Watching documentaries about the Troubles

Most of these have been ripped off old VHS tapes which are themselves recordings of television broadcasts. The uploaders will have been conscientious enough to edit out the ad breaks, but sometimes they are left in. These are never quite as interesting as you expect them to be; none of them offer a very robust insight into the times in which they were broadcast, they are primarily noteworthy from the point of view of how orange television signals seemed to have been in the eighties and nineties. The usual artefacts of video recordings also return; discolouration, especially at the edges, random lapses into black and white, the momentary appearance of a teal screen with the words TRACKING in the top left. The other videos the accounts have uploaded are highly miscellaneous, some will have an exclusively republican focus, others will have a more overtly socialist or working-class history slant, but most of them have no discernible theme at work at all. Bad recordings of live gigs, old RTÉ or UTV idents, randomly edited news footage, audiobooks. 

An Tine Beo (1966) was commissioned by RTÉ as part of a commemorative program for the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising. The rising appears here mediated primarily through recollection and recordings of military testimony, which appear as narration over shots of relevant Dublin sites in the sixties; St. Stephen’s Green, Boland’s Mills, the GPO. Sometimes these streets are empty and the effect is sombre, the voices spectral reminders of a time when struggle against the British Empire took on a concrete form. The documentary locates the rising in the context of the United Irelanders, the 1913 lockout, the Gaelic cultural revival and the founding of the Irish citizen army.  The overall thrust is to locate the free state under Eamon DeValera, who appears behind his desk towards the end, as the culmination of these centuries of struggle. In line with this aim, rebel tunes are played throughout, but as stately  and tasteful orchestral scores over close up shots of Merrion Street’s neo-classical architecture, rather than as populist working-class ballads. We are offered a reminder that when in office DeValera put an end to the death penalty, a clear repudiation of the idea that the Cosgrave government can claim to be the first in the state. 

As part of the Abbey Theatre’s commemorative programme in 2016, Fintan O’Toole interviewed Roddy Doyle about his novel A Star Called Henry (1999), which represented a young man from Dublin’s tenements, Henry Smart, as the Forest Gump of the free state. The novel is an irreverent one; it dabbles in magical realism, representing Smart as a big hit with Cumman na mBán brigades and having sex with some of them during crucial moments in the early history of the revolutionary period, in a bid to pour scorn on what we might refer to as ‘romantic nationalism’. I think we can trace this attitude or criticisms of it to Ruth Dudley Edwards’ accounts of figures like Padraig Pearse, who is spoken of as more akin to a suicide visionary or religious extremist than an anti-imperialist. Doyle also recalls episodes from his childhood in school when they were required to learn the names of the participants in 1916, glorify the Fenian dead, have teatowels with their likenesses on them, etc etc. Snapshots of this also appear in Doyle’s more autobiographical novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993). What Doyle seems to object to here is the idea that there is a lineage stretching from Cú Chulainn to Wolfe Tone to Pearse, that the history of struggle against the British Empire forms a totality. I’m not exactly sure why it is de facto regarded as a bad thing to identify the commonalities in struggles waged by the Young Irelanders, the Fenians and the Irish Citizen Army, I prefer to think of the history of Ireland’s solidarity with smaller nations as something to be proud of or celebrated, as in the Dunnes Stores strikes against apartheid, or the reasons why Israeli ambassadors speak openly about what a difficult mission Ireland is in comparison to other states. One of the reasons I can think of in accounting for why it is that Irish writers seem to keen to write this stuff off is revisionism’s capacity to present itself as introducing greater amounts of nuance or intellectual credibility to the wholesale rejection of imperialism, John Banville speaks in very similar terms in his positive appraisal of Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces (2014) which reads the revolutionary generation as bourgeois and anti-democratic narodniki. There are certainly shots of graves, Cú Chulainn’s statue in An Tine Bheo, but in large part the aim of the documentary is to lay such ghosts to rest, incarnate the living spirit of Republicanism in Dev and replace the haunted streets with images of a bustling metropolis. It concludes with full streets, buses, commuters and a voice assuring us that we have ‘paid our debts’, setting the stage for an economic model premised on foreign direct investment. Easter 1916: A Curious Journey was also commissioned for the fiftieth anniversary, but focuses to a greater extent on the actuality of the struggles and its participants. These veterans are equally divided into treatyites and anti-treatyites and important junctures for both camps seems to have been the assassination of Michael Collins (though Tom Barry is not asked about this) as well as the familiar bitterness of the civil war, whose wounds are still evident, bringing more than one participant to tears. A Curious Journey emphasises to a greater extent than An Tine Bheo, the trajectory towards a United Ireland and the anti-sectarian nature of republicanism as envisioned by Wolfe Tone. Partition is identified as a mistake and a causal factor in the ongoing failures of both the Irish state and the northern statelet, but the actuality of getting there is not touched upon to any great extent. 

A Sense of Loss (1972) was directed by Marcel Ophuls and seems to have been filmed in a pre-Bloody Sunday milieu and it therefore affords significantly greater amounts of attention to the Officials than the Provisionals. Ophuls’ approach is an exercise in a kind of a high irony; he poses disinterested yet often deeply challenging questions to everyone he interviews, whether loyalist or republican, military or civilian and manages in that intensely subtle way great interviewers can to get people to reveal themselves in ways I find it hard to think that they intended. Loyalist families say there is no such thing as housing or job discrimination in the orange state and that it would solve everything if Britain annexed and re-occupied the twenty-six counties. This can be over-egged at times; a lot goes into the juxtaposition of families talking about loved ones they’ve lost in the conflict while Irish-American marching bands proceed down a New York street or shots of dolls in military regalia hang in a toy shop. It is difficult to shake the sense that Ophuls is significantly more sympathetic to the republican side of the argument, his random interviews in London reveals the British to be totally ignorant about the roots of the conflict and an RUC man instructs him to interview moderate Protestants for his documentary, presumably knowing people like Patrick Ruddell or John McKeague (the latter filmed sitting between two portraits of Elizabeth II and in front of one of William of Orange) will have no qualms about describing Catholics as ‘gutter rats’ or argue that songs with lyrics like ‘Falls was made for burning / Taigs were made to kill’ do not encourage or celebrate pogroms against Catholics; ‘we were acquitted on this charge’. Ophuls’ documentary remains one of the few which affords significant consideration to loyalism and the facts of the ideology as explained by its adherents render it difficult to present as just another side of one argument. 

No Go (1973) is likewise focused on the officials, but is concentrated primarily in Derry. The documentary’s narrator is Irish-American, everything Irish people say is subtitled and much of the documentary’s soundtrack is composed of ballads which gesture towards the Officials’ supposedly more Marxist outlook which glazes in it a bit of a sentimental pall. The film’s high points are footage of training camps, where a few young men are screamed at for not dropping into a sniper’s position or holding their rifles correctly. Representations of the Bogside as under siege are also very well done with barbed wire, barricades, terraced houses, overseen by snipers between gaps in sandbag walls, facilitated by Derry’s geography. From the point of view of the young men who are interviewed, joining the IRA was either a matter of having been born into it, with one’s father being a member, or an imperative due to the need to protect the community from British forces, or, as another reports, seeing an unarmed teenage girl shot by a British Army officer. A now-familiar account of the IRA’s growth and development is laid out here, from the disproportionate reaction of the RUC to civil rights protesters, to Bloody Sunday, to a lack of economic opportunity for Catholics. A political account of the provisional movement receives short shrift here, an Official presents them as single-minded militarists with no political content to their approach whatsoever. Such lines are continually propagated by the bafflingly resilient stickie-historiographical industrial complex, but as Gearóid Ó Faoleán documents in his book A Broad Church (2019), the split in the IRA was articulated in manifestly different ways in a number of different areas depending on far more pragmatic and local causes than are usually discussed, such as personalities, group affiliation, the capacity of one side of the organisation to mobilise or arm itself in one area as opposed to another. Tyrone in particular represents an exception to many simplistic narratives of provo bible bashers on one hand versus dialectical materialists on the other. No Go also features a B plot wherein an explosive device is manufactured, smuggled across the border and bypasses a British Army checkpoint. Strange dubs clearly undertaken by yanks are used in these reconstructions (‘this will blow away these Pratastant haethans!’) and it is difficult to know what the point of these scenes are. We also see the fallout from the Officials’ shooting of William Best, a teenage soldier in the British Army, and the role his assassination played in galvanising a peace movement in the area, especially by priests who are calling for a universal end to violence. I recall Mary Holland’s documentary Creggan (1980), no longer on YouTube, that represents residents of the Bogside as surprisingly willing to say on record that though Best’s death was regrettable from one point of view, he should not have been in the British Army.

The Patriot Game (1978) emphasises to a far greater extent than elsewhere the political program of the provos. The documentary offers the closest to a Marxist account of the Troubles that yet exists on film, a history stretching as far back as the plantations, through the United Irishmen, the efforts of James Connolly, and to a lesser extent Jim Larkin, to fuse republican and socialist struggle into a single coherent movement. An account of how the partition of Ireland facilitated the construction of the orange state, to which the civil rights movement emerged as a response in the late sixties and how this peaceful protests were in turn responded to by heavy-handed police tactics, consisting of internment, as well torture administered in police custody (electric shocks, drugging, sleep deprivation, beatings, sometimes administered to death, the use of supposedly ‘non-lethal’ weapons) re-vivified the IRA; all this is identified with a broader history of colonial settlement and decolonial struggle. It is likewise attentive to the ways in which the British conducted counter-insurgency operations, bomb alerts passed onto the police on Bloody Friday were not being acted on and special branch both assisted and facilitated loyalist paramilitaries in their efforts to collapse Sunningdale.

The original footage which appears here is shot roughly in black and white. We move through housing estates with children playing, while patrols of armed British soldiers and convoys of military trucks drive by. It’s here that we see something like a recognisable aesthetic of the Troubles take shape, the particular kind of grain that alerts you to the possibility that something in the foreground will be blowing up very soon. One hesitates to apply the concept of the uncanny to these films, signs of youth culture, kids playing in housing estates co-existing with British army patrols, convoys of military trucks, but that it prompted a particular kind of prurience lying behind takes about what the imminent American civil war will look like is undeniable. If one were interested in such things, one might try to re-read Mark Fisher’s notion of hauntology is a more overtly political light here; British council estates populated by Irish people, main arteries marched down by a seventeenth-century union of craft workers and thereby put the mourning for what Fisher refers to as the British ‘postwar consensus’, which was in fact deeply contested, not least in Ireland, under significant amounts of pressure. Provos appear in silhouette assembling guns, drilling, outlining the program for a 32-county socialist republic as well as the Éire Nua scheme. The molecular nature of revolution also receives attention here, self-organised nationalist communities form taxi associations in response to the government removing bus services from Catholic areas. 

A friend of mine recently made the point that the history of Irish struggle is not rife with great speeches. Ruairí O’Brádaigh’s address to a Sinn Féin ard-fheis in 1986 does not quite count as one of them, but the passion with which it is delivered as well as its hitting the reformist trajectory of Sinn Féin point for point means that I am compelled to watch it on a regular basis. O’Brádaigh opens his address with a reference to Adams’ media strategising (‘I shake hands with everyone and at every time not just in front of the media’) and draws on the history of the republican movement to rebuke the idea that recognising partitionist parliaments is anything other than a turn towards parliamentarism and reformism: 

“The destabilisation of the state, we are told, will result and the movement will be strengthened. Always has it been otherwise, every time has it been otherwise, the movement suffered and the state was strengthened. Four times since 1922 it happened, all ended in failure and ended ultimately in the degradation and shame of collaborating with the British, of handing over our political prisoners to them and running counter to what they originally set out to do.”

McGuinness speaks in favour of the motion O’Bradaigh speaks against and is laughable in its evasions of the point, insistence that SF will never do any of the things it ended up doing and renders emotive comparisons with the bourgeoning split and that of the Officials/Provisionals in the seventies. 

Some account of the social and economic milieu of the north emerge in Irish Ways (1989) including how important the securitisation of the six counties is for creating employment for the loyalist population, we are shown bullet holes in walls and ceilings of Catholic homes, that Ballymurphy has an 80% unemployment rate, we hear a woman describing how a British soldier blinded her with a rubber bullet by shooting her in the face. In overall terms though, it represents a pivot in the ways in which the troubles are represented in documentaries, which begin to take a ‘two sides’ version of the conflict for granted. The Republican end is represented by Brendan Hughes, hunger striker and member of the Provisional IRA while Gusty Spence and David Irvine form the UVF contrast to Hughes in Irish Ways and Voices from the Grave respectively. What makes the difference here then is the way in which the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Ulster Volunteer Force are taken seriously as political organisations in their own right. Spence advances a brief analysis of the history of the north according to the idea that Irish republicanism was always a murderous and dissident force against the neutral ‘state’ represented by the plantations, sadly the documentary does not expand on this Kaiserreich version of early modern Irish history to any great extent. For some of the reasons touched upon above, even in these accounts it is always Republicanism that commands greater amounts of attention. There’s a clip of Michael Stone in The Enemy Within (1990) talking about how he always regretted how Republicans were much better at prison propaganda than loyalists were, which leaves you wondering what exactly a paramilitary arm of the existing state could actually be propagandising for.

Voices from the Grave (2010) goes into further detail on Hughes’ biography, due to their being based off oral testimony Ed Moloney collected in the course of his Boston Tapes research. Hughes talks about growing up in the orange state, a neighbour who used to spit at him when he walked past and asked him if he had blessed himself with the pope’s piss that morning. His experiences of the conflict are actually reconstructed fairly well, including when women broke the British Army curfew and allowed IRA fighters to escape the area by putting arms in prams, an attempted assassination attempt, his regrets about Bloody Friday and the assassination of Jean McConville. It is after the resumption of struggle during the period of the hunger strikes that Hughes becomes increasingly disenchanted with the direction of the organisation under Adams and its becoming ‘just another middle-class party’. 

The hunger strikes, especially the second, looms largest in documentaries about the troubles, for the obvious reason that it attracted extensive amounts of international attention. It is also identified as a turning point in Sinn Féin’s electoral struggle, based on the military stalemate the army had entered into in the eighties and the boost in electoral success. One hunger striker in particular argues that Adams stalled negotiations with the British in order to recoup further electoral success, Moloney’s A Secret History of the IRA (2002), though Adams-centric to a fault, offers the most fully-fleshed out account of provos’ history with Adams as the Machiavelli. 

Hughes would not be the only longtime Republican to make criticisms such as these, in Maria McGlinchey’s Unfinished Business (2019), Christy Burke outlines his reasons for leaving Sinn Féin in 2009 after becoming frustrated by the degree to which the party’s strategy seemed to be determined by media strategists and consultants rather than his working class constituents. Hughes also outlines his suspicions that there was a high-level informer operating within the IRA after the execution of Joe Fenton had occurred before he could be interrogated, as if to protect this informerand how the UVF escalated their campaign, particularly in the most Republican areas of East Tyrone where dissent to the direction of a peace process could be anticipated, in order to strong-arm the republican movement into the peace process to make, as Bernadette says, ‘the price of staying out of it too high’. The relatively comfortable careers of the two loyalist men in Stormont form a sad contrast with that of Hughes, whose wishes that SF and Adams would have nothing to do with his funeral were ignored.

Shoot to Kill (1990) is a docu-drama about the 1984 – 86 inquiry conducted by the Manchester police Constable John Stalker and the events leading up to its being established in Armagh. In his attempts to identify whether or not the RUC had indeed colluded in the covering up of evidence relating to the shooting dead of six suspects, Stalker found himself stonewalled by the RUC and conspired against by MI5, who had him suspended from the Manchester police force under false pretences. In addition to being one of the best thrillers you’ll ever see, especially if you are into the representation of procedural detail, it is strikingly clear-eyed about just how partisan the RUC were. On YouTube the 3.5 hour film is followed by a thirty-minute panel discussion between the film’s director, Peter Kosminsky (who distaste for fictionalised narrative is deeply refreshing) David Trimble, Seamus Mallon and Ian Gow, a Tory MP who was assassinated by the IRA a few months after the discussion was broadcast. Trimble and Gow argue the RUC probably don’t do enough of what they are accused of in the film, Mallon that the RUC is a good police force but there are a couple of bad apples while Kosminsky speaks on the facts of how the RUC operate and O’Leary keeps interrupting him.

Mother Ireland (1991) is a documentary featuring interviews with Bernadette Devlin, Nell McCafferty as well as scholars, academics and filmmakers about Irish women and Irish feminism. Provisional IRA member Mairéad Farrell also appears with her voice dubbed over in order to satisfy laws on censorship in an appearance filmed a few months before she was  murdered by British intelligence agents in Gibraltar. It offers an expansive history of women under colonialism, the penal laws and outlines the radicalising influence of women in organisations such as the land leagues, Cumann na mBan, the broader Republican movement and the counter-revolution against women and women’s rights waged in the free state. The consensus offered here is that Republicanism is perfectly compatible with feminism as against the growing academic consensus that it has for most of its history been a manifestly anti-feminist or masculinist ‘discourse’ to the extent that it is indistinguishable from British imperialism. On the contradictions between feminism and republicanism, Nell McCafferty argues the following:

The further away the women are who are struggling the easier it is to support them. Irish women for example have no trouble supporting Willie Mandela and the ANC, or the guerrilla women in the Philippines or the women of Nicaragua but when it comes to the achievement of supporting physical force to achieve an objective here at home they are confused and I don’t expect Irish women or feminists…to be any less ambivalent or any clearer-mined than the majority of Irish constitutional nationalists who also don’t know, can’t make up their minds.

Sighle Humphries, veteran of Cumann na mBan in complains about scholars and journalists reading women republicans as mere handmaidens of the volunteers who should have followed the example of the English suffragettes. How the image of Irish womanhood is now used in order to attract multi-national investment and tourists is also very interestingly discussed. 

In 1993, Olivia O’Leary presents an investigation into the 1974 Dublin-Monaghan bombings, an instance in which two bombs were detonated on the north side of the inner city and one around Trinity College. In addition to forensic reconstructions of the routes the cars took across the border and towards Dublin, the report features extensive accounts of confidentially disclosed statements which make clear that the guards were unable to proceed with their investigation past a certain point or to pursue the loyalist terrorists from Portadown who were responsible. Eight perpetrators, all members of the mid-Ulster brigade of the UVF are apparently known to the guards. In the early stages of the investigation the RUC facilitated their investigation, but blocked their capacity to interview the suspects. The documentary also presents evidence which suggests the loyalist brigades were receiving money as informants from British intelligence and also received assistance from the Brits in order to do carry out the bombing.

In 1994 Adams appeared on the Late Late show. The first ten minutes of the interview consists of Gay interviewing Adams by himself and thereafter the playwright Hugh Leonard, Austin Currie (SDLP) Dermot Aherne (Fianna Fáil), Jim Kenny (Labour), Michael MacDowell (Progressive Democrats) show up to heckle him. There is no real substantive engagement with any issues surrounding the conflict in the north or the political approach of the Provisional IRA in this interview, but for anyone who has ever gotten frustrated with the standard of coverage Sinn Féin receive today (Louise O’Reilly being asked about whether a shadowy council in Belfast drafted her COVID policy or suchlike), it will be very familiar. Adams runs rings around them and pulls down applause breaks after almost everything he says in response because he has spent more or less his adult life talking working-class revolutionaries around to giving up every principle they ever abided by as opposed to the private schoolboy L&H society debate clubs the rest of them were spawned in. All of them are only interested in the north insofar as it provides atrocities which may be used against people they don’t like and MacDowell goes so far at one stage to let slip that he thinks the RUC are a legitimate police force. The biggest laugh of all is that what they’re trying to bash Adams for, not facilitating a peace process, is that that is exactly what he’s there to promote. The question arises as to what these people really want? Hard to shake the feeling that it’s for people in Tyrone to stop making claims on being Irish.

Battle of the Bogside (2004) is another instance in which some aspects of the struggle have come to be re-read in new light. Events surrounding Free Derry become an Irish answer to generalised 68’r ructions with people who went on to have careers in journalism or Stormont commanding the bulk of the talking head space as opposed to republicans. Security forces and orange order members are surprisingly forthcoming in their contrition and their awareness about how what they did was wrong and that the violence against the protestors was unwarranted. Jack Lynch is criticised far more often than the actual people with the batons or parliamentary seats. No-one mentions imperialism and radical politics in general don’t get much of a look-in, unless throwing things at the police counts. 

As the constitutional path and parliamentary wrangling begin to predominate and the struggle reaches a lower ebb in the course of the peace process it is through news footage of protests surrounding orange order marches and debates over the passing of another agreed deadline, news panel debates what constitutes an adequate form of de-commissioning that events such as these are recorded. These broadcasts are primarily interesting from the position the UUP are thrown back onto as upstart DUP’rs can just say insane nonsense and make Trimble sound like a provo by comparison.

In this context, obtaining justice then becomes an issue pursued through the courts, NGO’s, activism, appeals, international orgnisations. Some examples of what this looks like in practice include Eamon McCann’s lecture to the British Socialist Worker’s Party on the families of the Bloody Sunday victims securing an apology from David Cameron. Serious examinations of politics receive less and less treatment as time goes on here, the default Republican outlooks seen in RTÉ programming in the sixties have disappeared almost completely. To what can this be attributed? In his book, The Impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland (2018), Brian Hanley outlines the effects of partition on the political outlook of the population in Ireland. Crucially though, Hanley does not do so in psychologistic or metaphorical terms. According to his account, this pivot in terms of how the twenty-six counties began to move away from a Republican orientation took place during the Fine Gael Labour coalition headed by William Cosgrave, a time characterised by the introduction of censorship and purging of the state broadcaster, heavy-handed police tactics which extracted false confessions under torture, conducted widepread surveillance of perceived ‘dissidents’ all with the aim of securing Ireland’s political and economic integration into the EEC. The Irish-language documentary Faoi Lámha an Stáit offers one of the better overviews of the period. In some ways Hanley’s account is made possible by the development of mass-media in the seventies, how this same manoeuvre was by Cumann na nGaedhal in a pre-television era would make for an interesting comparison and draw our attention to a far greater extent to state reprisal as a means of enforcing consent.

Aside from political concerns, the quality of the documentaries produced from roughly the year 2000 onwards begins to decline significantly. While gossipy documentaries produced about Brian Cowen or Bertie Ahern being Taoisigh will always be sort of hilarious because the squalid production values form something of a commentary on the era in which Fianna Fáil were at their political height, documentaries produced by BBC, RTÉ and Channel 4 on the north are next to useless, ceding ground to an Alliance party version of history wherein The Troubles was an exclusively tribal or sectarian conflict. Some more recent ones are just absolutely unwatchable trash, with hours of bizarrely over expressive presenters interviewing journalists and American academics rather than working-class people who lived at the forefront of the conflict, long takes where they speak into camera while walking down a busy high street with a set of mannerisms indistinguishable from Alan Patridge (‘But just what were the Troubles? I went to talk to Professor McElwee in Queen’s University Belfast, to find out the truth, behind the myth’). 

The only ones worth watching now are independent productions, whether these are from commemorative DVDs produced by Sinn Féin or interviews conducted with veterans of the Border campaign. All of these are extremely valuable as historical documents, the insights offered by Jim Lane, Richard Behal and Liam Sutcliffe among others challenge many perceptions of the IRA’s ambivalent relationship with socialist politics which have been emerging amidst SF’s electoral revival. While SF’s ventures take the point of view of individuals mourning rather than broader political questions, broader questions into which dissident factions of the republican movement would have some scope in inserting themselves, they are at least, informative or interesting. Bernadette McAliskey’s lecture on the peace-process dispensation, ‘A Terrible State of Chassis‘, which suggests that the war was not worth fighting given the lack of improvement in the lot of the working class is worth watching, and worth contrasting also with another one she delivers to a Solidarity Group in Sweden at a point when the future of the peace process was evidently less secure. The Siege of Short Strand (2002) is one put together from edits of home footage filming events as they took place in one of the most Catholic areas in east Belfast. It points to some of the contradictions with the peace process dispensation, where pogroms are still eminently conceivable and police reticence to confront loyalist violence is clear. If anything interesting is to take place in breaking the Stormont deadlock in the north, it is fairly obvious that here are some of the primary tension points.

The Production of Style in ‘Eumaeus

‘Eumaeus’ is Ulysses‘ (1922) third last episode and is written in a style manifestly distinct from the rest of the novel. This is due to its functioning, I contend, as a parody of nineteenth century realism, of which someone like Charles Dickens might be said to be a standard-bearer, an author whose works Eumaeus both references and satirises. This would not in itself render Eumaeus an episode all that distinct from the rest of the novel; by the time we’re in the novel’s second half the stylistic ‘norm’ established in the Telemachiad has been left behind, in favour of a style which more often than not parodies more traditional or popular literary forms. However, Eumaeus is distinct among these for its representation of the state, society and Dublin at the turn of the century from a more overtly political perspective and this post aims to flesh out some of these issues to a greater extent.

Tony Farmar and Terry Eagleton identify the Famine and subsequent acts of land reform imposed by the British parliament as Ireland’s answer to the bourgeois revolutions of England and France, historical moments which loom so large within the history of dialectical materialism. These legislative reforms, so the argument goes, further codified in law what the land seizures and clearances which came in the wake of Famine had brought about; the emergence of Ireland as an economy of large-scale pastoral production, requiring the construction of one of the world’s densest railway systems in order to facilitate extraction and distribution of its exports.

David Convery argues that the predominantly rural nature of the Irish economy is often posited as a means of questioning the existence of an Irish class system in any form. This proposition has some unfortunate correspondences to the representation of the working class in Ulysses, a novel more broadly typified by representations of Dublin’s indigenous service industry and petit-bourgeoisie; representations of the working class in Ulysses function primarily as a means of providing local detail (7.21 – 24) or a threatening atmosphere (16.327 – 330). This is despite the extent of the poverty which would have been visible in Dublin at the time in which Ulysses is set in 1904; Conor McCabe notes that Dublin had the highest mortality rate in the British empire around the turn of the century and in a 1937 review of the novel Alick West criticised Ulysses on the basis of this oversight: ‘Joyce shows…little of the relations of production. There are no disputes between employers and labour, no struggle for wages, no strikes’.

Ulysses does manifest a significantly greater degree of attention to the domestic consumption of advertising canvassers, clerks and journalists who are all present in the novel to a significantly greater extent than labourers, industrial workers or peasant farmers despite the fact that clerks and more commercial workers were resident in the city’s suburbs to avoid paying the city rates; the labouring population formed almost half the working population and were concentrated in the inner city. It is worth noting, as Farmar does, that Dublin’s high street stores were, at the time in which Ulysses is set, beginning to stock goods promoting the lifestyle choices of a growing middle class, who were also beginning to enjoy the benefits of a more widespread selection of imports such as stout, biscuits, clothes, sugar and tea. However, this disproportionate amount of attention to the end-point of the productive process, passing over production itself or the labourers on whom these global supply chains depended, is indicative of the novel’s blindness to class antagonisms which were soon to lead to crises such as the first world war, the 1913 Lockout and the 1916 Rising. Ulysses might therefore be described as a case study of what György Lukács referred to as a modernist naturalism incapable of dealing with capitalist society as a broader totality. To provide further context to the relative conservatism of Irish modernism, we might add Joe Cleary’s reference to the dissolution of Irish popular culture after the Famine and the relative lack of a mass print culture, two extenuating factors which might plausibly have stymied the development of a more robust and indigenous literary tradition more overtly engaged in social critique.

What is crucial to recall in this is that by the end of the nineteenth century, Irish agriculture has taken on a global character. It was not an indigenous industry in any sense, but one that had been developed for export, and Ireland’s location within the British empire made Ireland effectively dependent on Britain as an export market which allowed for no protectionist tariffs. The overwhelming majority of these exports took the form of alcohol and live cattle, the latter being transported from big farms in the island’s midlands, to the Dublin docks, to slaughterhouses in the north of England where demand for Irish produce remained constant in order to meet the demands of the growing centres of manufacturing. This relationship between England and Ireland functioned extremely well in delivering capital surpluses to those who owned large farms in Ireland as well as industrialists and landed farmers in England, Irish small farmers being left as poorly off as they were in the mid-nineteenth century.

To provide an example of the ways in which Eumaeus ultimately shies away from the provision of an accurate picture of the working class in Dublin in 1904, we might consider the episode’s beginning, when the smell emitted from a bakery is described, and the narrative voice interleaves Stephen and Bloom’s subjective responses, in modes such as Shakespearean malapropism, folk wisdom, Catholic ritualising and advertising jingles, all of which will be familiar from earlier parts of the text (16.51 – 59). In contrast to the rich symbolic terrain of the bakery, as well the comparatively vibrant account of the grocers, clothiers and North Star Hotel, the warehouses on Beresford place, junctures at which Dublin’s key position within the supply chain outlined above, are primarily defined by their inanition and emptiness. The more commonsensical explanation that it is a time in which warehouse labour would presumably not be taking place should not be discounted, especially given that night work in bakeries was at the time a point of struggle within labour disputes, but the fact that the bakery is operational while the warehouses are not is nevertheless symptomatic of Eumaeus’ political interventions. These warehouses, and the docking infrastructure within which they were a part, formed one of the most important sites of struggle during the labour disputes of 1913; when Dublin’s employers began to import scab labour from England at the end of October as a means of breaking the strike, the workers succeeded in closing the docks. This attenuation of Eumaeus’ scope to Dublin’s domestic economy at the expense of an account of Ireland’s economic position relative to an imperial power, let alone a world capitalist totality, is of a part with the compression or rationalisation of the episode’s style which hails the reader in the anonymised voice of a contrived ‘common man’. Republicanism, trade unionism, socialism and anarchism are all touched upon in this episode, albeit while maintaining the fundamental scepticism regarding totalising approaches that one sees elsewhere in Ulysses, such as those that we might find in these schools of thought and praxis. Eumaeus instead gestures towards some aspects of these anti-statist formations against which Bloom’s liberal reformism contrasts. 

Due to the experiential ways in which Joyce represents the interiority of his characters and erects totalising propositions only as a prelude to their deconstruction, it can be difficult to obtain a precise notion of Bloom’s politics. Nevertheless, there is a constellation of perspectives outlined by Bloom, via Stephen and Eumaeus’ narrative voice, with a direct bearing on the style in which Eumaeus is written. At the beginning of this episode, Bloom inveighs Stephen with a series of monologues, mediated via the narrative voice, regarding the danger Stephen faces in continuing to spend his time in disreputable areas such as Monto, attempting to encourage him to live his life in a more respectable way. As the episode continues, Bloom considers the ways in which Stephen might utilise the talents he presumably possesses in singing and literature in order to manoeuvre himself into some of the more fashionable upper class salons in Dublin (16.1828 – 1860). Throughout Eumaeus therefore, the theme of working one’s way into a higher class or potentially descend into a lower one predominates.

The urban proletariat is increasingly visible in Eumaeus in the guise of three characters who are provided with something approximating an extensive treatment. The first of these is John Corley, a character immediately ironised by being referred to as Lord John Corley. It becomes clear that this is a sardonic reference to a genealogy which links him both with the Talbot family of Malahide as well as Jesus Christ (16.128 – 140). These genealogies not only parody Dickens’ representations of the poor as temporarily embarrassed aristocrats, but represent Corley as an unreliable witness, as when Corley’s account of his unemployment and general lack of funds is glossed by the narrative voice as a ‘doleful ditty’ (16.144), as though Corley were playing up his hard luck solely in order to extract sympathy and money from Stephen. Corley’s vector over the course of the previous day, and indeed number of years, forms an intriguing parallel with that of Stephen. Corley firstly seems to have had some kind of a drunken falling out with Lenehan, just as Stephen has with Mulligan. Stephen is coming from Clifton School in Dalkey just as Corley may be heading there later in the day in order to request a job. Finally, they both spent time in the Christian Brothers. This would not have been unusual for Catholic men in Ireland at the time, but the emphasised difference between Corley’s experience of the school system when compared to Stephen’s is nonetheless illustrative. Based on how closely their experiences of the previous day correspond and their educational experiences diverge, the episode suggests how easy it would be for Stephen to be in the position of needing to beg from people in the near future, given that neither of them at this particular point have a job or a home to go to. When Bloom and Stephen enter the cabman’s shelter, Stephen is reflecting on a memory of the front room in his former home, presumably as a result of some residual anxiety at seeing the state in which Corley is in (16.270 – 275). All these discourses surrounding Corley’s character, as well Bloom’s disinterested reflection on class relations being the product of disproportionately distributed amounts of luck (16.240) or a failure on the behalf of the underprivileged to maximise their own individual capacities, suggest that Corley, like Stephen, is in his current situation due to poor judgement and a lack of initiative. This is emphasised further when Bloom reflects on Corley, as ‘the other parasite’ (16.231), a formulation which would presumably render Stephen the first.

The next representative of the working class in Eumaeus comes in the figure of the sex worker who Bloom sees passing by the cabman’s shelter. References are made to the Lock hospital, an institution associated with the treatment of venereal disease. Bloom’s attitude towards the woman, and the voice of the episode with which Bloom’s perspective is suffused, seems at first to be slightly more liberal than one would expect. At the time, the predominating notion of a prostitute amounted to that of a sinful, fallen woman and little consideration would have been given to the material conditions which might lead to people becoming sex workers. In much nineteenth century medical literature for instance, prostitutes were considered a source of contamination, corruption and disease. The Italian criminologist Cesara Lombroso and French physician Louis Fiaux, studied working class women in the late nineteenth century via phrenological methods, arguing that prostitutes had distorted body parts, primitive and childlike attention spans and limited cognitive capacities. The reactionary tendencies at play in Eumaeus’ representation of sex workers return us to the matter of Ireland’s colonial dependency, there being a correlation between the location of military barracks and areas in which the selling of sex is more widespread than elsewhere, as it was for the famous wrens of the Curragh as well as Tipperary town where there the construction of a garrison led to the residents complaining of a marked increase in sex workers in 1877. The district of Monto has its origins here too; extra troops were garrisoned along Mecklenberg street in the early nineteenth century due to rising anxieties regarding a potential French invasion. The publication of an account written by James Greenwood on the wrens in 1867 in the Pall Mall Gazzette embarrassed the authorities into taking action and passing both the Curragh of Kildare and Contagious Diseases Acts in 1868, laws which permitted state authorities to intervene more directly in the camp and its residents. It is via Eumaeus’ representation of the sex worker then, that a biopolitical framework becomes more clearly foregrounded and the notion of becoming or being working class takes on a pathological valency in its association with venereal disease and the contemporary discourses composing the broader prostitute imaginary. We might recall here Corley being referred to as a parasite as well as the alcoholism of the man who may or may not be the town clerk Henry Campbel. 

It is here that we come to a fulcrum of Bloom’s political beliefs, accounts of which often emphasise his liberal open-mindedness, tolerance and the rational nature of his proposals for the improvement of society. In many ways, these appraisals fail to interrogate these reforms’ dependence on the adjustment of individual behaviour or seeming belief in the capacity of a capitalist market to function according to moral tenets. Some of Bloom’s reflections on improving the lot of the working classes for instance, include the promotion of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association as a means of treating alcoholism and the use of community venues in order to stage educational plays or informative lectures (16.793 – 795). It is interesting to note that in comparison to some actually existing reform movements these policy proposals were not as progressive as they might seem; figures such as James Larkin were making practical efforts to construct a working-class counter-culture within the trade union movement based on collective values such as sharing and solidarity in opposition to a bourgeois individualism. Larkin’s plans depended on the development of spaces within which rank-and-file members of the Irish Transport and General Worker’s Union and their families could receive education, social welfare supports and participate in sporting activities. These efforts, which would have been roughly contemporaneous with the events of the novel, in fact contrast with Bloom’s far more conservative vision of social reform. The extent of Bloom’s social vision therefore amounts to the pithy injunction to more ‘do good and net a profit’ (16.800 – 801), which would locate Bloom’s plans for social improvement and welfare very much within the post-Fordist social contract, whereby increased amounts of private consumption, especially international travel, would be made possible by a substantial universal income (16.509 – 510; 16.1133 – 1135; 16.641 – 16.648). These concessions are then leveraged as a means of de-communalising social welfare programmes and public investment, replacing them with philanthropy or a moral economy. It is fitting then, that within much of Bloom’s narration he seems to regard himself as a corporate entity (16.537 – 538); he reflects throughout the episode on the potentially lucrative nature of the concert tours he might establish with both Stephen and Molly’s talents (16.522 – 526). This is not to suggest that Ulysses or Bloom provide an insight into the future of the Atlanticist economies but what the entrepreneurial logics of valuing thrift and propriety elsewhere praised in the discourse terminates in (16.539 – 562). Bloom’s understanding of the role of policing also casts doubt on the notion that he is representative of progressive politics; Bloom notes in the earlier in the episode that only more fashionable parts of Dublin can be depended upon as areas in which a strong police presence can be noted as opposed to more deprived areas such as Monto. This thought evinces a surprising degree of awareness regarding the political nature of policing and even some degree of cynicism regarding the ruling classes (160.80 – 82), but one should note that Bloom’s complaint originates in his thought that the police are not in Dublin’s red light district in sufficient numbers. This would be despite prostitutes being subject to the power of the state on a regular basis, as Maria Luddy argues  ‘authority in the form of police and prison officers governed their lives’. Of course, Bloom is more interested in ensuring Stephen can have safe traffic through more deprived areas than he is in the conditions in said areas. Shortly after Bloom thinks on this issue, Bloom and Stephen are hailed by a sentry man at Amiens Street who turns out to be a friend of Simon Dedalus. The man is named Gumley and towards the end of the episode, he is represented as being sufficiently free from work to do that he is asleep, suggesting not only that police forces are somewhat ineffectual or benign, but dismisses the idea also that they represent an exogenous, occupying or coercive force; their familiarity and essential harmlessness is confirmed by Gumley familiarity to the two men. 

When the conversation in the cabman’s shelter turns to imperialist violence, Bloom sceptically reflects that Irish soldiers were just as prone to violent engagements such as this (16.1042) and that the English are quite restrained in their use of force (16.1033 – 1034). In addition to being contrary to Bloom’s personal experience, given that he was nearly run over by a mounted policeman at a protest against the Boer war, between these two propositions there is not only a form of both-sidesism at play, where both sides make use of violence and therefore both are equally bad, but ultimately, British soldiers are framed as making use of a restrained or judicious, ‘good’ violence in opposition to the violence committed by bad Irish soldiers, which is of course, contrary to his staunch doctrine of non-violence (16.1060). Booker identifies a both-sidesism associated with Bloom’s character and suggests that this may relate to his class interests; Bloom is shown to possess stocks in the Canadian government to a value of £900 to which a British victory in the Boer war would have provided greater security. Lawrence argues that Bloom’s politics are ambiguous in their orientation due to the half-admiration he seemingly expresses via the ambiguity of a key clause which suggests that Bloom has only been half-cured of his youthful radicalism and admiration for those who would use violence in the achievement of their political aims.

It is primarily anarchists, the labour movement and Republicans who are provided with the short end of the argumentative stick by having their positions represented as confused and inchoate throughout the episode, at the end of which Bloom’s liberal utopianism and Stephen’s aesthetic hermeticism appear comparatively engagé


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 2006. Print.

Bloch, Ernst et al. Aesthetics and Politics. London: Verso, 1980. Print.

Booker, M Keith. Ulysses, Capitalism and Colonialism. London: Greenwood Press, 2000. Print.

Cleary, Joe. Outrageous Fortune: Capital and Culture in Modern Ireland. Dublin: Field Day, 2006. Print.

——. “Republicanism and Aristocracy in Modern Ireland.” Field Day Review 10 (2014): 4–39. Print.

Convery, David. “Uniting the Working Class History Memory and 1913.” Locked Out. Ed. David Convery. Sallins: Irish Academic Press, 2013. 1–1. Print.

Deane, Seamus. “‘Masked with Matthew Arnold’s Face’: Joyce and Liberalism.” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 12.1 (1986): 11–22. Print.

Eagleton, Terry. Heathcliff and the Great Hunger. London: Verso, 1995. Print.

Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.

Farmar, Tony. Privileged Lives. A & A Farmar, 2010. Print.

Foster, R.F.. Charles Stewart Parnell. Sussex: The Harvester Press Limited, 1976. Print.

Gifford, Don, and Richard J. Seidman. Ulysses Annotated. London: University of California Press, 2008. Print.

Heusel, Barbara Stevens. “Vestiges of Truth: a Study of James Joyce’s “Eumaeus”.” Studies in the Novel 18.4 (1986): 403–414. Print.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler, Wolfhard Steppe, and Claus Melchior. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Print.

Kupinse, William J. “Private Property, Public Interest: Bloom’s Ecological Fantasy in “Ithaca”.” James Joyce Quarterly 52.3-4 (2015): 593–621. Web.

Lawrence, Karen. “Beggaring Description.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 38.2 (1992): 355–376. Print.

——. The Odyssey of Style in Ulysses. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981. Print.

Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. London: Vintage, 1987. Print.

Luddy, Maria. “An Outcast Community:the ‘Wrens’ of the Curragh.” Women’s History Review 1.3 (2011): 341–355. Web.

Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah Mitchell and Stanley Mitchell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963. Print.

Lyons, F S L. Charles Stewart Parnell. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2005. Print.

——. Culture and Anarchy in Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979. Print.

Mac, Juno, and Molly Smith. Revolting Prostitutes. London: Verso, 2019. Print.

McCabe, Conor. “‘Your Only God Is Profit’ Irish Class Relations and the 1913 Lockout.” Locked Out. Ed. David Convery. Sallins: Irish Academic Press, 2013. Print.

——. Sins of the Father. Dublin: The History Press Ireland, 2011. Print.

McCarthy, Conor. Modernisation, Crisis and Culture in Ireland, 1969 – 1992. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000. Print.

McCrea, Barry. “Family and Form in Ulysses.” Field Day Review 5 (2009): 74–93. Print.

Newman, Robert D. “‘Eumaeus’ as Sacrificial Narrative.” James Joyce Quarterly 30.3 (1993): 451–458. Print.

Nolan, Emer. Catholic Emancipations: Irish Fiction From Thomas Moore to James Joyce. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007. Print.

——. James Joyce and Nationalism. Abingdon on Thames: Routledge, 2003. Print.

O’Connor, Emmet. A Labour History of Ireland 1824 – 2000. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2011. Print.

Ryder, Sean. “Ireland’s Difficulty, the Novelist’s Opportunity?.” Field Day Review 4 (2008): 288–295. Print.

Slote, Sam. Joyce’s Nietzschean Ethics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.

Watt, Stephen. “Brief Exposures: Commodification, Exchange Value, and the Figure of Woman in ‘Eumaeus’.” James Joyce Quarterly 30/31.4-1 (1993): 757–782. Print.

Fiction: She Flies Far From the Land

I’ve a short story, entitled ‘She Flies Far From the Land’ which was in Banshee #9 up online, you can read it here

An overview of the Irish Left parties

This essay aims to provide an account of the parties of the contemporary Irish left. It provides the briefest of introductions to their respective histories, describes their current political strategies, weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of each from as objective a point of view as possible. A number of problems confront an undertaking such as this from the off. The first is that for many reasons, both legitimate and not, many of the organisations dealt with below are not forthcoming with regard to their internal procedures. It seems to be almost impossible to tell how large their membership is, and when this figure is provided it is often inflated or does not draw a distinction between the number of names on an email list versus the number of mobilised members with an active life within the party. These key indexes of the effectiveness of a political organisation are therefore unavailable. In instances in which verifiable data is not available, we are by necessity thrown back onto general knowledge, experience, information obtained from podcasts, debates on messages boards, social media, anecdote and gossip. I have made the greatest effort I can to parse this information with the scepticism its more dubious sources warrant, but I may not have caught everything. It should be noted that this essay will not engage with the left parties in the north, or provide much information regarding the all-Ireland status of the parties below. I don’t like that this essay is open to the charge of being a partitionist one, but rather than promoting information which would be so self-evidently scanty in comparison to the knowledge I can obtain on parties operating in the twenty-six countries, I thought I would leave it to someone else to provide the Northern Irish context. Union affiliations are also often undeclared; particular members of central committee may be senior members of a union operating within a particular sector but again, how mobilisable this union’s membership is on the basis of more widely political as opposed to narrower, solely economistic aims is unclear.

It is at this point that the particularities of an Irish context must be considered. According to data obtained from the OECD, as of 2018, less than a quarter of all Irish employees belong to a trade union and those that are are far more likely to be employed in the public sector, over 45 and married with children, while the most exploited sections of our workforce, immigrants in the private sector with far less in the way of job security, make up a vanishingly small section of unionised labour. In many ways this is due to the political strategy adopted by Irish trade unions since the late eighties, at which point a congress of Irish Trade Unions entered into a mechanism called social partnership, within which the needs of workers are balanced against the interests of private capital, represented by their lobbying groups in the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) and the Construction Industry Federation (CIF). Both of these bodies are steered by executive boards staffed by individuals with high positions in some of the world’s most lucrative food wholesalers, construction, logistics and insurance companies. At the basis of the ICTU’s participation in these arrangements was their commitments to keep demands for social improvements modest, assist in the strategic aims of convergence with the European markets and in return their membership would received modest pay increases over time. This is one of the many ways in which Ireland followed the trajectory of the global neoliberal counterrevolution, wherein the economic turbulence of the seventies and eighties gave way to the right deregulating capital markets, weakening labour and depress living standards in overall terms.1 Social partnership collapsed in 2009 once the Fianna Fáil and Green Party coalition began in earnest to identify pension benefits granted to public sector workers as being at the root of the global financial crisis. Since then, union membership has fallen by 50%, reflecting the strategic limits of corporatist accommodation and pursuing industrial disputes through the Labour court. Irish unions now seem more invested in the production of policy documents for the purposes of arguing the Irish government around to adopting a more progressive social democratic framework in line with the Nordic countries, without mobilising their membership on this front.

The issues attending the organisation of revolutionary parties in the present moment go further than Ireland of course. Economic activity within the EU-American value regime within which Ireland is closely integrated, is primarily engaged in financial services, banking, insurance and the management of investment funds. The world’s ‘most advanced’ economies have therefore moved in the direction of service provision, with high rates of employee turnover within which no successful model of unionising has yet made any significant gains. The predominance of financial capital also renders the forms of collectivised or co-operative worker control which socialist thought took as its starting point, far more difficult to conceptualise, let alone enact. It is as a crisis of left organisation that the current phenomenon of left populism is therefore best understood. The movements and parties surrounding Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Podemos and Syriza all range widely from geographic and sometimes even political points of view, but common to all is a generalised emphasis on a peaceful struggle waged within civil society in order to win an election or a number of elections in order to gain control of the state and invest public money in the construction of a newly-reformed welfare state. With the floundering or failure of these projects, the time seems ripe for a re-consideration and if this article can take preliminary steps towards one which pertains directly to Irish conditions, especially now that there is an increasing number of outlets being produced on the Irish left wherein such questions are being considered, so much the better. 

The aims of this document are not exclusively historical. Outlining the trajectory of say, the Labour Party in its movement from James Connolly, through Conor Cruise O’Brien and Alan Kelly may be left to others; our primary concern here is information which pertains directly to the present moment. This moment, like many others before it, is a crucial one; fascists have been mobilised on the streets of Dublin, at a time in which antifascist and Republican struggle has reached a low point. Sinn Féin, a party whose commitments towards socialist politics has been greatly exaggerated since being on course to become the largest party in the Dáil in the next election, seem unlikely to allow the surpluses which allowed so many socialist TD’s to secure seats extend beyond the confines of their own party next time. Though we have all encountered the phrases ‘socialism or barbarism’ and ‘left unity’ enough times to render them mere nostrums, and often cynically deployed ones, the left cannot hope to succeed without some form of considered response to the political problems outlined below.

The Communist Party of Ireland (Páirtí Cumannach na hÉireann)

The current incarnation of the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) was founded in 1970 after the combining of the Irish Workers’ Party, itself a re-named from the Irish Worker’s League , which Jim Larkin launched in 1923, and the Communist Party in Northern Ireland.2 Condemned to irrelevance in the free state during successive red scares stoked up by the Catholic church, as well as the Labour Party, it has remained a relatively small organisation throughout most of its history. Its main branch is currently located in Connolly Books on East Essex Street in Dublin but it also has branches in Belfast, Cork and Galway. The CPI does not seem to have any principled objection to electoral politics and a special needs teacher, Michael O’Donnell, ran in the 2014 local elections in as well in the general election of 2016, both times in Cork City. It publishes two newspapers, Unity (1970 – ) in Belfast, Socialist Voice (2003 – ) in Dublin and is also responsible for the Irish Spark podcast.

The CPI identifies itself as Marxist-Leninist. As its name suggests, Marxism-Leninism proposes a synthesis between the doctrines of Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, or Lenin. For the purposes of defining Marxism-Leninism it will be necessary to provide an introduction to the thought of both of these figures.

Marx was born in Trier in 1818, shortly after the Congress of Vienna determined that control of the city be taken from the French and delivered into the hands of the Prussian monarchy.3 The powers of old Europe, as Marx referred to Austria, Prussia, Great Britain and France in The Communist Manifesto wereanxious to avoid a repeat of the French Revolution in their own territories and made life extremely difficult for the revolutionaries, reformers and workers in Europe, especially after the revolutions of 1848. Marx and his family were therefore forced to move between Paris, Brussels and Cologne until Marx’s death in London in 1883. Marx’s three-volume critique of nineteenth-century political economy, a field of study involving the study of production and trade Capital,represents his primary contribution to socialist thought, locating socialism on a scientific, as opposed to a utopian foundation. Utopian socialism, with its wedding of worker-owned industries to abstract notions of human flourishing and freedom from labour in general, represented the hegemonic political viewpoint within many of the radical circles Marx and Friedrich Engels, his lifelong collaborator and friend, moved for much of their working lives. Marx held that the worker’s capacity to sell their labour power, represented the origin of all value under capitalism and investigated the real social relations which lay behind the appearances of class society. In this, it represents the primary means through which socialists today understand capitalism, to greater or lesser extents.

Onlythe first volume of Capital was completed and published in Marx’s lifetime, the second two were assembled by Engels from Marx’s notebooks. As Engels tells us on a number of occasions in a series of notes dotted throughout the work, this was a task undertaken with great difficulty, due to Marx’s almost indecipherable handwriting and peripatetic work practices. The first of these three volumes outlines the way in which the labourer creates value. This surplus value, which is referred to as being congealed within the commodity, is the primary output of the production process. It allows the commodity to be sold, as no-one would purchase a commodity without a value and it also allows the commodity to be sold for a profit, as a capitalist who does not realise a surplus on their initial investment, would not be a capitalist for very long. Rather than being free to sell this commodity as their own property however, the terms by which the labourer is employed by the capitalist, who owns the means of production (raw materials, machines, factory premises) the labourer is forced to surrender ownership of the commodity to the capitalist in exchange for wages, which are paid out of the profit realised by the capitalist by his selling this commodity on the market. 

Over the course of the first volume, Marx demonstrates the way in which capitalism develops, especially in tandem with the industrial revolution in England. The development of steam power, railways, communications technology serves to revolutionise social relations, away from the society which prevailed under feudalism throughout most of Europe, with a large peasantry growing food or tending livestock belonging to a lord, bishop or monarch. These peasants would generally grow their own subsistence on smallholdings. In its place, capitalism creates a society of waged labourers, who have no relationship to the land, but possess only their own capacity to sell their labour power for wages. In order to accelerate the rate at which the capitalist obtains their profits, these wage labourers are concentrated in one area, such as a large factory, which necessitates their living in urban areas, in generally squalid and cramped conditions. In order to reproduce their existences, however meagre, the exchange of their labour-power for wages becomes an objective necessity. This state of affairs in its aggregate represents the revolutionising of a mode of production, a movement from feudalism to bourgeois capitalism, so-called due to the class of shopkeepers, factory owners, privateers and money-capitalists, who now possess the default form of social power formerly represented by the hereditary monarch.

From a close reading of Capital as well as historical scholarship, we can see that Marx’s account of the transition from feudalism to capitalism is a model, in the sense that it provides an approximate account of a social totality which is conceptually useful but certainly could not be used in order to predict or describe every single economic or political development on the European continent from 1100 – 1850, nor would have Marx intended it that way. It is certainly useful for accounting for, say, what occurs in the English and French Revolutions, in which we do see an existing state bureaucracy enter into a protracted period of crisis as it finds its logistical and political coherence tested and ultimately overburdened by the increasing complexity of events taking place within its remit; international trade, governing colonies overseas, waging wars and acquiring territory. The French monarch was overthrown after all not by the explicit intention of this newly ascendant class who would have been horrified by many of its results, but through unpredicted consequences which arose from their desire for greater say in the state’s financial arrangements. The English restored their monarchy and a monarch remains England’s head of state today, at a time in which its capital city, is one of the world market’s primary focal points. Each of these situations are no less compatible with Marxian analysis, which above all else emphasises the precise ways in which the rule of capital tends towards both towards reproduction and expansion as well as crisis at once. In this sense, most attempts to identify Marx as a technological determinist or stageist thinker are blatant in their disingenuousness.

The second and third volumes of Capital describe the circulation of a commodity invested with surplus value on the world market and how the development of credit, money invested with the characteristics of a commodity, allows the capitalist to accelerate the rate at which industrial turnover occurs, shrinking the time period the capitalist has to await for the realisation of his commodity in the form of money in the direction of zero. Of course, this does not always occur. During periods which we refer to as crises, when there is insufficient demand for the enormous amount of goods being sloughed onto the market, the capitalist finds their commodities are suddenly not realising a profit. The failure of one industry to turnover its initial investment cascades outwards to create crises in other industries, which depend on demand from our first capitalist in order to realise their own profits. Soon we see unemployment rise as labourers are laid off and even less demand which would formally manifest itself in the labourers’ spending their wages, which they no longer have, exacerbates the situation further. At the crux of Marx’s account then, is what we refer to as the class relation, the way in which the circulation of capital reproduces this differential relationship between the capitalist and the labourer. The bourgeoisie, who own the factories, employ the labourers and claim the profits require the exploitation of the proletariat in order to reproduce themselves as a class. In this sense the preservation of the current order of things depends on the proletariat’s immiseration relative to their employer.

Lenin was born in Russia in 1870, a time in which feudal social relations remained more or less intact across large parts of the state with three quarters of the population surviving by growing food on the land according to agrarian practices which had remained more or less unchanged for centuries.4 In his work The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1898) Lenin identifies a growing proletariat in Russia’s growing cities, who, together with the poorer elements of the Russian peasantry may possess revolutionary potential. Exiled to Siberia for his role in polemicising on behalf of the Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class in St. Petersburg, Lenin co-founded the Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). On the occasion of this party’s second congress, Lenin split the party, taking the majority, or Bolsheviks with him, while Lenin’s former comrade in the Union of Struggle, Julius Martov, led the minority faction, the Mensheviks. At issue were differing perspectives on the nature of a forthcoming revolution in Russia, with the Mensheviks arguing for solidarity and co-operation with the more liberal and bourgeois parties so as to facilitate a bourgeois revolution. Before achieving socialism, so the argument went, Russia must proceed through the normative model of the industrialised European powers, overthrow the Russian monarch or Tsar and thereafter lead the industrial working class to take power. Lenin and his Bolsheviks argued for leading the working classes to proletarian revolution as soon as possible and that the party adequate to this task should be populated with a highly disciplined cadre of professional revolutionaries.5

Just as anti-Communists can identify this split as the root of Soviet tyranny, laying the foundations for the stifling of political dissent and imprisonments under Stalin, Marxist-Leninist literature can tend to over-emphasise Lenin’s conception of the party as the foundation of the Russian Revolution. It is important to remember that the Russian proletariat and peasantry had demonstrated its high level of sophistication and militancy on a number of occasions before the Bolsheviks took control of the state. Russian workers frequently went on strike, had engaged in street battles with the army and had even assembled its own grassroots representative bodies of government, called Soviets. While accounting for Lenin’s theory of the vanguard party then, we must also be attentive to the historically unprecedented conjuncture which arises here, in which a series of radical parties are bidding for the favour of the labouring masses and only one, in its commitment to withdrawing Russia from the first world war, suffices. Whether the Bolsheviks would have been as successful as they were had Alexander Kerensky, one of the leaders of the Russian Provisional Government established after the abdication of the Tsar, not applied himself so diligently to the task of discrediting himself in the eyes of the masses who wanted an end to the war, remains an open question. Despite these contingent circumstances, by virtue of the Bolsheviks’ role in creating the longest-lasting worker’s state and an occasional counterweight to global US hegemony during the latter half of the twentieth century, the establishment of the Soviet Union and the party which assisted in the execution of this task continues to exert disproportionate amounts of attention in contemporary Marxist strategy.

Critics of Marxist-Leninism, drawing from arguments of Leon Trotsky deny the coherence of the ideology altogether, dismissing it as a stultifying doctrine developed solely in order to assist Stalin’s taking control of the party and re-writing of the historical legacy of the Russian Revolution. If only because ‘Stalinism’ is a byword for transhistorical and ultimate evil in bourgeois historiography it is perhaps a necessity to draw a distinction here, especially as this facilitates more involved discussion on how it is that many aspects of Stalin’s leadership are noteworthy for their failures to abide by the tenets of any particular ideology, let alone Marxism or Leninism. Regardless of one’s point of view of Stalin and his leadership of the party, it is evidently coherent enough in context to be invoked by left formations to the present day, even if this is only as a means of identifying themselves as anti-Trotskyist and as believing that there are a significant number of socialist states in Asia and the former Soviet bloc today; this would certainly account for much of its functions in an Irish context.

Connolly Youth Movement (Ógra Uí Chonghaile)

The Connolly Youth Movement (CYM) is a Marxist-Leninist organisation re-founded in 2002, affiliated with but independent of the CPI. They have yet contested any elections, their efforts have been predominantly focused on a number of direct actions particularly around the occupation of housing in Cork and the disruption of public meetings held by Fine Gael. These actions, coupled with an aggressive and proselytising online presence, seems to have fuelled the parties’ fairly rapid growth over the past few years.

The Green Party  (An Comhaontas Glas)

As David Landy and Oisín McGarrity note in their Jacobin piece, the Irish Green Party are in many respects a unique political formation. While most political parties which arose in a European context in the seventies and eighties amid a growing public awareness of the ruinous effects capitalism exerted on the planet, the Greens were more technocratic in orientation, choosing to moderate their goals according to parliamentary arithmetic in seeking to eke out incremental reforms from the two main parties. The Irish media’s consistency in praising current leader Eamon Ryan’s logistical and political genius since taking the helm of the party since its electoral wipeout in the 2011 general election, is primarily due to a point of party procedure which requires a leadership election within six months of a general election. Ryan was therefore obligated to run for leadership of the party against deputy leader Catherine Martin; the latter of which had been identified as a potentially less compromising figure in government. It would seem far more likely that the Green’s success in the most recent general election is attributable to international media interest in promoting the statements of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who not only merits the distinction of exceeding Ryan from the point of view of public speaking skills but also seems capable of making a connection between moderating the effects of climate change and tackling global inequality, however woolly her framework on this point may be, to a degree that Ryan and most of his other party colleagues, have never manifested any significant interest in.

A revealing aspect of the Green’s rise to the esteemed position of coalition mudguard for the second time in just over a decade only to face yet another electoral rout in the near to medium term represents their failure to remain faithful to what should be a perfectly viable strategy in an electoral arrangement; hold a decisive balance of power and refuse to participate in government if red-line issues are not respected. That the most recent negotiations for coalition saw even the most tepid aspects of their own manifesto, including a commitment to an Occupied Territories Bill which had already passed in the last Dáil session, removed from the programme of government should tell us all we need to know about the substance of the Green Party’s principles. One of the most important tasks for any socialist agenda going forward is to stop taking the Greens, as well as their supposed dissident members seriously as a soft-left or pragmatic as opposed to a rightist formation. The project of the Just Transition Greens in rehabilitating the party’s credibility after this forthcoming and richly deserved electoral rout is well underway and socialists from other parties seem mystifyingly willing to assist them in this, in order to woo a mythic contingent of the Green Party’s youth wing to socialist politics. From even a cursory examination of the party’s history, we see that self-serving exculpations, hand-wringing and listening exercises are merely the most frequently adopted obfuscation of this party’s slavishness to capital. 

The Labour Party (Páirtí an Lucht Oibre)

The Labour Party have only ever entered government with the assistance of two main parties, overwhelmingly with Fine Gael as the senior partner, allowing the most reactionary party with the most unpopular and unrepresentative policies to make up sufficient numbers to govern seven times since 1948. The failure of the Labour Party to maintain their bullish opposition to the public spending cutbacks of the Fianna Fáil and Green Party coalition in office, not to speak of the arrogance of their most public figures when confronted with these pledges, nor the spectacle of Joan Burton committing perjury in order to secure the imprisonment of left-wing activists, is much of the reason why their showing was so poor in the two most recent general elections. One fervently hopes for the party’s imminent death so as to ensure their ambitious younger generation never make it into office.

People Before Profit (Pobal Roimh Bhrabús)

People Before Profit (PBP) is the largest party on the Irish left. It was founded in 2005 by an Irish faction of the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP) of Comrade Delta fame, with which it shares an international, the International Socialist Tendency (IST), founded in 1960 by Trotskyists influenced by the writings of Tony Cliff. 

It is important before getting into an account of PBP to draw a distinction between the beliefs and writings of Trotsky in comparison to those of Trotskyism. Trotsky was born to a middle-class farming family in Southern Ukraine in 1879. While attending university in Odessa he became involved in a radical reading groups, later to become a union which began to organise dock workers and craftsmen.6 Trotsky was arrested and exiled for these activities, but escaped to London to make contact with Lenin, who recommended him for a position on the editorial board of the RSDLP newspaper, Iskra, both in order for Lenin to gain control of the paper’s editorial board, but also in order to take advantage of Trotsky’s indisputable gifts for polemicising.7 Lenin nevertheless found himself opposing Trotsky on the occasion the RSDLP split; Trotsky described Lenin’s conception of the vanguard party as conspiratorial rather than a revolutionary vehicle inclining towards the working class.8 Like many Mensheviks who ultimately came to an anti-war position, Trotsky re-joined the Bolsheviks during the Revolution and was appointed foreign minister in Lenin’s first government, after turning down the head position in deference to Lenin.9 In the bloody civil war which followed the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, Trotsky played a crucial role in organising the Red Army in defence of the revolution, demonstrating his eminent capacities as a military tactician.10 In the months leading up to Lenin’s death, a struggle began within the party for control, particularly between two factions Lenin had posited as counterweights to one another during his leadership, Trotsky on one side, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Stalin on the other. Lenin’s attempts to remove Stalin from the post of general secretary on the basis of his chauvinistic tendencies came too late and Trotsky’s failure to consolidate his own position resulted in Stalin’s triumvirate coming to power.11 Trotsky formed an opposition within the party which called for more rapid industrialisation and action against a new class of bureaucrats he identified as increasingly powerful  both within the worker’s state as well as the party itself, which Stalin had opened up to a far broader membership than Lenin would ever have allowed. Stalin was also victorious on this front however, removing Trotsky from his senior position and going on to liquidate, imprison and otherwise repress perceived oppositionist blocs within the party in a series of escalating campaigns. Once Stalin had secured Trotsky’s deportation, Trotsky produced a series of works from which the majority of left critiques (though how left they are will of course depend on your point of view on much of the above) of the USSR from exile in Norway, France and Mexico. After a brief period in which Trotsky was championed by a western intelligentsia who saw in Trotskyism a democratic alternative to Stalinist repression, Trotsky was ultimately taken aback by how quickly international tendencies in Trotskyism rebounded into condemnation of revolutionary politics and the USSR in toto.12

Though Trotsky was robust in his defence of the worker’s state until his death at the hands of an assassin, interpreters of Trotskyism have tended to extend his criticisms far further. It is in the Cliffite tradition that we witness the notion of the USSR as more or less a state-capitalist formation from the twenties onwards. From an organisational perspective, these Trotskyist parties reached their high-point in Britain in the seventies, through an emphasis on establishing rank-and-file trade unions and opposition to American imperialism. Though I have yet to find a study of the Trotskyist party form that does not lay disproportionate amounts of emphasis on psychologistic, behavioural as opposed to political or historical factors, there is more than enough in the way of detail on the internet in the form of internal documents, blogs, discussions from which we may identify some common trends regarding the governance of these so-called ‘sects’ which belong to the various Trotskyist internationals. The use of fronts, umbrella formations which bridge the gap between quite disparate parties especially in the run-up to elections, the use of the phrase ‘democratic centralism’ in accounting for the way in which internal dissent is quashed are all common features. Ireland’s Trotskyite parties are unfortunately no exception to the rule and until very recently, all abided by a slate system under which the outgoing leadership will provide a slate of favoured candidates to take over. In order for a single change in the slates to be incorporated, a party member has to win a majority of the party votes over to a whole new slate and in this way continuity of leadership is assured. PBP recently voted to establish an individual candidate system.

PBP currently possesses 5 seats in Northern Ireland’s local government, 1 in Northern Ireland’s Assembly, 3 TD’s in the Dáil, 5 local councillors in Dublin, one in Sligo and one in Carlow. PBP are affiliated with Right2Change (not to be confused with Right to Change, a party Joan Collins left Independents4Change in order to found) which is perhaps the broadest left initiative, extending demands made in the course of the campaign against the privatisation of Ireland’s water supply towards a broader set of demands for the transformation of Irish society along social democratic lines. In addition to support from PBP, Right2Change has support from the CPI, Sinn Féin as well as a number of left-leaning independent politicians. The Socialist Party’s lack of support for Right2Change came accompanied with a denunciation of Sinn Féin’s involvement, which it identified as opportunistic. Trade Unions which currently support the initiative include Mandate, the Communication Workers’ Union and Unite, a British trade union.

Richard Boyd-Barrett and Joan Collins were elected to the Dáil as PBP TD’s under the United Left Alliance (ULA) in 2011 but Collins left PBP two years later in order to found United Left with Clare Daly, a party which does not seem to exist anymore. In 2015 PBP formed a pact with with the Socialist Party via the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA), now Solidarity, in order to contest elections on a joint basis, in such a way which would allow for continuing access to speaking rights in the Dáil, as well as state funding while each party retained their own autonomy. Since 2016, three councillors have left the party, one of whom, John Lyons, did so in order to found Independent Left, citing undemocratic party structures as the primary reason.

Due to the Irish media’s hostility towards any organisation further left than the Labour party, PBP’s approach to opposition hinges perhaps by necessity on providing alternative sources of information on social media, as well as strong media performances from Boyd-Barrett and Bríd Smith, but within the consistent responses to media events in an age of 24-hour news, social media cycles of outrage, it can be difficult to identify a single platform or overarching strategy within which these responses fit. Their economic policies as outlined in their website fit more within a left-Keynesianism and social democratic framework, a Robin Hood tax on financial speculation rather than ending financial speculation, boosting economic growth through nationalised industries etc, but makes no mention of socialism, socialisation or collectivisation. If the lessons of the Greek experience, wherein a new departure received an electoral mandate but was deposed by the European powers, the IMF and the bond markets, this is not clear. Whether the more Marxist orientations of the SWN will make itself felt in the years to come, remains to be seen.

Sinn Féin

It can be difficult to sort the disingenuousness from ignorance with regard to the free state media’s stance on Sinn Féin (SF), but since their presence in the Dáil has been on the rise since the early oughts, the media have been consistent in identifying them as i) not a normal political party, ii) receiving orders from a shadowy military council and iii) with serious questions to answer about their past. The Good Friday agreement has then become a floating signifier in contemporary Irish political discourse. It is a good thing, insofar as it has led to peace in the North, the Brits must respect it with regard to Brexit and it facilitates the lauding of the good and safely dead constitutional nationalists, but it is also bad as it has left no means through which the unconstitutional nationalists will have their relative commitments to provoism re-litigated in every television or radio studio south of the border until the end of time. The efforts of the free state to enforce political policing in the name of anti-Republicanism is a factor here, as well as class snobbery, given SF’s popularity among large parts of the working class but also operating here is a refusal to countenance the political re-alignment which has take place since 2008. Over the past four general elections, the three main parties have seen their vote share shrink from 79% to 47.5%. There are no figures in the state’s primary party of government which are capable of coyly endorsing (let alone facilitating) armed struggle against the British state and with the loss of this populist republicanism as well as FF’s old constituency in the trade unions, traded in for the favour of multinational capital and property developers, they give every appearance of being a moribund party running out of road; in media appearances opposite their Sinn Féin counterparts they are consistently outflanked.

Daniel Finn notes that Sinn Féin’s general election victory seems to have taken the party itself somewhat by surprise, based on many constituencies in which transfers could have gotten a second candidate elected. The result was greeted by some on the left with concerns that SF will now follow the trajectory of Corbynism, in which a media apparatus succeeded in dislodging an internationalist, social-democratic and by all accounts decent man from leadership of the British Labour Party, having convinced voters that he was a Stalinist, anti-Semite, agent of foreign subversion, take your pick. Anxieties such as these seem to overstate the degree of influence of the Irish media at the present moment. Anti-Republican sentiment has been its default setting for almost half a century and SF’s being on track to become the largest party in the state is after all a result of competent media performances from high-profile representatives such as Eoin Ó’Broin and Pearse Doherty. Their seeming commitment to promoting competent women representatives to leadership positions should not be overlooked either; much of the feminist groundswell roused in the two referenda on marriage equality and repeal would seem to have nowhere else to go.

In its current form, SF dates back to a split which took place in 1970, wherein the majority  of a party named Sinn Féin became Official Sinn Féin, the Officials or ‘the stickies’, on the basis of the adhesive strip which held their easter lilies in place, while the second organisation became Provisional Sinn Féin, the Provisionals or the Provos. Over the course of a few name changes throughout the years, the Officials became the Worker’s Party, while the Provos are the inheritors of Sinn Féin proper. The reasons for this split have to do with the two factions’ differing conceptions of the root of British rule in the six counties. On the one side, senior members within the party leadership had come to a ‘Marxian’ conception of the occupation, believing that the sectarianism existing between Catholic and Protestant communities were a product of capital’s tendency towards ‘divide and rule’ and the future of socialism in a united Ireland depended on the two communities coming to a common understanding of their plight under capitalism. The Provos preferred confronting British imperialism more directly and adopted a military solution against state and civilian targets.13 The Officials’ analysis convinced them the road to socialism in Ireland lay down the path of stimulating the development of an industrial proletariat via economic modernisation. It is in Eoghan Harris and Eamon Smullen’s The Irish Industrial Revolution that this was outlined, in which  qualified support for Ireland joining the EEC was given, as well as the promotion of economic growth via semi-state bodies.14

When the Provos and their electoral wing, Sinn Féin began to achieve far more electoral and popular support in the north than the Worker’s Party, in large part due to the violence exerted by British security forces on the nationalist population, the Officials began to make their presence within free state media increasingly felt, stacking audiences in news discussion programmes with Worker Party members without disclosing their affiliation, a technique which reached a peak during the intensification of the conflict during the Hunger Strikes in the eighties.15 Attempting to convince international left organisations that the Provos were not anti-imperialists but fascists, cheering on reprisals of the British state against Provos, opposing peace talks and identifying nationalist politics in any form up to and including those practiced by John Hume, the Worker’s Party begin to work their way towards an analysis which, for all intents and purposes regarded Protestants as the beleaguered minority within the orange state.

There is a tendency within this account to present the Officials as a non-sectarian road to socialism not taken by the two jurisdictions; if the Officials took a Marxian conception, it follows logically that the Provos were reactionary anti-Communists or too narrow-minded or Catholic to tolerate foreign or atheistic doctrines, when there were in fact Marxist tendencies within the leadership who were capable of grasping British imperialism from a far less wantonly contrarian point of view. This talking point which remains bafflingly resilient based on how prolific and well-placed many former stickies still are in the Irish media and establishment discourse and how well a number of their talking points align with anti-Republican politics in general.

The Worker’s Party did manage to achieve electoral success in the Dáil, but ultimately ended up as a feeder for Labour Party, from which its most high profile members were put out to pasture in or before the 2016 general election. The Worker’s Party now contends elections, running six candidates in the 2011 general election and five candidates in 2016. Neither of these attempts have met with any success.

Now that the brief attempts at left unity catalysed around opposition to austerity have more or less passed, SF’s electoral success came with little interrogation of those with far less in the way of actual commitments to left policies. I’m as happy to see RTÉ and the broader establishment discomfited with the rise of SF as anyone else, but the party’s recent engagements with IBEC and the Dublin Chamber of Commerce should not be mistaken for an attempt to win them over before the required reconstruction of the badly-needed welfare state. I, like most people my age, without international communism could be convinced to settle for a house and a permanent job, but I just do not think this social democratic settlement is on the cards.

Social Democrats (Daonlathaigh Shóisialta)

Since their launch in 2015 by three independent TD’s, Stephen Donnelly, Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall, the Social Democrats (SD) have steered between a Labourist (Shortall) and opportunist (Donnelly as well as Murphy, the former now minister for Health in a Fianna Fáil, Fianna Gael, Greens coalition, the latter an ex-Worker’s Party, ex-Democratic Left, ex-Labour contingent) modus operandi. Shortall left the Labour Party partly in protest against then-Fine Gael Minister for Health James Reilly, attempting to locate a primary care unit in his own constituency while Donnelly was elected on a wave of anti-Fianna Fáil sentiment in 2011. While Murphy’s record in opposition was often laudable, her attempt to use Dáil privilege to draw attention to Denis O’Brien’s financial affairs and relationship with utterly corrupt state tendering regime demonstrated how O’Brien’s finances represent a limit-point of the Irish state’s commitments to freedom of speech. The SD’s stated policies align with a framework for a Nordic-style social democracy, but their record of their councillors in local government will demonstrate how they mean to proceed far more adequately than policy proposals in opposition. While sitting on Dublin City Council, one of their ambitious younger crop of TD’s, Gary Gannon, voted in favour of selling the sale of public land at O’Devaney Gardens, formerly a social housing complex. to Bartra Capital, a property developer, in exchange for a commitment than 30% of their housing units will be sold as ‘social housing’. An additional 20% would be categorised at a maximum price of €310,000, almost seven times the median annual wage. These commitments which later turned out to be legally unenforceable. Gannon subsequently argued in favour of a €23 million scheme to construct a white water rafting attraction in Dublin’s docklands, because the transformation of the capital into some kind of adventure centre for Americans was evidently not underway quick enough from his point of view. Their path to coalition, compromise and rout has been well-trodden by public representatives far exceeding their individual talents.

The Socialist Party (An Páirtí Soisialta)

The Socialist Party emerged from a section within the Irish Labour Party, Militant Tendency, which attempted to take control of the organisation and render it a party for the advancement of socialism. Once they were expelled from the Labour Party, they founded Militant Labour and then the Socialist Party in 1996. Since 1997 Higgins was in and out of the Dáil in Dublin, as part of the ULA with Clare Daly in 2011. The Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG) were the first we leave the ULA in 2012, after Mick Wallace revealed that he had withheld VAT from the revenue commission as the SP and PBP refused to join the WUAG in calling for his resignation. WUAH charged the two parties with prioritising the construction of their own parties rather than the ULA. Clare Daly left the SP the same year, the SP saying she did so because of her support for Wallace, Daly responding that she preferred Wallace would pay the VAT but that she had not called for Wallace’s resignation in line with the SP not calling for his resignation. 

In the most recent election, the SP joined with PBP under their election umbrella of S-PBP and kept five TD’s, Paul Murphy, Bríd Smith, Richard Boyd-Barrett, Mick Barry and Gino Kenny, but lost Ruth Coppinger in Dublin West, due to pressure from Roderic O’Gorman and Paul Donnelly on her left. However, given Higgins’ own movements in and out of the constituency over the years, there is every possibility of her getting it back in the next election once O’Gorman and in all probability Jack Chambers, given that Fianna Fáil are currently polling single figures in Dublin, are deposed. 

The root of Paul Murphy’s departure from the SP and the origin of his new party, RISE requires some context from the broader British Trotskyist internationals. A 2019 split within the Committee for a Worker’s International (CWI) founded in 1974, resulted in two groups, the re-founded International Socialist Alternative, also initially founded in 1974, and the In Defence of a Working Class and Trotskyist CWI both of which claim to represent the continuity with the original CWI. Some financial irregularities are also circulating across all sides of the International Secretariat (IS), which take us far beyond relevance to Ireland. At the crux of the problem for the Irish SP is their being charged by General Secretary Peter Taafe of being opportunistic in their feminist organising, over-emphasising events featuring Coppinger, investing too much in their front organisation ROSA (Reproductive Rights against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity) and failing to take advantage of their involvement in the aforementioned referenda on marriage equality and repeal, identified by the Taafite faction as failing to agitate on a sufficiently socialist or economic basis, democratic ownership of industry, living wage for working-class women, state childcare, etc., according to a familiar criticism whereby identity politics has crowded out any role for class-based agitation. This criticism can in all probability be attributed to having one’s core leadership in London; one would have to be English to say something as divorced from Irish conditions. 

The location of the leadership in London reflects deeper problems for the SP, which relates to its own perspective on the north, identifying republicanism as being as reactionary as unionism. This analysis is inherited from longtime SP activist Peter Hadden and the many publications he has produced advancing this point of view, de-emphasising the presence of left-wing politics in republican struggle in the north, denying the involvement of British imperialism and the reactionary loyalist unions, effectively winding up in the WP analysis whereby Republicanism becomes the sectarian force. Whether this anti-Catholic perspective on the north of Ireland is in fact a product of the SP’s British affiliation, or a product of some resentment at the relative failure of socialist politics to take root in Ireland requires access to materials that we do not possess, but the fact remains, that if the SP were more upfront about their policy on the north being the re-partition of Ireland under socialism on the basis of a two nations theory, they would do severe damage to their capacity to get any votes. The reality is that in future attempts to carve out electoral space for itself, the SP will accommodate itself to the baseline commitment to republicanism of Irish society, however muted, whether openly or behind closed doors remains to be seen.

It should be noted that people who departed from the SP in the course of this turbulence in its international organisation have furthermore described its tendency to overburden younger activists, leading to burnout as well as a failure to sufficiently mobilise within the unions. There seems to have been some work done on this front, both the SP and PBP have been subject to this criticism over the years and both parties have begun to circulate internal surveys in order to identify the sectors in which their members are organised.

RISE aims to carve out ground for itself on a more popular front basis and with a leadership structure which is seemingly looser, working not exclusively with socialists in a Leninist party, but people with whom there may be common ground, including Sinn Féin and the Greens. It is currently producing the podcast Left Outside as well as the publication Rupture.


Many of the shortcomings with the above overview have already been mentioned. A lack of access to internal documents means there is little substantive to be said about one of the most crucial issues here, namely how well each party is set up to protect its younger membership from predatory behaviour; based on how often such affairs are litigated on social media much more obviously needs to be done in this regard across the board. The recommendation this essay makes for the parties to enter into the space vacated by the Irish trade unions in rank-and-file organising is not adopted as a means of point-scoring or ‘I would simply’; at various points many high-profile figures within the parties have more or less admitted to this themselves and an inclination more towards short-term recruitment drives, has been a criticism made against the leadership during some of their recent splits. I don’t think this will solve every problem, but it certainly seems to me to be worth a go.

  1. O’Connor, Emmet. A Labour History of Ireland 1824 – 2000.Dublin: University College Dublin, 2011. p. 247 – 249

2. Ibid. p. 131, 228

3. Sperber, Jonathan. Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014. p. 14 – 15

4. Smith, S.A., Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis 1890 – 1928. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. p. 24

5. Ibid. p. 44 – 45

6. Deutscher, Isaac, The Prophet: The Life of Leon Trotsky. London:Verso, 2015. p. 40

 7. Ibid. p. 71 – 73

 8. Ibid. p. 90 – 91

 9. Ibid. 335 – 337

 10. Smith, S.A., Russia in Revolution. p. 167

11.  Ibid. p. 283 – 284

12.  Ibid. p. 277

 13. Hanley, Brian & Scott Millar, The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Worker’s Party. London:Penguin, 2010. p. 145 – 147

 14. Ibid., p.337 – 339

 15. Ibid., p. 429 – 430

Further Reading

In addition to everything I’ve cited, I’m very indebted to the Cedar Lounge WordPress as well as the various discussions which have taken place in its comment sections over the years, Daniel Finn’s A Political History of the IRA, as well as his various articles in New Left Review and Jacobin, a lot of Lenin and Trotsky’s writings, David Harvey’s The Limits to Capital as well as the few people I had read this in advance and the suggestions they made.

Fiction: ‘Paddy Likes to Know’

I’ve a short story, entitled ‘Paddy Likes to Know’ which has found a home in a publication put out by the Marrowbone bookshop in Dublin.

I’m very happy about this. The story has gone through many different versions over, god, the five years that I’ve been trying to write in earnest

You can get the book itself here and if you’ve never been, Marrowbone also happens to be one of the best bookshops going in Dublin, and if you’re in a position to go there, you should



A sentiment analysis of Marxist polemics

So, first off I’ll disclaim a lot of what appears below. I’m doing this analysis primarily because it’s frivolous exercise and I’m interested in the results rather than because I think that they reveal anything substantive about Marxism or politics. I’ve read and enjoyed most of these texts and since my doctoral research to some degree orbits the Marxism and stylistics I thought I’d see what sort of emotive words turn up in Marxian polemics, because a lot of what draws us to these texts are their sarcasm, rudeness and nastiness, as long as these are enlisted in a legitimate spirit of criticism. Though also sometimes also when it isn’t.

I wasn’t systematic about my approach here, I’d be interested to see what someone who scraped New Left Review or turned up, instead I copy and pasted associatively through until I got a list which included works written by Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Marx, Trotsky and Thompson, about 25 texts in total. I know Thompson is sort of the odd one out here, but if you’ve read any of his polemics you’ll have some sense of why I’m including him, sadly Kolakowski’s ‘My Correct Views on Everything’ is not available in plain text format anywhere.

As I’ve already suggested I took a bit of a rough and ready approach, using text mining to remove numbers, punctuation, white space, turning everything into lower case, removing stopwords and stemming our words. We then turn it into tidydata to render it more easily manipulated. We are using a lexicon approach to sentiment analysis, meaning that we have a pre-annotated set of words which are all taken to signify or indicate a particular emotion, you don’t have to be a literary critic to know this has its problems and sentiment is something which depends on context, but, as I said, rough and ready is the order of the day here. I opted for ‘nrc’ because it returned the most number of words, broken down into categories such as ‘trust’, ‘positive’, ‘joy’, ‘anticipation’, ‘surprise’, ‘anger’, ‘positive’, ‘negative’, ‘fear’, ‘sadness’ and ‘disgust’.

I then grouped the mean frequency each of these authors use words belonging to each of these categories. This left us with each six authors and eleven values. I decided I wanted a principal components analysis of these stylistic profiles as they provide some of the most readily interpretable visualisations, and the result appears below

So as we see, the majority of language used by Marxists is in fact not polemic or emotive at all, but objective enough to not be read in any significant way by a sentiment analysis library. Trotsky and Engels are by far the outliers here in terms of the degree to which their works are composed of emotive terms and we can see there is a distinct difference between even these two, with Trotsky tending more towards the negative end of the spectrum, Engels being more aspirational.

What else could be going on here, why is Marx more like Engels than everyone else if as we might hypothesise, scientific or economic terminology underpins this divergence? I went back to our categories and pulled out the top five most frequently occurring words associated with each category. These appear below. ‘Trust’ incorporates words like nation, law, labor, fact and money, ‘positive’ (civil, actual, labor, capitalist, develop), ‘joy’ (labor, money, organ, present, content), ‘anticipation’ (time, labour, develop, dictatorship, organ) ‘surprise’ (labour, betray, money, present, good) ‘anger’ (strike, dictatorship, socialist, betray, money) ‘positive’, (civil, actual, labour, capitalist, develop) ‘negative’ (strike, dictatorship, communist, socialist, war) ‘fear’ (dictatorship, socialist, war, case, rule), ‘sadness’ (socialist, dictatorship, betray, case), and ‘disgust’ (dictatorship, socialist, betray, bureaucrat).

It will not have gone unnoticed that there are some pretty severe value judgements in place here, words like capitalism and development are read as unambiguously positive and words associated with socialism and communism are read as unambiguously negative, most of Trotsky’s ouevre which appears here addresses itself directly to issues associated with actually existing socialism, as well as bureaucracy, so this is probably why he scores so highly for all these disgusting things right-minded people never consider for very long. Marx and Engels probably score so highly for positive, more utopian values because of the degree to which these works are concerned with things as they actually are and the attempt to move beyond appearance, (‘actual’, ‘content’) not to mention how much more concerned their writings are in general with spelling out capitalism’s laws as opposed to speculating on the nature of some other mode of production.

It’s a shame that these categories are so categorical, I understand that they do serve a purpose, but a reading of ‘labour’ as unambiguously positive (hard labour? forced labour?) or money as signifying trust makes such macro analyses difficult to justify, on a micro level they are utterly laughable.

‘The Great Misunderstanding’: Alex Niven’s ‘New Model Island’ and post-Corbynism

Screenshot 2019-12-22 at 14.40.23.png

This post was co-authored with Jack Kavanagh

As the results of the British general election have made clear, there will be no Labour government in England. Despite inequality rising under the Tories, along with infant mortality, the increasing likelihood that the national health service will be privatised, there is seemingly no appetite for a Labour government in England. For the foreseeable future, there is no end in sight for the horrors the current regime are visiting upon asylum seekers and the poor. To make things worse, the notion that any future leader of the Labour party will have anything like Corbyn’s record on supporting anti-imperialist and anti-racist causes — support for Palestine, opposition to apartheid, statements in support of a United Ireland — is far from assured. But, the activists which have changed the direction of the Labour party have not gone anywhere, and in this sense, the future of Corbynism is yet to be written. Now is a time for stock-taking and adjustment of strategy but before the new common sense has taken shape, it is necessary to identify some deviations among some of Corbyn’s most well-placed cheerleaders, those who will be the theoretical backbone of whatever form struggle now assumes, who have again and again demonstrated their chauvinism and ignorance regarding Ireland and their own countries’ history. Alex Niven’s most recent article in Tribune ‘The Great Unravelling’ is by no means the only example, but nevertheless requires our scrutiny, for its length, prominence within the Corbynist publishing ecosystem and its uncritical reproduction of imperialist logic.

In his article Niven posits that the post-Brexit United Kingdom stands on the brink of breakup into a Four Nations type arrangement, with England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland existing as separate polities governed by separate and democratically elected parliaments with executive power in each jurisdiction. Much of Niven’s proposed reforms assume a forthcoming labour-left government marking the defeat of one-nation toryism, allowing the left to settle accounts with many of the issues regarding competing nationalisms within the UK as part of a broader redistribution of wealth within British society. Rather than framing this forthcoming breakup relative to the dynamism of indigenous regional nationalisms that would, presumably, be the motive force behind such a drive in each of these burgeoning nation states — through parties such as Plaid Cymru, Sinn Féin or the Scottish National Party — the details behind Niven’s perspective remains firmly Anglocentric. In Niven’s mind, these two objectives dovetail neatly, his account of the historical relationship between socialists in England and regional nationalisms reads as follows:

Many socialists will feel a degree of ambivalence about this nationalist narrative. On the one hand, the tradition of leftist sympathy with Scottish, Irish and Welsh national causes is long running and honourable. It has frequently centred on areas of genuine common cause (think of Irish socialist James Connolly’s heroic struggle against British Imperialism, or, more recently, the 2014 Yes campaign for Scottish independence, which indirectly prefigured the grassroots radicalism of Labour’s renewal under Jeremy Corbyn).

Niven experiences significant difficulties in his attempts to wed the objectives of English socialism or the British Labour party with those of these regional nationalisms, especially in Ireland. James Connolly might be a well-known or often cited figure for many British socialists, but many Irish socialists will regard the history of British socialism as one characterised not by mutual sympathy so much as murderous antagonism. It will be remembered that it was the British Labour Party who directed the British Army in some of their most brutal reprisals against Irish revolutionaries in Northern Ireland in the sixties and seventies; the fact that many of those involved in the civil rights movement identified their struggle as continuing one partially initiated by Connolly does not seem to have enhanced their standing to any significant extent with British socialists at the time. There is also limited evidence that English socialists were overly concerned about the plight of Ireland during the Irish War of Independence; the first Labour government in 1924 did nothing to help secure a better solution to the imposed border on the island of Ireland and left Northern Ireland under the control of an increasingly reactionary Unionist government. It would take a seriously distorted reading of the historical record to conclude that British socialism has ever regarded their imperialist interests as secondary to the wishes of the Irish when it has counted.

In the first section of his article Niven outlines how London is to be accommodated within his framework:

A good place to start is by remembering that the basic geo-economic pattern of the islands is not especially national in emphasis. Rather than thinking of a monarchical, conservative ‘United Kingdom’, or alternatively of a triad of small nations arrayed in opposition to quasi-imperial ‘England’, we would do well to grasp that the main structural feature of the archipelago — even allowing for partial Irish autonomy post 1922 — is the towering economic and cultural dominance of London and the south-east of England over all other areas

Niven’s posited solution to British inequality then, is to cognitively map the UK and Ireland by way of John Brannigan’s Archipelagic Modernism (2014), positing an alternative and imaginary geography, as a utopian repudiation of the actually-existing, imposed borders and their attendant histories, in favour of London’s south-easterly megalopolis and an archipelagic remainder. As Nevin is not a historian, it would be unfair to expect a thorough engagement with the historiography of Anglo-Irish relations but even a minimal engagement with this literature would indicate that tribal concerns were always at the forefront of these islands’ shared histories. The Norman Invasion created a new nobility which ended the hegemony of the previously regnant Saxon ruling class. The Hundred Years War in part concerned English aspirations to the French throne, a distinctly nationalistic and proto-imperialist enterprise. Taken together with the War of the Roses, we have three examples of events which were to prove formative for the contemporary British state within which national differences were highly significant factors. This third example is particularly important as both factions were based outside of London and the South East, undermining Nevin’s investment in deep and abiding continuities, wherein London, as a centre of capital accumulation and industry, is primarily responsible for contemporary England’s class-based inequality. That London has accumulated significant amounts of political and financial power since the Industrial Revolution is not in dispute, what Niven’s analysis overlooks is how much of this accumulation has been by dispossession or expropriation of surrounding territories and how much of this cultural dominance has been an outgrowth of this plunder and accompanying slaughter. The notion that England at large is somehow subject to a core-periphery dynamic in a similar way that actually colonised nations are is ridiculous, especially when within living memory police units have engaged in counter-insurgency techniques against ‘British’ subjects in Wales and Northern Ireland. There is no recent evidence as far as we are aware, of London-based militias and paramilitary units shooting dissenters in York, Teeside or Newcastle; the dynamics in operation here are clearly very different and have more to do with the recent effects of globalisation, de-industrialisation and neo-liberal economics. All of these should be criticised, but not on the assumption that they culminate in the same separatist dynamics which are present in Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland. The colonial context is a difference that makes a difference. One which Niven seems wholly ignorant of.

It is one of the more baffling features of Niven’s analysis that he envisions the transition from an ‘outmoded Four Nations’ model to a two nations model as frictionless. We would venture to suggest that from an Irish perspective, the less power London has over the Irish economy, the better. Niven could, if he were so inclined, have identified some of the contradictions surrounding the economic basis of the Irish Republic — a polity nominally committed to Republican values but characterised from independence by agrarian state-based industry, followed by a modernising period characterised the opening up of the state to Foreign Direct Investment, leaving us now subject to a significant extent to the demands of the bond markets and an inscrutable network of democratically unaccountable private shareholders. This is a shame, as such an account might provide some form of roadmap for non-allied blocs of newly independent states coming together in order to develop some fiscal alternative to Anglo-American hegemony, but his reference to Irish independence post-1922 as ‘partial’ is the closest he gets to such an analysis, which is either an awkward reference to partition, an awkward reference to the capture of nation states by financial capital, or ignorance that Ireland is in fact a separate jurisdiction. Niven writes:

While the London-centric unionist establishment propounds the difference-denying fiction of ‘Britishness’, and nationalists counter this by avowing various postmodern dreams of nationhood (from Scottish Independence to more dubious calls to reawaken ‘English identity’), socialist energies would be far better directed at envisioning a completely new civic architecture, one that would emphatically shift the balance of power away from the hypertrophied south-east corner of the islands.

To push all the ideas relating to an independent state into a box labelled ‘post-modernism’ is juvenile and profoundly ignorant. It does an extensive disservice to the history and actually-existing stances of the various parties who argue to varying extents for independence. None of these parliamentary vehicles are in any sense beyond criticism, but to dismiss them as freewheeling semiotic constructs or indeed, to subtly conflate them with contemporary manifestations of British nationalism, without even going to the trouble of providing some sense of their history, the imperatives attached to their emergence within their respective environments, is to wrap oneself in the butcher’s apron, albeit from a spurious ‘left’ position.

Nevin’s solution amounts to the creation of a second urban ‘centre of gravity’ in order to undermine London and the home counties’ predominance. Within this framework, Ireland and the United Kingdom would be re-divided, with jurisdictions of Ireland and the UK becoming a fringe of Northern England, the North-West Triangle, while the South-East Corner would consist of London and the home counties. This culminates in the creation of two new states; that this would necessitate the abrogation of Irish sovereignty goes unmentioned. Niven’s disclaiming this concept as science-fictional also does little to change the fact that were this to be implemented that it would represent one of the most blatantly neo-imperial concepts to emerge from the UK since the end of the British Empire. An English-dominated ‘North-West Triangle’ would merely serve to re-create the same structural imbalances which are now bringing about the break-up of the UK in the first place, such as a gross imbalance between the nationalities, poor infrastructure in the periphery and the overruling of an active nationalism within Ireland and Scotland, both of which would be implacably opposed to this new construct. Niven’s piece also contains no serious attempt to reckon with the existence of the unionist population of Northern Ireland, who view themselves as British, and celebrate their shared history as descendants of an imperialist project to subjugate the indigenous population and expropriate their wealth. How are they to be accommodated within this framework? The prioritisation of English inequality over and above nationalist demands is indicative of Niven’s lack of understanding of English imperialism. Why should Scotland, Wales and Ireland be responsible for English inequality? How would preventing the break-up of the UK by forming new nation states help the plight of the working class, other than if this border was to be an apparatus designed to facilitate further expropriation and subjugation? As he himself notes, due to how populations would be divided by this border, this would be an English-led and dominated union, by default. Leaving aside the myriad of geographic and physical complications to such as questions as to where the border would be or the likelihood of this triggering some kind of armed conflict in certain areas, the fatal assumption here is that the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign, constitutional state would be forced into a ill-fitting coalition of nations and regions willingly. This fundamental lack of awareness that permeates this piece is one of the worst examples of well-meaning Corbyn supporters attempting to devise a third way, when one is not possible, necessary or required. Nevin’s uncritical reproduction of imperialist logic is often striking for the matter-of-fact tone in which it is expressed:

a historically inclined, nostalgic and brute nationalist movement towards independence seems to me far less preferable than a model which attempts to break the back of Westminster Anglocentrism more enduringly, by nurturing the potential of the northern and western parts of the islands to form some new manner of alliance, in which regional-national units work together to create an alternative power base to the south-east.

In concluding, we might consider Niven’s introductory paragraph once again, where we locate his mission statement to devise a ‘third way’ between nationalism and unionism:

Without dismissing the claims of small-nation independence completely, and without succumbing to forms of Anglo-British unionism that will probably always tend towards reaction and imperialism, might there be other, more daring ways of conceptualising the so-called British Isles, beyond resuscitating the imagined national communities of the past?

In simple terms, the answer to this is no. There is no magic solution to centuries of uneven imperium. We might begin with granting nation states the right and the choice to determine their own destinies, even if these are not what residents of the former colonial state wishes. For many in England the past three years have been an eye-opening experience, as they begin to realise that Ireland is not willing to accept English threats in order to save them from themselves.

It is alternately enraging and depressing to see Corbyn supporters celebrate or share this work on its publication in Tribune, or in the form of a book by Repeater essentially move through the same sequence of behaviours, albeit in a hypothetical format. The only advice one can give to these people is to spend more time outside of England and realise that the ‘other’ nations should be allowed to determine their separate futures, without interference and to seriously countenance the notion that Corbynism, whatever form it ultimately takes, might do best by Ireland by leaving it alone.

This postscript was very much influenced by conversations with a couple of people who know who they are and will receive they due credit and citation if they want it

POSTSCRIPT: Getting a handle on Niven’s comprehension of the north of England may require relation back to the intellectual lineage in which he consistently locates himself throughout his book New Model Island, the work of Mark Fisher and those of the labour left who have invoked his name in their cultural diagnoses of the past few years. Fisher’s grasp of the north is best accounted for by looking to his reckoning with The Fall, not to mention Burial, the left-leaning and often quite experimental public-service broadcasting of the seventies in Ghosts of my Life. What comes through here is an attempt to formulate a late proletarian modernism, the emphasis is on the haute-melancholia of the outsider, shoring up resources of hope, holding out the possibility for some future in which their component parts or structures of feeling may prove galvanising against the wreckage produced by the Thatcherite consensus. Likewise Owen Hatherley, we see Pulp’s coded class warfare, social democratic municipal modernism and voices from Mass Observation as against the cultural and material legacies of new Labour: PFI schemes, Britpop, austerity nostalgia. Finally, Joe Kennedy’s emphasis on Italian immigrants bringing a rich history of cultural diversity to the Welsh vallies, readings of the crowd in postwar British literature, the popular modernism of community-based football clubs against the imagining of the British working class as white white van men painting their faces with the St. George’s cross.

These are the vaguest of sketches, and not definitive, but the governing concept and most crucially, the fatal flaw, remains the same. When the confluence of forces, social composition have changed, things around you have moved on and you continue to treat the masses from behind the adopted mediation of ‘culture’, you will make basic errors in your analyses. The potency of Fisher’s hypothesis was its point in time, the there is no alternative to cuts to public spending, privatisation of public services; when the Liberal Democrats had gotten into government and passed student fees perhaps this defeatism was plausible. Perhaps Fisher’s work was required to roll that particular stone up that particular hill, perhaps history overtook him, but I think it’s fair to say that from where we stand now, if administrated austerity and centre-left parties selling out the least socially mobile sections of their voting blocs are all that the future holds we may count ourselves lucky. The utopian and anti-realist position is now definitively in the hands of the right; the world is theirs to shape, for the moment.

The problem with Fisher and the approach his work has given rise to is the problem that besets all utopian thought; it does not present a viable strategy. If the disappearance of the red wall is anything to go by, it seems as though these utopian schemas erected on the north and by extension the working class were not rooted in reality and if they do not serve a strategic import, if it doesn’t get us closer to solving the problem than we were before, we should be asking ourselves the question as to what good are they, really? This putting of the cart before the horse has led to the Labour party left allowing John Harris to win the argument. The necessity and focus should now be on the definitive abandonment of the long march through the institutions, the end of the Corbynism as an offshoot of academia. Return to the places you present yourself as a representative of and begin to organise. if you absolutely must construct theories, leave the resources of hope and choose the resources of action adequate to the moment. How do you organise in a service economy? What have tenants’ unions achieved? What are your rights when you’ve been arrested and when they’re taken from you, what then? These are the questions which need answering and also the question I have seen no left outlet or publisher take on in any significant way and this needs to change.

How modernist are the contemporary modernists?

I initially began my doctorate with an investigation into a literary trend which was at that stage was already beginning to wind down, in favour of the resurgence of a critical theory inflected magical realism, which I would probably argue has now achieved hegemonic status. In and around 2014, five or so Irish and British writers, as well as their critics, were using the word ‘modernism’ to talk about their more recent work, and I’m thinking here in particular of Will Self, Eimear McBride, Anne Enright and Sara Baume. I was interested in investigating whether or not these trends could be detectable on a quantitative level and what words were indicative of the more obvious points of comparison, twentieth century modernism as compared to twenty-first century modernism, as well as the more implicit co-ordinates, such as twentieth-century realism or twenty-first century realism. For various reasons, primarily institutional, my area of study has changed quite significantly, but I feel I would be remiss if I did not in some respect answer the question I began with, now that I am actually equipped to do so from a logistical point of view. The following few paragraphs talk about the adopted method, so if you’re a stranger to some of this stuff or, like me a few years ago, you’re broadly ignorant of statistical and regression methods, feel free to skip to the results section.


The first problem which confronts us in a study such as this is the definition of a baseline of modernist style, against which we can locate our contemporary modernists. Once we’ve done that, we can identify the degree to which any given text deviates from this ‘norm’. The most established means of quantifying the literary style of any given text, is to perform distance clustering on the normalised relative frequencies of a text, i.e., the percentage a particular word commands in the text’s overal length converted into z-scores. Transforming numbers into z-scores involves altering them such that their mean is 0, the standard deviation is 1, and each number basically indicates the number of standard deviations they reside from this mean. Peforming distance clustering on numerical vectors which represent novels is called the ‘Delta’ method and I talk a bit more about it and how well it works here. Below is an image of a frequency table which gives some indication of how these frequencies look.


On the far left we see author, title and date of publication and in each of the cells we see the relative frequency for seven of the most frequent words in our corpus. As we would expect, these are words like ‘the’, ‘and’, ‘to’, etc. If we look at the figure in the top left, we see that the word ‘the’ appears 3.65 times in Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey, whereas it appears 4.7 times in Louisa May Alcott’s A Modern Cinderella. As far as the word ‘the’ goes, then, A Modern Cinderella exists at a distance of 1.05 from Agnes Grey (4.7–3.65 = 1.05). Now imagine that this process happens for every word (5000) between every novel in the corpus (1173), divided by the total number of words we extracted (again, 5000). This is what is at the basis of Delta distance.

We have a relatively even spread of nineteenth century fiction (568) versus twentieth century fiction (605). There’s also one eighteenth century text, written by Maria Edgeworth, which I labelled as nineteenth. At an early stage I anticipated trying to divide these two categories into modernist, anti-modernist and proto-modernist as opposed to classical realist versus continuity realism, but given the current state of the discourse, wherein what was revanchist victorianism is now modernism etc., I decided not to, and to adopt time as a less contentious variable instead. Effectively then we are tracing the stylistic change from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. This is a slight adjustment to the goal posts in terms of the aim of this study and reflects the assumption that what we trace when we analyse the change from the nineteenth to the twentieth century will organically correspond to a modernist signal. As far as the actual contents of the corpus goes, the contents in the image above are symptomatic, I’ve gone for standard bearers of nineteenth century and twentieth century literature, whoever you can name off the top of your head I probably have in there, Woolf, Dickens, Lewis, Barnes, Joyce, Conrad, Mansfield, Stein, Wells, Kipling etc. etc. It is quite skewed towards canonical texts, but in my defense, it’s almost impossible to find digital copies of texts by non-canonical authors.

Since we are interested in the words which come into prominence from one century to the text, one potential method which were considered are t-tests, which are used in order to assess whether or not the mean difference between two numerical vectors are significant. We could loop t-tests along our data, identifying whether from the twentieth century to the nineteenth century the words ‘the’, ‘we’, ‘of’, ‘days’ or ‘thought’ increase in their relative frequencies. We would then identify the words which do manifest a significant change, whether this is an increase or a decrease. However, there are complicating factors here, not least that we don’t have an equal number of samples from the nineteenth century, which is something that t-tests would require. If we are not interested in randomly sampling the twentieth century, we would have to omit them. Large numbers of t-tests also give us back large numbers of false positives, even with a false detection algorithm applied to our results after the fact.

Regression then, seemed to provide the best chance of a result, given that we are dealing with what is effectively an either/or problem; was this novel written in a style more indicative of century a or century b? Regression is a method for investigating the relationship which exists between one variable and another variable. We might, for example, wish to investigate the relationship which exists between the age and the height of fifty people. We plot the results of our data, then we place a regression line through the data. There is a very slight upward slope here, which would seem to indicate that there is a relationship between how old you are and how tall you are.


This is a stupid example of course, but it gives an indication of what regression is supposed to do, namely, investigate the relationship between two variables and fit a line or model which offers the most robust explanation. If you look at how the data points scatter along the regression line, we can see that it makes a decent stab at predicting how 30–45% of the data falls out. It’s really wide of the mark at predicting that there is a 35 year-old in our dataset who is 3 feet tall, there is quite a significant distance there between the predicted value (4′ 10) and the actual observed value. This is called a residual. When all the residuals are summed and squared, they are referred to as the sum of the squared residuals and it is the aim of regression of this type to minimise the value of this figure as much as possible by coming as close as we possibly can to hitting as many of the observed values.

However, before throwing our data into a linear regression, we need to ask ourselves if this really suits the problem. As we can see, age is any number between 18 and 60, making it continuous, whereas our dependent variable is categorical, i.e. it is either ‘nineteenth’ or ‘twentieth’ century. This is an either/or problem, the answer is a probability between zero and one. Logistic regression is therefore the best means of approaching this problem. However again, complications remain. We have a large number of variables here (relative frequencies of about 5000 words) and we don’t know which ones are important and which ones are not. It’s relatively straightforward to regress for a categorical outcome when you have a relatively small sample of variables, but here we have a lot, all of which might be potentially interesting. If we throw thousands and thousands of variables into our logistic regression though, we will get what is referred to as an overfit model. Rather than creating a model which can capture and identify borderline cases, the corpus will separate absolutely into nineteenth and twentieth century, which sounds like it would be a good thing, but would actually result in an overly rigid template unfit to make actual judgements. Therefore we attenuate the influence of particular variables, reducing their value across the board to the same extent; this is called regularisation and the amount by which we regularise each variable is arrived at, again, by minimising the sum of the squared residuals and is embodied in the value attached to our lambda value.


A lot of what I’ve been describing in the previous pararaph functions, for the most part, in the backend of R, most statistical libraries that carry out regularised regressions contain standard implementations. So, this is the type that we use, a cross-validated model obtained from glmnet, such that each variable is made regular according to what minimises our residuals. We can then extract the most significant predictors, the words which are best suited to identifying a text written in the nineteenth century as opposed to the twentieth. Initially we tried to use the predict() function, which would provide us with a figure between zero and one which would give us the certainty of a particular judgement. We would then correlate this vector of numbers with our word frequencies and identify which words are most closely correlated with relative certainty. Unfortunately in this instance there were no high effect sizes, so we looked at our co-efficients given optimal lambda; lambda which reduces the sum of the squared errors. Now, on some level we should be wary of these co-efficients, these are selected almost at random in order to explain the most data variation, but they’re better than nothing and furthermore interesting from the perpspective of content.

It is interesting to note first of all, just how parsimonious this model is; cv.glmnet() manages to reduce us down to just 138 words as opposed to the 5000 we present to the model. Secondly, it is interesting to note that there are far more predictors for the nineteenth century (82) as opposed to the twentieth (56). This suggests that the nineteenth century possesses a far more coherent style, whereas the twentieth century is obviously pulling in too many heterogenous directions to be summarised to the same extent. Before we talk about them in detail, in roughly descending order of importance, I’ll readily admit that yes, how we interpret these can vary, some nouns are verbs, some verbs are nouns, some are both and separating one for the other has everything to do with context, there are broad generalisations here on offer, but this seems to me to be both the fundamental hazard as well as the asset of CLS in general.

The nineteenth century vocabulary breaks down into a few different categories, the first are words to do with emotions, the overwhelming majority of which seem to be on the negative end, between ‘vexation’ , ‘reproach’, ‘despair’ ‘dismal’, ‘misfortune’, ‘sorrow’, ‘spite’ and ‘tears’, only ‘delight’ represents an exception to this rule.

Present-tense verbs, the sort of things most characters in these novels find themselves doing are difficult to synthesise but all seem within the realm of what people in novels spend most of their time doing: ‘entering’, ‘declaring’, ‘noticing’, ‘pointing’, ‘throwing’. We also have the infinitives of ‘resist’, ‘tread’, ‘wish’, ‘allow’, ‘deceive’, ‘fetch’, ‘comprehend’ , ‘give’, ‘take’, ‘lend’ and ‘induce’, all of which seem to suggest the general traffic of social interaction and interchange.

We have some past tense verbs including ‘proposed’, ‘treated’, ‘obtained’, ‘seated’, ‘ascended’, ‘fastened’, ‘obliged’, ‘expressed’, ‘consented’, ‘fancied’, ‘quitted’, ‘cried’, ‘accompanied’, ‘returned’, ‘took’, ‘darted’, ‘promised’ and ‘taken’. We also have ‘retired’, which I found very satisfying, being as it is within the realm of the sorts of verbs Joyce uses in his parodies of nineteenth century writing.

The nouns on offer in nineteenth century writing seem to vary slightly, breaking down into vague references to the immediate environment, with words such as ‘heap’, ‘circumstances’, ‘particulars’, ‘companion(s)’, as well as more clear references to social contracts and milieu ‘occupation’, ‘character’, ‘account’, ‘intellect’, ‘deal’, ‘manner’, ‘fortune’, ‘heir’, ‘prospects’ , ‘promises’ and ‘present.’ The adjectives break down into good: ‘earnest’, ‘good-natured’ and ‘respectable’ against bad: ‘low’. We also see a few more abstract or idealistic nouns associated with otherworldly values such as ‘temptation’.

Nouns to the fore in the twentieth century are far more concrete and seem to foreground a commodity economy, with the nouns less significant and opening up less to broader values with ‘moustache’, ‘electric’, ‘apple’, ‘hat’, ‘chimney’ and ‘wire’. More abstract tendencies are manifested in words like ‘jesus’, ‘adventure’, ‘problem’, ‘response’, ‘comment’, ‘personality’ and ‘humour’ and ‘vision’.

Present-tense verbs drop off quite significantly, and those that remain are far less active in any sense, we get far less moving around in an environment and much more in the way of ‘wearing’ and ‘slipping’. ‘Whistle’ also appears. Past tense verbs like ‘picked’, ‘faced’, ‘slipped’, ‘smiled’, ‘sighed’, ‘protested’, ‘knew’, ‘realised’, all emphasise social interchange, but also seem to point more towards a bit more of an inward focalisation.

Colloquial words like ‘anyhow’, ‘weren’t’ and ‘aren’t’ seem to be predictors here, as well as adjectives which are far more toned down aside from ‘amazing’, which is the exception, we have ‘normal’, ‘decent’, ‘grey’, ‘responsible’, ‘main’, ‘quality’ and ‘different’.

Finally, we have words which make overt references to the passing of time, such as ‘dusk’, ‘later’, ‘latest’ ‘afternoon’ and ‘spring’.

Grouping all these findings impressionistically, it would seem as though twentieth century literature can be defined i) by its attenuated affect, ii) more of an interior disposition iii) a movement away from physical action, iv) a concurrent movement away from the material facts of social relations in toto in favour of their symptoms in the form of a commodities, v) the introduction of colloquial language.

Some of these trends in macro detail on the barplot below:


We then used this model trained in order to prise nineteenth and twentieth century literature apart on the contemporary modernists, the complete works of Anne Enright, Eimear McBride, Will Self and Sara Baume (at time of writing) were presented to the model. Now, some of you may have noticed the problem with this approach. We have trained the model to differentiate nineteenth century fiction from twentieth, and therefore it’s hardly well set up to differentiate twenty-first century fiction influenced by modernism from twenty-first century fiction not influenced by modernism. It’s a fair point, and if I were writing my thesis on this subject, training a proper model would be what I was doing here. However, I’m not committing as much of a statistical no-no as might at first be thought. For instance, a key part of my analysis of this modernist resurgence has to do with its status as a revanchist, rather than a revolutionary, modernism. And I do mean this more particularly for Will Self and some of Eimear McBride’s most well-placed, and misinformed, critics, these are the only ones truly on record as saying ‘this is modernism’ ad nauseum. Take Self’s observation that post-modernism offers no classicism from which a truly novel aesthetic can be formulated. This is not an aesthetic which emerges concurrently with a period of social and political revolution which affords some degree of insight into the newly emergent bourgeois individual in the proletarianised urban environment, rather it attempts to scoop up the literary prestige associated with modernist literature, understood as Woolf, Joyce and one or two others, the hegemonic criterion by which literature departments, publishers and literary monthlies assess ‘worth’ and sell it back to you wholesale against YA, Netflix or whatever else it is you have to set yourself against in order to be a serious reader.

I expected that the passage of time would fill the gap and that all these novels would be judged as modernist, but in fact the opposite happened; only Anne Enright’s novel What Are You Like? came back as such. Trying to find out why this was the case, we used glmnet’s predict() function, which gives us a figure between 0 and 1 indicating the level of certainty one way or the other. We then correlated this figure with all the word frequencies we have, in order to identify where this certainty that all the contemporary modernists, are in fact quite traditional in their approach, originates.

Words which were decisive in identifying these texts as nineteenth century in the overwhelming majority of cases include their use of past tense verbs such as ‘walked’, ‘opened’, ‘married’, ‘tried’, ‘liked’, ‘talked’, ‘watched’, ‘decided’, ‘kissed’, ‘lifted’, ‘pushed’, ‘stayed’, ‘slept’, ‘slipped’, ‘ate’, ‘wiped’ and ‘spoiled’.

Adjectives like ‘easy’, ‘middle’, ‘clever’, ‘ordinary’, ‘foolish’, ‘fierce’, ‘sober’, and ‘irish’, pronouns such as ‘she’ and ‘herself’ and finally, nouns like ‘side’, ‘dress’, ‘floor’, ‘sorrow’, ‘blame’, ‘cloth’, ‘veil’, ‘rail’ and ‘treasure’.

In conclusion then, we might say that contemporary modernism in fact fails to embody modernism’s stylistic disposition in a key number of ways and in fact harkens back to a pre-modernist stylistic tendency in its investment in action verbs in the past tense. The relative abscence of modern also technology seems to be a feature here too and a more pronounced affective turn also seems to undermine these novels in their aspiration, real or formulated, towards a modernist aesthetic. It is finally interesting to reflect a bit on What Are You Like?, within Enright’s career it reflects a crux from the magical realism of her short stories and The Wig my Father Wore more towards quite an affectless reflection on identity and psychology. I’ll update this post with more examples once I have a copy of the book to hand, for the moment you’ll just have to trust me on that. Interesting to note as well, that towards the end of the novel the main characters’ mother delivers a soliloquoy from hell in a way quite reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, an encouraging parallel within a study of this kind.

Daniel Finn: “One Man’s Terrorist” – Meeting Maynooth, 12 November 2019

“Voices of 1968 around the world: a reading”: next Tuesday 22nd @ 12, Maynooth.

The Cedar Lounge Revolution

Mentioned in comments during the week.

“Voices of 1968 around the world: a reading”: next Tuesday 22nd @ 12, Maynooth.

The radical movements of the “long 1968” shook the postwar order from Prague to Paris, Derry to Mexico City, Rome to San Francisco. “Voices of 1968” (Pluto) lets those movements speak in their own words – posters, flyers, graffiti, manifestos, songs, underground texts and more.

More about the book at

Co-editor Dr Laurence Cox will be reading from some of the texts in the book with a slideshow in the background – revolutions produce some cracking writers, speakers and graphic artists!

Iontas seminar room (2.31, top floor), Maynooth University (north end, beside the “water feature”).

View original post