First, it should be said that this meeting is not what was intended.The organisers had hoped to set up a panel to commemorate Peter but it is difficult to recruit speakers forty-five years after an event of which the details remain tragic but unclear. You are left with Alan MacSiomon and myself. Whether we’ll be adequate to the occasion is for you to judge.
Peter Graham died before he could fulfil his promise, and he had plenty of it. He had energy, intelligence and dedication. More definitely, he had a brilliant empathy with people, men and women alike. Apart, presumably from his assassins, it was not possible to bear a grudge against him. One comrade in Irish solidarity work in London clashed with him to a point of anger, yet wept tears a few weeks later when his murder was reported. He had a relaxed, sometimes mischievous personality. On one occasion, when the group of which he was a member had taken its discipline to the point of refusing a member early departure from a meeting, (and alienating that member permanently) he took pleasure on the next occasion, when he was chair, in prolonging the proceedings for everyone past pub closing time. Yet this attitude on personal issues was combined with an uncompromising yet undogmatic attitude to principle. He was not a theorist; he left no analytic writings: He told me once, half jokingly that Lenin was more successful in his aims than Trotsky, because he was better at persuading people to accept his line: true, but not the whole truth. Nonetheless his political career was a search for the organisational means by which to bring his class, the working people of Ireland, all Ireland, to achieving state power.Whether he had discovered such an instrument when he was murdered, will never be known, nor will the way by which he believed he had made his discovery. What can be said is that his search showed that he was not satisfied with the easy solutions to his problem. This refusal to accept such answers was a political strength, but many would claim that it was more than negated by its alleged contribution to his death, as, indeed, it would be if this was the case, something nobody knows. He began his career in the Communist Party (the Irish Workers’ Party, as it was, then), but concluded that its strategy was not the revolutionary one necessary to establish the Workers’ Republic. Characteristically, he would tell how his former comrades in that body would denounce him as petty bourgeois, until some of them met him in his working clothes doing his job as an electrician. He worked with the Young Socialists, joining swiftly, in turn, the Irish Workers’ Group, the League for a Workers’ Republic, the Saor Eire Action Group.And then, via its British Section, the Fourth International.He was preparing the International’s Irish Section, the Revolutionary Marxist Group when he died. These organisational changes may make Peter sound like a left wing Stephen Donnelly, yet his perspective was far clearer. Unlike Donnelly (even in that deputy’s Social Democratic spurt), he had a clear recognition of the reality of class distinction and the need to end it through the seizure of power by the workers.When he joined the Irish Workers’ Party, it was the most obvious organisation committed to this; he left it because he could see that its commitment was insufficient to produce a strategy to this end. He found the IWG too disorganised, and left the LWR because he considered its perspective on Northern Ireland (this was when the troubles were starting in ‘69) too pragmatic to be revolutionary; he recognised that social revolution in Ireland was likely to develop from the democratic struggle for unity, and he has yet to be proven wrong. Like many at the time, he looked to Latin America for a model organisation and left the LWR for the focistas of Saor Eire.When he went to Britain, it was natural for him to join the International Marxist Group which was influenced by the same ideas. Nonetheless, he had learnt its weaknesses; the RMG would not be a foco but a Marxist propaganda body.
In all, Peter Graham and I shared a flat for a total of two years. The first stint was in a highly unhygienic basement in Hume Street, the second, after his return from London, the St Stephen’s Green bedsitter. I cannot remember many outstanding anecdotes that would show him as a live person. He was generous; after the founding meetingof the Dublin Young Socialists. He stood its members pizzas (admittedly,it was a small gathering).The only time I saw him afraid was when we went to Derry on 8 October to be chased down the Waterside by the rioting RUC (and then I doubt whether he was as afraid as I was.) He had a ear for music. He liked the Dubliners and he liked Jimmi Hendrix; on his twenty-first birthday he was delighted to get the latest Hendrix album and played it incessantly. In Stephen’s Green, we had to work out a schedule for his love life not to intrude on what was for me then a period of celibacy. And there were always politics, whether we were opposed to each other as in Hume Street or in agreement on strategy as in St Stephen’s Green. We argued often but politically.
Had he lived, would he have made a difference? He would have done so, but probably not enough of one to change the overall passage of Irish history. At the time of his death, there were reasons for this, international and national. While the world’s left movements were fermenting, producing much that was crackbrained but also some publications that were valuable and a few that are still. This ferment influenced Ireland, where the left, such as it had been had been only too happy to take its inspiration from very selective writings of Connolly (Indeed, the Complete Works are still a pipe dream). It was nearly always the first, the least useful of the international influences that had the greatest effect. Maoists looking into the Little Red Book of the Chairman’s quotations to try to fit the Chinese experience into an Irish straightjacket, some Republicans trying to bring the foco to Ireland, while others turned in the name of socialism to the strategies pioneered by the German revisionists three quarters of a century previously, and, of course our fellow Trotskyists, most of whom were guided by groups not in China nor in Latin America, but in England, at least one of which saw Ireland only as a source of demofodder for the real revolution that was to take place across the water. Our adherence to the Fourth International saved us from this, but we were not able to escape altogether from eager acolytes of the British, and, in one notable case, the French section, coming to tell us how to rebel. Nor, faced with the stupefying philistinism of the revisionist left, and the accomplished fact of the armed struggle could we avoid sharing the Provos’ illusions in the latter.
This tower of Babel produced similarly confused practice. Irish positions on the national question were well on the way to becoming polarised into two erroneous camps. On the one hand, there were the reformists with a position of reforming the orange state by getting Westminster to impose on it a Bill of Rights to limit the powers of any majority government. This might have had a small effect had it been the original programme of the Northern Civil Rights movement, but that would have meant abandoning its debating slogan of British rights for British citizens and, in any case, it was introduced after the Loyalist invasion of the ghettoes had escalated the crisis. Against the reformists were the revolutionary nationalists mainly of the Provisional Republican movement but still including the Officials (now the Workers’ Party), though they would abandon revolutionary methods within a year. Their common ground was the traditional republican strategy of physical force to drive the occupying forces into the sea. Both the opposing camps shared the decisive weakness; they saw the struggle as being limited to the six county province, with the people of no property in the rest of Ireland acting only as supporters. For them the struggle was to be, in practice, one of a militant minority of a religio-political minority to either win or defeat a majority that had been satisfied with the unreformed status quo, and backed in that by what was still a major imperialist state. The only people who recognised that the revolutionary struggle as an whole had to become an all-Ireland one were, apart from the tiny group that Peter was building, the People’s Democracy which had yet to develop the implications of its basic analysis and would prove, anyway, too politically heterogenous to be able to develop such implications without losing large groups of its membership.
Without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary party. We had developed our theory of Irish revolution, but organising a party or even a propaganda group remained far more difficult. We were generally under-educated. The abominable Mussolini stated once that it took only a bowl of pasta to make a person a fascist, but that it took years of study to make someone a socialist. On this matter, he was talking more sense than usual; he had been a socialist and, no doubt he found being duce the easier option. The fact is that the struggle for socialism involves the overthrow of the capitalist state and its replacement by a workers’ republic. a more difficult feat than the governmental putsches that can enthrone Fascism.On top of this, the weight of bourgeois society is placed to convince people that it is the only practical socio-political form. Religion has acted as a useful dope and, as we are seeing with the Islamist and anti-Islamist movements, it can do so again. However, it has been superseded by the mass media, newspapers, radio, television, either by suppression of facts, by direct lies, or by simple diversions, sport, of course, but also soft porn. Given the implosion of the Soviet Union, whose ‘actually achieved’ socialist credentials were accepted by the capitalist media as readily as they were by any Stalinite, that media has been promoting assiduously the natural split in international economic thinking as one between two theories, neo-liberalism and neo-mercantilism, both capitalist and therefore, it should be remembered, both austerity. On the other hand, it should be added that tho’ the malign effects of social media have been highlighted recently, its comparative cheapness provides far better opportunities for the left than the outlets already listed. But that is now; in 1971, it did not exist. Moreover, our members were understandably more excited by the many possibilities for interventions at this time than in learning the why and wherefore, let alone the means of reaching the why and wherefore. In all modesty, I was arguably the best informed member of the organisation but my knowledge made me wish sometimes only that I could be as certain about anything as my comrades were about everything.
The final problem was, simply, money. Propaganda per head tends to cost more than agitation and, of course, agitation must involve larger numbers. The disproportionate numbers of students rather than employed workers did not help. Some of us were able to put extra money in the kitty, but it was small compared to what was needed to maintain a premises and a regular publication, not to mention the pamphlets on specific issues that were required to try to offset not just the bourgeois media but the less accurate analyses of our rivals. Looking back, we might have done better to have abandoned our aspirations for a premises, as these rivals did, and as we had to do, at last, tho’ this would have created other problems.
Yet we did produce a regular paper, keep a premises and, even publish one or two pamphlets. We held small meetings and joined other organisations in various campaigns, including one which included, amongst others, the Chairman here, that prevented the Murrays from being hanged and blew an hole thru’ the possibility of reviving the penalty of capital punishment, at least at this time. We worked in the women’s movement and against coercive powere norther and south. Our great weakness was in economic struggles; the recessive conditions of the ‘70s were not conducive to movements other than those of the unemployed, and, as usual, they were open to the attraction of the reflationary capitalist proposals of Fianna Fail. It is arguable, too, that we were too modest in putting ourselves forward. Nonetheless, by the end of the decade, we had united with the People’s Democracy and looked forward to greater successes, a vision in which our Marxist analyisis failed us.
Could Peter Graham’s presence have allowed us to do decisively better? Certainly, he had a confidence and flamboyance that we tended to lack. He might also have been able to compensate, somewhat for our industrial weakness, but too many conditions would have been against us with him as they were for us without him. We were at a disadvantage in that the largest single revolutionary force at the time was the republican movement. Today there are signs that the Stormont settlement is collapsing but there is no such single movement of revolutionary nationalists ready to topple it. The trouble is that there is no other organisation ready to take up the challenge. Yet, even if the struggles in the twenty-six county state do provide the spark for the working people’s seizure of state power, that achievement will make the border relevant , and, if only in self -defence, it will force the new workers’ republic to place its ending on its agenda. (Northern Ireland exists to prevent that sort of thing.) As it is, austerity has to be opposed, corruption in government, north and south, exposed, Brexit faced, slum conditions in housing and health services overcome, but how does the very real discontent with these matters translate into something more than voting candidates to Dail Eireann not tarred with the mess from the traditional Government parties ?
As it is, it is clear that, though Sinn Fein is not one of these parties, it is moving to join their strategic orientation to constitutionalism in the manner natural to Republicans when they move from physical force to political action. It has done so already in the north. This would not be so dangerous were there any large group able to replace its orientation with a revolutionary political one. Today, as in Peter’s time, it seems that the only group willing to do this is what is now Socialist Democracy, and, although we know more, our numbers are fewer than they were then. Too many revolutionary socialists believe that the struggle for state power ‘is the economy, stupid’.This is a central truth, but arising out of it is a mass of socio-political issues, not least the problem of the state itself. Concentration on economics can lead all to often to reformism, to making for the working people immediate gains that will be negated by the capitalist state. Equally, as has been shown over the last quarter century, concentration on the social issues within existing class society tends to reinforce acceptance of the class structure and abandonment of the immediare economic problems of working people. Too rigid compartmentalisation is a barrier to working class state power.
All this may seem irrelevant to the subject of this meeting. In fact, this meeting would not be being held were Peter not a revolutionary. He would want us to chart a course, particularly in present conditions, even if only to start discussion. At the moment, it might be advisable to be guided under certain headings.
1. Firstly, there is the need for a revolutionary party not just to propagandise for the revolution but to organise for it and to lead it. This is, in many ways, the most difficult of all these tasks. The divisions of the left, particularly in these islands are many and often toxic. No doubt some are maintained partly as ego trips for their leaders, but the divisions between them arise out of real disagreements on strategic issues and, most problematically on international ones. It should be possible to learn from the fate of such disagreements and to come to some principled rapprochment; in practice, such a solution is rare and dependent on the objective context.
As an humble member of one of the smallest surviving propaganda groups in Ireland, this may seem like sour grapes. We do not have a presence in Dail Eireann where there are now perhaps eight or nine self-proclaimed revolutionary socialist deputies, an unthinkable number fifty years ago, but not one of them Socialist Democracy. However, it was not always thus. At one time, we had our public representatives. It is good to have self-proclaimed genuine socialists in the Dail and at Stormont, but they are victors of skirmishes in a war in which the first major battle will be the establishment of the Workers’ Republic, itself the initial major achievement of the world struggle for socialism.
2. The said Workers’ Republic and its achievement must be at the centre of the aims of the party. It may be necessary to defend and expand its democratic institutions against the forces of coercion and the political right, but that is to defend democracy not the state itself. Enough democracy will in fact weaken the capitalist state and make it easier to build that of the working peoples. At the same time the latter will have to be built outside the former, smash and replace it. Revolutionary Socialists must remember this or stop being revolutionary or even socialist.
3. Irish Unity cannot be fudged. Quite apart from all nationalist criticisms, the present border exists to divide the workers in a way that it does not divide their bosses. There are signs that its effectiveness is lessening. Nonetheless, even at the present rate, such a process is likely to take a couple of generations.
Immediately, the need is to keep in view the socio-political differences and the conomic resemblances between the state and the northern province. How long the Stormont Agreement can last is uncertain, but, if it fails, there has to be a movement in the republic ready to mobilise not for the agreement itself, but for the democratic solution of a united Ireland, a working people’s Ireland, backed by the organisations of that class.
4. Finally, There are the problems posed by those said mass organisations. The sectarianism of the small groups is parallelled by the the reformism of the bureaucracies. Our duties remain; to fight all restrictions on working class rights (CEDA, FEMPI, etc.) and to demand full democratic rights within these bodies as preparation for the Workers’ Republic. These basic principles would seem to be central to the aims advocated by Peter Graham.