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Heroic Failure, Brexit and Politics of Pain. Fintan O’Toole. A Review from the Internationalist Left.

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Heroic Failure, Brexit and Politics of Pain. Fintan O’Toole. Apollo. 2018.

“L’existence d’une nation est (pardonnez moi cette métaphore) un plébiscite de tous les jours, comme ‘l’existence d’un individu est une affirmation perpétuelle de la vie.”

The existence of a nation (you will pardon me this metaphor) is a daily referendum, just as the continuing existence of an individual is a perpetual affirmation of life.

Ernest Renan. Qu’est-ce qu’une nation 1882.

No ! penury, inertness and grimace,

In some strange sort, were the land’s portion. ‘See

Or shut your eyes’ says Nature peevishly.

‘It nothing skills: I cannot help my case:

‘It’s the Last Judgement’s fire must cure this place,

Cacline its clods and set my prisoners free’

Childe Roland. Robert Browning. 1855.

The Irish writer Fintan O’Toole begins Heroic Failure on the “phantasm” that drove the Brexit vote with a meditation on the delights of English self-pity. In the years leading up to Brexit, he remarks, E.L. James Fifty Shades of Grey (2011), a “fantasy of domination and submission”. This, he suggests could be rendered into a political fantasy “in which Christian Grey is the European Union and Anastasia Steele an innocent England seduced into entering his Red Room of Pain.” (Page 21) A friend tells me that flipping through its pages he found it full of un-erotic Americanisms (‘ass’). This might be a further metaphor to explore in that. Amongst the Brexit ultras, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have not only taken their politics from the US neoliberal right, but the latter seems sufficiently at home alongside Donald Trump to talk in Disney speak of “that’s all folks.”

Ernest Renan, who considered the Nation to be a “soul” a “spiritual principle”, left the decision-making about this make-up to popular choice. O’Toole equally echoes Renan is describing just how much of the British imperial past Leave supporters forget during our own Referendum. In this present the UK is a plucky land, ill-rewarded for holding the fort against Hitler, and under the boot of an alien superpower run by Teutons in a new Holy Roman Empire. In this picture Brexit as a “genuine national revolution against a phoney oppressor. It has the form of a moment of liberation without the content. The people get out of the Red Room of Pain only to find themselves in the Red, White and Blue Rooms of Pain. (Page 141)

Brexit Bollocks.

In the absence of real oppressors a variety of substitutes were found. Food was an issue from the start. Heroic Failure cites E.P. Thompson’s dyspeptic attack on middle class enthusiasm for the Common Market’s well-garnished menu. By the 1990s Mr Podsnap returned to defend our national Cuisine. Boris Johnson pursued the millennium with a crusade against a Brussels-led “humiliation of British democracy” – a threatened penury of prawn cocktail flavoured crisps. Johnson stood firm. Against a bossy female bureaucrat he declared, “As part of the balanced diet of a British child, – two packets Quavers, three chocolate Magnums, 2 oz dog shit a day – the prawn cocktail flavour crisp was thoroughly nutritious” (Page 112) Magnum ice-creams, few will fail to notice, are now being stockpiled to guard against the no-Deal Brexit Final Judgement.

It would take from the pleasure of reading Heroic Failure to recount more of O’Toole’s  not at all tall-tales of Brexiteer Bollocks. Nor would be appropriate to cover his fine account bonds between the Irish and British are bound together, from the centuries of national oppression and prejudice, to the deep ties of affection and descent (this writer is, apparently, genetically around 37% Irish) that bring us perhaps closer than any other nationality outside of the United Kingdom. Given this background it is all the more surprising that the Leave campaign showed an “absolute refusal to countenance any discussion of Ireland.”(Page 88) The importance of the ‘backstop’, which may be translated into English as “safety net”, for the border with North, has turned out to be more important than the nippers’ right to eat dog shit.

Behind the “sadopopulism” and the nationalist “dreamtime” lies the hard free-market right. When the boss of Wetherspoons, Tim Martin, came to Ipswich he evoked fish, no doubt under the impression that East Anglia prosperity was assured, as from mediaeval times until the beginning of the Twentieth Century, by the Herring Catch. Campaigners for Leave may have spoken in other antiquarian language of the country’s ‘Vassalage’ to the European Union. O’Toole gives a reminder of the English Royals’ scorched earth tactics during the 100 years war, which he compares to the mass murders of warlords in today’s failed states. Les Anglais ont débarqué, which originated during this period, can still signify the flow of menstrual blood.

Behind this lies a wish for, O’Toole suggests, Jacob Rees Mogg’s “sovereignty of the super rich and their right to escape.”(Page 172) “Buccaneering capitalism”, national sovereignty in the service of commerce, the right to a no-Deal Brexit under WTO rules, the project is for,  as Luke Cooper says, “a Britain ‘unchained’ from the shackles of European regulation, in other words, even more of a capitalist dystopia.”(The Left Against Brexit. Another Europe is Possible. 2018).

The Rise of English Nationalism.

Heroic Failure concludes with thoughts on the English nationalism that has become the motor of Brexit politics. Renewed English identity – 60% of the country’s population now identify themselves as English instead of British – partly mimics “the gestures of small-nation ‘liberation’ movements…”(Page 187) The self-pity on show is not an exclusive national trade mark, if at least Hugh MacDiarmid is to be taken to heart, ”Puir Auld Scotland’ bleat wi’ pride…. A thorn in a’ the wide world’s side” (A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926) But few, very few, countries have resembling the “unfinished psychic business of both the Second World War and the End of Empire.”(Page 92)

O’Toole would like to see the back of the Tory eccentrics and chancers who have pushed Brexit. He is not at his strongest when he suggests that English nationalism, “so poorly articulated and self-contradictory” is up for grabs”, by “progressives” (Page 200). In the century following Ernest Renan’s definition of a ‘Nation’ another Frenchman, Henri Barbusse, writing in the midst of the brutalities of the World War that preceded the Second declared that nationality was the business of poets and dreamers. Patriotism can be respected. Yet it carried grave dangers when it became the basis for politics. (Le Feu. Journal d’une escouade.1916).* Left-wing politics may recognise wish to wrest our common feelings and imagination, our humour and our decency, away from the Brexiteers and isolate the far-right. But a political strategy built out of a national identity is unable to respond to the ‘real issues’ (that is, those not stemming from hatred of foreigners) said to be behind the vote to Leave by the left-behind, and their attraction to the wank-bank dreams of the Hard Brexit Right. 

This can be seen in the dismal fate of “leftist anti-Europeanism”. Efforts to harness the ‘national popular’ from those claiming to be on the left have led nowhere. They have run with the Brexit hounds, and not their opponents. There are claims that ‘the’ ‘real’ working class, not by virtue of what they do but on *who they are*, mustered behind ‘national liberation’ from the EU.  During the Greek crisis they would have volunteered to be Lord Byron’s Jackals and fight for Hellenic independence from Brussels. Some on that left now back a Brexit on WTO terms. More live in the ‘dream-time” of a People’s Brexit, a Beacon of Hope to the World, brought in on the backs of a break with the EU. It shows few signs of appearing. A few relish the thought that Brexit will lead to the break up of Britain. This will, by allowing nationalists free reign in Scotland, pave the way for internationalism. Some just wallow in chaos. One of New Left Review’s leading intellectuals, Tariq Ali, leapt for joy at the Big kick up the EU’s backside” after the Referendum result.“

There is another left. “Ours is a future of solidarity between people and across borders”, “to end Fortress Europe, push back against the neoliberal economic consensus and build unity between workers across the continent” “building an internationalist left that can turn the ride in Europe and beyond” (Alena Ivanova. Michael Chessum. The Left Against Brexit. Another Europe is Possible).

We are in the middle of the Battle………..

“Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set, And blew. ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.’

***

*”Out of patriotism–which can be respected as long as it remains in the domain of sentiment and art on exactly the same footing as the sense of family and local pride, all equally sacred–out of patriotism they make a Utopian and impracticable idea, unbalancing the world, a sort of cancer which drains all the living force, spreads everywhere and crushes life, a contagious cancer which culminates either in the crash of war or in the exhaustion and suffocation of armed peace.” Under Fire.The Story of a Squad. Henri Barbusse

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Row in Northern Ireland Labour Party, Boyd Black: ‘Maoist’ BICO Resurfaces.

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BICO Once again.

There is, as yet, no comprehensive history of British and Irish ‘Marxism-Leninism’. Popularly known as Maoism, for the various groups’ alignment with Beijing during the 1960s, this political current had influence in much of the rest of Europe, and in the United States, where it was described as the New Communist Movement in the 1970s (1) French Maoism continues to draw attraction, with many colourful escapades to its name, and even a proto-armed wing, La Nouvelle Résistance Populaire (NRP), and the leader of the Gauche Prolétarienne, Benn Lévy, the hardest and the hard M-Ler, who became Sartre’s secretary and ended his days as student of the Torah in Jerusalem. (2) The former M-L Dutch Socialistische Partij, Socialist Party, with parliamentary representation, and its counterpart in Belgium, the, Parti du travail de Belgique /en Partij van de Arbeid van België, also attracts interest, not least in the latter’s days as enthusiasts for North Korean Juche.

But here possibly only Alexei Sayle’s learned tome stands out. Largely concerned with his activism in the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) he summarised their, and his orthodox Communist parents’ activism as, “my hobby and my family’s hobby was the elimination of private property via the violent expropriation of landowners, industrialists, railroad magnates and shipowners…”(3)

Maoism is however back in the news. A former member of  the British and Irish Communist Organisation (BICO) are apparently involved in the controversies taking place in the Northern Irish Labour Party.

John Rogan writes,

There was an article in the Belfast Telegraph about the ruction in the Labour Party in NI by its ex-Secretary (Kathryn Johnson) which may be of interest.

The main person she seems to be angry with is Boyd Black. As a curious historical footnote for Leftist Trainspotters everywhere, Mr Black was at one point a member of the pro-Stalin, pro-Mao, pro-Kymer Rouge British and Irish Communist Organisation (BICO) and stood as a “Unionist” candidate in the 1986 Fulham by-election.

http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/news-analysis/kathryn-johnston-the-fight-for-the-soul-of-the-labour-party-in-northern-ireland-36016846.html

Black seems to have something of  a history of “controversy”.

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His background is acknowledged.

On another occasion, “Boyd Black, Blacks election agent confirmed that he had been a member of the British and Irish Communist Organisation at one time.” 

Whatever his present relations to the group, if there are any, are  we note that BICO’s publication in Britain at the present is Labour Affairs which takes a keen interest in the Labour Party.

This is how they describe their present form,

Who We Are

Monthly journal of the Ernest Bevin Society.  It is a small independent left-wing magazine based in Britain, but covering the wider world.  Previously Labour and Trade Union Review.

The Ernest Bevin Society began as the British portion of the British and Irish Communist Organisation, but then decided Leninism was no longer relevant.  In the 1970s it advocated Workers Control as general reformism as the best way forward in Britain.  It warned ahead of time that the methods being used to fight Thatcher were going to fail.  But retained a general confidence in socialism after the Soviet collapse.

We did also warn well ahead of it becoming obvious that Yeltsin was going to fail.  And said in 1989 that People’s China was not in fact about to collapse.

We condemned New Labour for having adjusted to Thatcherite fantasies rather than what actually existed.  And were flatly against the war on Iraq, fully expecting Saddam’s rather bad system to be replaced  by something much worse.

See out publisher’s website at Athol Books.

For historians we lack a complete organigramme of the groupuscule’s original relations to other supporters of Marxist Leninism. Indeed while Wikipedia mentions this it is difficult to see the nature of the link to either the “first wave” M-L split with orthodox Communism, based on the Sino-Soviet dispute, or the “second wave” , which arose from enthusiasm for the Cultural Revolution.

Wikipedia sets them out as this,

Brendan Clifford was an Irish emigrant from the Sliabh Luachra area of County Cork who had migrated to London and become involved in left-wing politics there.[1] Clifford and some of his followers had been in Michael McCreery’s Committee to Defeat Revisionism, for Communist Unity and later they joined the Irish Communist Group.[2][3]

This body consisted largely of Irish people who were living in London and were opposed to the Soviet-aligned communist organisations intended for Irish people. Following a 1965 split, the Maoist wing named itself the Irish Communist Organisation, which later became the British and Irish Communist Organisation. The broadly Trotskyist wing, led by Gerry Lawless, became the Irish Workers’ Group.[4]

The ICO undertook an investigation into the development of Maoism, and concluded that it was not a suitable model for an anti-revisionist group. The Chinese Communist Party had supported some aspects of Nikita Khrushchev‘s “revisionism“, and then been dishonest about its past positions.[5]

One founder-member, Dennis Dennehy, was Secretary of the Dublin Housing Action Committee, which organised a highly successful protest movement in the early 1960s.

In 1968, the ICO issued a press release which defended the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia

BICO is known, above all, for the writings on the Irish Question of Brendan Clifford. According to the Bible in such matters, he was an “unemployed Jesuit trained, gravedigger” who spent time in Trinity College Library Dublin researching Irish republicanism. This is what he found in works on the founders of this tradition.

“Having blown off the dust he was flabbergasted to discover that these saintly heroes, who he had been told were the Irish equivalents of Garibaldi and Mazzini, were a shower of bigoted, racist, shitbags, who hated England because it had prevented Ireland from establishing its own empire with its own blacks to chain up and flog. The odd man out among this unsavoury crew was Wolfe Tone, a Protestant who view of the Vatican tallies closely with that Ian Paisley.” (John Sullivan. As Soon As This Pub Closes)

The ‘two nations’ theory which he developed from these studies made Clifford’s name. His collected articles, from the Irish Communist, published in 1971 under the name Aspects of Nationalism (1972) begin with a long discussion of Stalin’s Marxism and the National Question. On this basis he took a stand for “Protestant national rights”. .

There is no mention of Clifford or a forerunner to BICO in Bob Purdie’s authoritative history of the Civil Rights movement Politics in the Streets (1990). It can be safely said to be beyond marginal to People’s Democracy – the most important grass-roots radical organisation in the land since the 1920s.

All COBI is known for is the ‘two nations’ theory. The view retains a certain intuitive appeal, no doubt reinforced by later Irish ‘revisionist’ histories which look at the conservative sides of nationalism, and Catholic cultural and political domination of the Republic In less studious environments problems immediately arose. COBI therefore backed protests such as the Ulster Workers’ Council and all attempts by the Protestant side to resist Irish unity. The one problem, no doubt unforeseen, but perhaps familiar to anybody who ever met Unionists, not to say, Orangemen, is that a group so dominated by violent racist bigots would be hard to find, although American ‘white nationalists’ stand muster.

The remnants of BICO seemed to have pursued with the Historical Review. The British branch became the Ernest Bevin society. The have been fading into decent obscurity.  They are rare creatures. The present writer may be one of the few people alive to have met them…..

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(1) Revolution in the Air. Max Elbaum. Verso. 2002.
(2) De Pierre Victory à Benny Lévy, de Mao à Moïse. Philippe Lardinois. Editions Luc Pire. 2008.
(3) Page 132. Stalin Ate My Homework. Alexei Sayle. Sceptre. 2010. Sayle accurately makes this description, “Woodcraft Folk…. they formed the paramilitary wing of the Co-operative movement.”(P 91) See also the less amusing, Thatcher Stole my Trousers. Alexei Sayle. Bloomsbury Circus. 2016.

Update, for a serious account of this dispute: Clarion.

LPNI WTF?

By Labour Party of Northern Ireland members

The Labour Party in Northern Ireland’s executive committee has recently undergone a catastrophic breakdown in communication, followed by a series of resignations which received a degree of local media attention and attention on the left. Sadly, the explanations given by those involved have been consistently misleading. Whilst the context is political, as might be expected, much of the upset is interpersonal and the motivations of those involved represent a complex combination of the two. As things stand, there is a toxic air about this local party’s dissent into in-fighting, but if we look carefully it might be possible to discern some lessons for the Labour left.

 

Written by Andrew Coates

August 14, 2017 at 12:41 pm

Student Clashes in Dublin.

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More Here.

Written by Andrew Coates

November 4, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Posted in Europe, European Left

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