Ephemera)

The death of Martin McGuinness has inevitably prompted reflection on his career, with the reactions varying according to one’s political ideology. For the mainstream, McGuinness’s oeuvre is sharply divided into two halves, that of paramilitary godfather and political statesman, with the dichotomy arising from their view on the Provisional IRA’s (PIRA) long running campaign.

For Sinn Féin and a wider body of sympathisers, that division is an artificial construct; the two eras – military leader and peacemaker — are different forms of the same struggle. The change in strategy by no means entails an admission that the Provisionals’ military campaign was misconceived, only that it could no longer sustain progress towards their goal.

Interestingly, much of the online commentary sympathetic to Sinn Féin has revolved around how the Provisionals’ armed campaign was a fight for civil rights in Northern Ireland; the military campaign being an inevitable response to the brutality of British State and the loyalist mobs that the campaign’s progress elicited.

That narrative was summed up by Gerry Adams in his comment that “Martin McGuinness never went to war, the war came to him. It came to his streets, it came to his city, it came to his community.” McGuinness, having seen his community take a battering, took the decision to join the PIRA and hit back at the British forces. There is a lot of truth to this explanation, for undoubtedly hundreds and even thousands of people joined both wings of the IRA in these years, fuelled by such anger. But if the explanation is true, it is not the whole truth.

For the impression given by this explanation becoming the primary one for the long running PIRA campaign is that it was waged primarily for equality of civic rights. And while the violent response to the demand for civil rights was the fuel that drove many into the ranks of the IRAs, it was not the objective for which the PIRA fought for a quarter of a century.

Moreover, the very existence of the Official IRA (OIRA) when the conflagration was igniting, and who chose to go down a different path, illustrates that the long military campaign was not an unavoidable outcome, even after Bloody Sunday. This is not to traduce young men and women like McGuinness, whose reaction is understandable given the circumstances. But understanding their motivations does not remove the need for criticism. The question remains, were they, the PIRA, correct to respond militarily and for so long?

The question should be approached as one of strategy and goals, rather than one of just moral outrage. War is itself an outrage and once the guns are firing, atrocities abound. These are to be deplored and minimised, but they never settle the question of whether war is justified or not; that depends on the objectives of the campaign, the context, and whether greater evils can be prevented by recourse to military action now.

And that is a political question, requiring an analysis of the political possibilities and their potential at any given juncture. It is here that the weakness of the early Provisional movement is located. For, contrary to the modern playing up of their support for the northern civil rights movement, they chose instead to prioritise military conflict with the British State. This was not just a reaction to the loyalist mobs or the RUC. The PIRA were very clear that their goal was to force a British withdrawal through military force. The massive increase in recruits, as well as the weakening of the Stormont regime on foot of the civil rights disturbances created a relatively favourable context for waging that campaign; they were not the underlying reason for it.

Danny Morrison made this point in his review of Tommy McKearney’s book on the Provisional IRA:

“He suggests that the IRA by demanding a British withdrawal and an all-Ireland republic left itself no room for manoeuvre to contemplate an alternative to these stark objectives. Surely he appreciates that it was that goal which generated our passion and was what we were actually fighting and prepared to die for? And that during the fighting of a war to anticipate anything less than your sovereign demands is to undermine your struggle? He then confuses the current outcome of the struggle (the Belfast Agreement) as apparently having been the real objective: that the campaign was about reform and redressing the wrongs which the civil rights movement identified, rather than about ending partition and establishing a thirty-two-county socialist republic.”

In fact, it is striking that such a claim has to be defended at all. The persistent demand for British withdrawal, accompanied by a willingness to kill in support of it, was the dominant feature of the PIRA for the first 28 eight years of its existence. That the rights thesis is being promulgated illustrates primarily the cultural influence that Sinn Féin can today wield and thereby shape the narrative circulating, if not in the mainstream media, than at least amongst wider left-leaning circles.

To cap it all; the “Civil Rights First” strategy was the strategy of the Official IRA, not the PIRA, with the former being instrumental in organising the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. If the founders of the PIRA had been of the same view, the other differences (e.g., abstentionism) would have been far less likely to result in them splitting off in the first place. Or at least, the inevitable split would have had all the force that O Brádaigh could muster in 1986, i.e., none. Of course, the OIRA, just like the PIRA, with its base in working class areas, got drawn into the vortex of military action. The difference was not that the OIRA were saintly choirboys or the Provos callous thugs, but in the strategic assessment of the respective leaderships. This saw the OIRA call a ceasefire, just as the killing was beginning to escalate in a big way.

In contrast, the Provisional leadership had a fundamentally different strategy, and it wasn’t one that revolved around the struggle for rights. In the words of Seán Mac Stiofain, the first Chief of Staff of the PIRA, their strategy was one of escalating the conflict by “moving from “area defence” to “combined defence and retaliation” and then a “third phase of launching an all-out offensive action against the British occupation system”. The latter phase involved a large-scale bombing campaign, which Mac Stiofain had borrowed from Greek Cypriots he had met in prison. Inevitably this led to a considerable civilian causalities, and a stoking of the already burning sectarian flames.

Absurd though it may seem to have to spell it out, the PIRA’s offensive phase, i.e., the bombings, was not dedicated to winning civil rights for nationalists, but to realising their core aim of British withdrawal. In his obituary to Mac Stiofain, Ruairi O Bradaigh, like Danny Morrison after him, was explicit about those aims:

“The three demands presented to British Ministers by his delegation in 1972 left no doubt as to what the IRA was fighting for: (1) The future of Ireland to be decided by the people of Ireland acting as a unit; (2) a British government Declaration of Intent to withdraw from Ireland by January 1975 and (3) the unconditional release of all political prisoners.”

The OIRA was certainly involved in area defence and retaliation too, even after their ceasefire was declared in 1972. The difference was that at a leadership level, the OIRA aimed to move the struggle from the terrain of military conflict and onto one of social struggle. Hence their general avoidance of bombings and their move to wind down operations. This took some time, and made some of their Volunteers unhappy, resulting in their eventual decamping to form the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).

The Official leadership, primarily Cathal Goulding, Tomás Mac Giolla, and Seán Garland, with important backing from Billy McMillen, pushed for a civil rights campaign in the North as a way of cracking the Stormont regime, without provoking an intensely violent — and violently sectarian — conflict, which would in turn create the opening for building a class opposition — as opposed to an ethnic or sectarian one — to British imperialism. This was to be coupled with social agitation in the South as a way of building up a working class base in opposition to the compliant regime in Leinster House. Moreover, the Officials expanded their understanding of imperialism beyond the simplicity of London’s territorial control of the six counties to the impact that American capital, via the increasing levels of foreign investment, was beginning to have as well as the implications of EEC membership for Irish sovereignty.

The OIRA, then, prioritised the political and social struggle and therefore the leading role of a revolutionary working class party as the agent of that change. In the context of the early 1970s, this was a difficult strategy to pull off. The conflict entrenched sectarian divisions and stymied the Officials’ strategy in the North. Naturally, neither the British State nor the unionist paramilitaries as defenders of the status quo could be expected to play a progressive role.

The various strands of the republicanism, however, had the potential to play such a role, making the strategic choices they faced all the more important. The choice to engage in war had consequences, not only for hundreds of deaths and a deepening of the divisions, but of narrowing the space for political struggle. The argument from Gerry Adams that only later was it possible to engage in peaceful struggle for democratic rights misses the vital fact that the Official leadership had not only pushed for that in the crucial early years but had also argued, correctly, that a military campaign could not possibly achieve its political objectives; that to defeat imperialism required mass support; that socialism was the necessary modern incarnation of republicanism; that the working class was therefore the key social group to organise.

The subsequent trajectory of both the Officials and the Provisionals tells many tales. Usually this involves a myriad of anecdotes about the various sins of both groups through the 1970s and 1980s. More important, however, is their politics, then and now. Once the Provisionals abandoned their military campaign, they quickly evolved from revolutionary to constitutional nationalism. Not only that, in spite of considerable support from working people, they encased their nationalism in a near-Blairite centre-leftism: reductions in corporation tax, opening the New York Stock Exchange, speaking at rallies for billionaire Seán Quinn. No bridge is left uncrossed.

The Officials moved away from nationalism, embraced state socialism and built up a considerable working class base in the 1970s and 1980s but failed singularly to control their own Blairite cuckoos in Parliament — de Rossa, Gilmore et al. Even here, however, the difference is stark. Whereas the Provisional leadership — Adams, McGuinness, Kelly, MacDonald — are the Blairites, the leadership of the Officials, now named The Workers’ Party — Goulding, MacGiolla, and Garland — rejected the attempts by their protégées to shift the organisation away from socialism and into that bland centre, even at the cost of a massive reduction in size, from which it has thus far not recovered.

Historical context is necessary when appraising the choices of figures like Martin McGuinness. Demonisation as a simple terrorist does not persuade those who understand the context in which he made the choices. But criticism is necessary, particularly if we wish to avoid the romanticisation of a military campaign at the expense of political strategy. There were other options; there were even other revolutionary options. The Provisionals chose instead the traditional nationalist one, and settled into the role as Catholic Defenders with a republican gloss. As such, their present incarnation as modern day Daniel O’Connells is none too surprising.

Spirit of Contradiction >>

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