|Organisation:||Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist)|
|Issue:||Volume 5, No. 42-43, December 1st & 14th 1976|
|Discuss:||Comments on this document|
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Continuing the trawl through the archives this week I turn to the Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist Leninist). And never was a hyphenated two word suffix so important in political terms. Because you see the CPI (ML) were not like other parties. Others might organise in constituencies, others still might harbour utopian dreams. But for the CPI (ML) the thought was as important, indeed more important, than the deed. Their publications were important but the membership was more important. Some might be Marxists, others might be Leninists, but only the CPI (ML) members were true Marxist-Leninists. Sure, first in 1965 they rejected Kruschev, but rejection became addiction as they then claimed to be Maoists, in 1978 they rejected Mao, then turned to Albania and Enver Hoxha, and all the while retained a startling fondness for Stalin. Quite how this translated into practical activity was never entirely clear. There was the “Spirit of Freedom” group which I seem to recall giving talks broadly supportive of the IRA and after that? Not much really. They had long long before I encountered them, contested elections in the North, but I never saw much evidence of any serious political activity by them outside of student unions.
To be honest - and I dislike saying this about any left organisation - I found the members of the CPI (ML) an unlovable bunch. The words arrogant and conceited spring most readily to my mind. And this was peculiar because for a group with a membership as small as theirs they had no real reason to be either. Tommy Graham wasn’t so bad, and I never knew Doris, but others I found extremely antagonistic.
Now granted, being more or less the sole Stick in SU politics at the time didn’t help - but it wasn’t directed personally at me but rather a diffuse antagonism to all beyond the party. Where ever one or more would gather there was a point when the talk about ideological purity became wearing. Usually that point was sooner rather than later. And with no disrespect to them, at the time hearing about the joys of Marxist-Leninist thought in relation to Albania (Albania!) always seemed a bit sort of — well twee. On the theoretical side they never amounted to much. I may be being a little unfair here, but I can’t think of one fresh idea they brought to the feast and in a way that was quite predictable. They weren’t about fresh ideas. Instead - with a steadfastness that would have been recognised and admired by Archbishop Lefebvre - they maintained a steely adherence to stale stale ideas centered around a reductionist Marxism.
And in a way it’s important, but probably impossible at this remove, to convey just how profoundly odd they were. Modernity had seemingly passed them by. Graham was blessed by what seemed initially to be the great good fortune to look rather like someone from the 1930s Supreme Soviet - the only problem being that that someone happened by a further somewhat more careless accident of fate to look rather similar to one L. Trotsky. That he - and others assumed the demeanour of those same members of the Supreme Soviet was hardly coincidence. I could never quite work out whether they were in any real sense serious. Why would one join them? What was the attraction of one of the most utterly and rightly discredited strands of left thought in history? After all Stalinism wasn’t exactly a pretty word in the political environment of the 1970s and 1980s, whether it was dressed up in Maoism or the thought of Enver Hoxha. The CPI and WP - for all their admitted faults - were more engaged on a critical level and had taken on board the idea that the Stalinist period was not an unalloyed good. And if one were that picky, the SWM or Militant offered brands of Marxist Leninism entirely untainted by Stalinism. Or coming at it from the direction of Republicanism why not just join SF rather than acting as a cheerleader? So the question was, and to some degree still remains, was this all some sort of elaborate hoax, or art performance or just a rather middle class endeavour?
But a greater part of any antipathy I had to them was simply due to the enormously sectarian approach they took to all other elements on the left. Everyone else was a ‘sham’, a ‘lackey’ or part of a ‘clique’. All had sold out but them. One might think it impolitic to lift your political discourse almost wholesale from the rhetoric of the 1930s show trials but woe upon anyone foolish enough to suggest that Stalin might be not be all they cracked him up to be…
Actually all the blood and thunder about Stalin and Hoxha always seemed to be a facade. They were always trailing around on PSF’s coat tails, in a sort of exaggeration of the SWM’s fetish for all things Republican and militant. And their vehemence about the national question or Marxist-Leninism tended to seem detached from reality. Their periodic visits to Albania raised hilarity more than admiration - one wonders what the Albanians made of them. Although one suspects that as with many of these groups the fact that they didn’t have an ‘army’ meant they didn’t really count.
Curiously though on a day to day level they garnered a lot of respect in the strangest places. Perhaps it was because Doris had been head of USI, or Graham and another guy had been Presidents of the SU’s in the DIT, or perhaps it was the sterness of purpose they projected, but I saw otherwise intelligent people nod approvingly at some fairly asinine pronouncements simply because of the source they came from. And always, always that tendency to overstate.
John Sullivan once wrote of their British comrades:
The CPB(M-L) from the beginning adopted an ingenious device to avoid the danger of being torn apart by the political disagreements which were destroying their rivals. The party deliberately confined itself to making very general statements of opposition to imperialism and support for the working class. The only exception to this was support for guerrilla warfare, such as had brought Mao to power. The British labour movement’s adaptation of Mao’s tactic was to consist of localised strikes which were not to make the mistake of linking up and making generalised demands. To do so would be equivalent to the peasant masses lining up in massed formation to oppose an imperialist army, instead of taking to the hills. The strategy went down well among Reg Birch’s right-wing colleagues on the AEU executive where he was comfortably ensconced. They had always wanted to avoid fighting the employers, and as they lacked the power to stop local shop stewards leading a fight, Birch’s ideas suited them nicely.
That might have been as a result of belonging to such a minority strain in Irish (and Lord knows) global leftism. A typical speaker from CPI (ML) would assume a declaratory mode much in the style of Lenin addressing the most recalcitrant of Bolsheviks even when making the most minor of procedural points on some student union matter. They didn’t tend towards the old trick of much of the student based left of assuming a Dublin or working class accent. Probably for the fairly sensible reason that few enough of them were working class, indeed in my recollection there was more of a tendency to adopt a very slightly faux Northern tone.
A close friend of mine at the time - very much not a WP supporter - expressed a passing interest in the CPI (ML) and for years after would have members arrive at his door unannounced to hector him about their policies. His partner happened to be English and both he and she were extremely upset by the vehemence of the rhetoric used by the party when discussing the North to the point that on one occasion they were asked to leave and never return.
Anyway, enough impressions. Here is a copy of their journal Red Patriot from 1976 (note how the year punk broke passed them by!). This was I think just before the Sino-Albanian split, but already the primacy of Hoxha is evident. I can’t help but admire the excuse on the back of the journal for the absence of No. 42 which ‘was due largely due to obstacles which the Red Patriot Editorial Staff cannot avoid but must deal with by revolutionary means…’ or the apologia for Lysenko and his enormous achievements through the correct application of dialectical materialism.
But it is the language that is most telling. Some of the articles appear to have been written in a fairly level headed fashion, but between them are pieces presented in an almost enraged discourse that for those who knew them in the flesh is all too recognisable.
According to wiki the Irish party folded in 2003, but as a postscript John Sullivan writing of their fraternal comrades across the water;
The CPB(M-L) then (in the mid-1980s), abruptly and without explanation, altered their world view and declared that the Soviet Union, previously described as an imperialist state ruled by counter-revolutionaries, was a bastion of socialism. Did this mean that they were bidding for the Moscow franchise? It was not as simple as that, and an understanding of the party’s reasoning demands a grasp of dialectical thought. Stalin had established that there could be socialism in one country. Therefore, there had to be a country for socialism to exist in and Russia’s claims were the longest established. The ‘Tankies’ in the CPGB hoped that the CPB(M-L) would dissolve its separate organisation and return to the fold to assist in the fight against the ‘Euros’, but it was already too late. Secrecy has become an obsession with the CPB(M-L), and members have taken to denying that their organisation exists, or that they know anything of its history! How can a non-existent party be dissolved? Members do not divulge either their membership or the party’s existence to colleagues at work. Their journal, The Worker, still exists, but is no longer sold openly. Sociologists of religion are familiar with this phenomenon through the study of the revolutionary sects of the seventeenth century, some of whom survived for a very long time by adopting passivity and a secretive way of life. The CPB(M-L) may be slowly disappearing from view: if you are in touch with any of its members, it is essential that you do nothing to alarm them, as it would be a loss to science if they become so secretive that they can no longer be studied.
Could it be? Could they still be here, underground, still producing and distributing copies of Red Patriot? I wouldn’t put it past them…