Paul Cockshott, Bill Warren and anti-Irish nationalism

Louis Proyect wrote: I have never read Paul Cockshott on imperialism. If his hatred for Irish nationalism is any indication of what he has to say on broader questions of "the periphery," then I'm not very hopeful.

It is interesting actually that Cockshott and Warren's revision - or, even, outright rejection - of Lenin on imperialism was first motivated by their attitude on the Irish question.

Warren and Cockshott were members of a strange little group in Ireland which was originally called the Irish Communist Organisation. In the mid-1960s the ICO actually did some useful work. They were briefly quite into James Connolly and helped reproduce some of his work and develop it. They also republished a very good essay written by Connolly's youngest child, Roddy, in 1922 on the situation in Ireland. (Roddy Connolly was a founder of the original Irish CP and attended early congresses of the Third International. The CP was involved in the struggle for independence and fought on the republican side during the civil war of 1922-23.)

When republican resistance to British imperialism in the here and now began however, around 1969-1970, the ICO shifted dramatically to the right. In the early 1970s they even changed their name to the BRITISH and Irish Communist Organisation (BICO) and began discovering progressive qualities in imperialism. This was to legitimise their reactionary politics in Ireland, where they increasingly saw British rule as a progressive force and Irish resistance as reactionary. Warren came up with the cock and bull theory that imperialism was the precursor of capitalism, rather than its last epoch, the epoch of decay and transition.

There is a quite scathing review of Warren's book in an old issue of the British RCP's original theoretical journal, 'Revolutionary Communist Papers'. I think the review was written by Tony Allen, one of the RCP's key economics experts at the time.

The BICO's subsequent trajectory was to kind of go underground and work in universities and various anti-republican front groups promoting 'two nations' theory - ie the view that there is not one nation in Ireland (the Irish nation historically formed through the fusion and integration of different waves of people arriving in Ireland at different times and brought into nationhood by the advent of capitalism) but two (a Protestant/British nation and a Catholic/Irish nation). Thus, for BICO, Irish self-determination was seen as cutting across the right of the Protestant/British nation in Ireland. BICO's politics, of course, were overwhelmingly directed against the national liberation movement and they soon came out with a fulolscale rejection of Marx and Engels work on Ireland, as well as Lenin's. One of these ratbags, Austen Morgan, also wrote an extraordinarily dishonest 'political biography' of James Connolly, published by some British university press, which was so crude that it even contained fictitious quotations of Lenin about the Irish Citizen Army, the workers militia led by James Connolly, Michael Mallin and Constance Markievicz in the 1916 rebellion.

Morgan and others were also involved in a group called 'New Consensus' which began picketing Sinn Fein offices in the late 1980s and early 1990s, demanding an end to the armed struggle. 'New Consensus' worked with other anti-republican groups, including ones which were getting funds from the British government to organise anti-republican activity within the north. The BICO was little more than a cats' paw in Ireland for British imperialism.

Their views also tied in with the advent of an incredible theory among some of the most fascistic sections of loyalism - namely that the Protestants were the 'indigenous' people of Ireland, a thing known as the Cruthin theory. The idea was, if I recall, that the Cruthins had been in Ireland first and had gone, or been forced, into Scotland, so when they came back to Ireland with the plantations of the 1600s, they were really just returning home!

In contrast, the Irish republicans have always argued that there is only one nation in Ireland, that everyone on the isalnd belongs to it, regardless of their ancestry or when their ancestors arrived in Ireland. It is, argue republicans, British intervention in Ireland which prevents the full formation of this nation and keeps the Unionists (mainly Prods) in the north-east tied to Britain and pretending they are British, ie keeps them as an alienated section of the Irish nation.

(Louis, as an aside, you might see how my experience in Ireland has had an affect in terms of endearing Richard Fraser and his 'revolutionary integration' position to me!)

>From their reactionary position on Ireland, the BICO Stalinists no doubt found it quite easy to move further and further to the right in a general theoretical sense. They extrapolated from the 'progressive' role of imperialism in Ireland and eventually began applying this to the rest of the world.

Lastly, here are some good things which I have read over the last while on imperialism.

Pluto Press and Living Marxism began jointly republishing Marxist classic texts a couple of years ago. Their edition of Lenin's Imperialism, apart from Lenin's wonderful work itself, also contains an excellent (roughly 50 page?) introduction by Norman Lewis and James Malone, which looks at developments since Lenin's time. (As a further aside, they also republished 'State and Revolution' with a new introduction by James Heartfield.)

I have also just been reading "Imperialism: the theory of decay and the decay of theory", an over 200-page paper written in the mid-1970s by Frederick Larson, Eric Olsen and David Wolf of the Detroit-based Revolutionary Marxist Committee. (The RMC was an extremely impressive group which, for some reason, chose to commit suicide in 1977 by fusing with the thoroughly philistine US SWP.) This work was originally published as an issue of the RMC's journal, 'Revolutionary Marxist Papers'. I assume it is available in some libraries in the USA.

I also think that Lenin's 'Notebooks on Imperialism' are essential reading. I can't remember off-hand which volume of the Collected Works they are in, but they are certainly worth study.

Philip Ferguson


Gary, thanks for your most complimentary comment on my post re Cockshott, BICO and imperialism. Who knows, I may even convince you at some stage to get a sub to 'revolution'. . .

I never really thought of BICO as Maoist specifically. But then I never personally came across them at all. In fact, Cockshott's group really didn't have an open existence in Ireland at all. By the time they had switched from being ICO to being BICO, they seemed to mainly live and be semi-active in London. I gathered that by that stage they were also quite into Eurocommunist-style reformism.

The only Maoists I ever came across in Ireland were the CPI (M-L), and they went with Albania in the Peking-Tirana split. The CPIML were all mad, middle class types, it was a very weird wee group, but at least they were anti-imperialist. They never really worked with anyone else, but at some stage in the early 1990s they started turning up at a few Sinn Fein, anti-extradition campaign and other republican-type activities. At some conference I even sat down and broke bread with a few of them, and at that stage they were moving away from Mao and appeared to be starting to have a few doubts about Stalin.

The BICO Stalinists were really a Belfast phenomenon, which took up residence in London. These days they call themselves the Aneurin Bevan Society in Britain, which is pretty weird, and have a web-site under that name. How disturbing it must be for them, now that Sinn Fein and the IRA have gone and sold out to British imperialism, because the whole raison d'etre of BICO (rationalising imperialism and attacking Irish national liberation forces) has kind of disintegrated.

A few of them have prominent jobs in universities in the North, rewriting Irish history and politics to portray British imperialism in a favourable light and justify loyalism.

I don't really know why they never joined up with the Sticks (the wing of republicanism which went Stalinist in the late 60s/early 70s), as their politics were so similar. Ellen Hazelkorn, one of the leading Stick intellectuals, certainly wrote stuff with loyalists like Paul Bew and Henry Patterson, both of whom I assume to have been either in BICO or part of the BICO milieu. Austen Morgan's book on James Connolly, meanwhile, has got to be one of the most dishonest books ever written by a 'left-winger' on Ireland. It has balatant lies in it, which are immediately verifiable as such when you go and check the primary sources.

I dealt with historical revisionism in the first two chapters of an MA thesis I did a couple of years ago, which turned into a 120,000 word, 375-page tome. The chapters are a bit long to post on here, and I didn't especially try to differentiate between the 'left wing' (Sticky and BICO) and 'right-wing' revisionists because there is actually so little difference between them either in methodology (and dishonesty) or in political motivation.

You are right about New Left Review too. Its attitude to Ireland was/is absolutely scandalous. They have published hardly anything on Ireland during three decades of military occupation by the army of their own state. And of the very little they have published, it has tended to be pro-imperialist rubbish by people like Hobsbawm and other Stalinists.

There was actually a very good piece by two leftie anti-imperialist Northern Ireland academics (a rare breed!) in NLR about two or three years ago, which amongst a general critique of the British left took NLR to task over this and the editors were very defensive and tetchy about it. I can hunt out the reference, if you are interested.

It was also interesting to observe 'Marxist' intellectuals like Bew and Hazelkorn shifting politically each year as they had to reject more and more of Marx and Engels' writings on Ireland in order to sustain their opposition to the Irish liberation movement in the here and now. In the end, Hazelkorn came out - in either 'Capital and Class' or 'Science and Society', I can't remember which now - and said basically that Marx and Engels were completely wrong on Ireland. Her party, the Stalinist WP (now 'Democratic Left') was, at that time, busy scabbing on workers' strikes, and urging people in the north to finger IRA members to the 'security forces' and so on. Still being ratbags and finks for imperialism hasn't got them anywhere. Although DL had six TDs (MPs) at its height in the South, its zenith has long since passed and it is widely loathed now not only among republicans and socialists (who always loathed it) but among the working class voters it has consistently betrayed as well.

Cathal Goulding, by the way, died just before Christmas. MacGiolla must be on his last legs if not dead already. MacGiolla's years of treachery didn't do him any good either. He ended up falling out with the majority of the WP, who went off to become DL, and left him with a tiny marginalised rump to see out his last years.

Basically the Irish Stalinists, after years of helping British imperialism, have styuffed themselves completely and are hated.

Sadly, those forces which fought the good fight for decades - against British imperialism and its local collaborators - have given up and opted for a 'parity of esteem' between loyalist and nationalist 'cultures' in the north instead of national liberation.

Philip Ferguson