Solidarity, Revolutionary History and Sean Matgamna

The following letter was sent to Solidarity, the paper of the Alliance for Workers Liberty, in response to an article in it criticising this journal. John McIlroy requested that it be published in full or not at all. It was, however, published in a truncated version.

Dear Editor

I am sorry to discover John O’Mahony, writing under the pseudonym Sean Matgamna, inventing fairy tales about a difference I had with him eight years ago. And proceeding to reprint some awful tosh about Revolutionary Historyand other journals (Solidarity, 31 March 2005). Let me deal first with his tittle-tattle about myself.

In John’s fantasy I wrote a review of Revolutionary Historywhich in his words ‘devoted much of its space to praising an article by one… John McIlroy’. Such a ‘silly article’, consisting substantially of self-advertisement, protected by a pseudonym, is, John avers, at the mercy of all those through whose hands it passes. Perhaps through malice, humour or sub-conscious processes, he explains, the pseudonym was removed. The incident proved ‘politically all defining’. I ‘turned hostile’ to the AWL, thus demonstrating my ‘apolitical and laughably unserious mores’.

This is a fabrication from start to finish. The article can be consulted by those who still believe socialists should have some regard for the truth in Workers Liberty, October 1996. It consisted of eight densely-printed columns approaching 2000 words in total and running over two pages. The first two columns were taken up by a brief description of the seven articles in the current issue of Revolutionary History. Two sentences, the first innocuous, outlined my own contribution. The second sentence read: ‘This detailed study goes beyond its explicit subject matter to deepen our understanding of the problems facing theTrotskyists as war turned to peace and sheds new light on the activities of the RCP.’

Perhaps immodest. Perhaps a straightforward characterisation of the piece. Beyond argument one sentence. One sentence of 33 words in an article of almost 2000 words. I would ask all fair-minded readers to consider again O’Mahony’s statement that the article devoted much of its space to praising an article by one… John McIlroy. And whether the fact that an article of around 2000 words contained this single sentence would exercise persons unknown sufficiently to remove the author’s pseudonym.

I would also ask readers to ponder precisely why John indulges in this falsification. If he can recall that the article was published in ‘late 1996’, why can’t he remember what was in it? Is he just too bone idle to read it again? Or does he consciously or subconsciously invent, rearranging uncomfortable reality to meet his self-interested purposes? You tell me. Suffice it to say that all of us should check carefully for truth and accuracy when we read his prolific and self-regarding recollections of past events and former comrades in Solidarity.

But if silly self-praise took up only one sentence, readers may inquire as to what exactly ‘much’ of the article was about? What O’Mahony fails to tell his readers is that ‘much’ of the article was taken up by… criticism of Revolutionary Historyand even of its editor, the late Al Richardson! Here we have a clue to the malice which led to the removal of the pseudonym from an article for which John, no matter how much he attempts to disperse responsibility, was personally responsible.

In 1996, John had a long-standing animustowards Al Richardson and Revolutionary History. I often listened to him grinding his axe on this topic. I wrote numerous articles under different pseudonyms for Socialist Organiserand some for Workers Liberty. This article critical of Revolutionary History constituted the solitary case in which the pseudonym was removed. Both Al and I — I had discussed my criticisms with him before sending the article to John — found it plausible to attribute events to John alone and to his desire to cause problems between us and to make mischief for Revolutionary History. That, not silly self-praise, was what it was all about.

Nor is John’s statements that the incident proved ‘politically all defining’, that I turned ‘hostile to us’, hold water. I had had no political agreement with the group since around 1986. I had collaborated, as he says, ‘in fits and starts’ with John in the 1990s around unsuccessful attempts to establish a broad left journal and contributed the occasional article on a freelance basis. Obviously after this and after other incidents where my material was significantly cut without consultation by John, scarcely a model of brevity himself, I ceased to do so.

John’s vexation at my playful depiction of him as ‘a tribal chieftain’ is amusing. Methinks the patriarch doth protest too much. In his original attack on Revolutionary History and other journals, he described their supporters as ‘a raucous tribeof middle-class semi-anarchists’. Tribe. What is sauce for the tribal goose, John, is sauce for the tribal gander. In his reprint he disingenuously interpolates that this was a reference to the SWP. Not in the original it wasn’t!  

Connoisseurs of his majesty the baby of the AWL’s love of having things both ways will raise a smile at John’s loincloth reiteration thatRevolutionary Historyis a worthwhile publication. Simultaneously the academics, pseudo-academics, dilettantes, sectarians, snobs, kibbitzers, fantasy footballers and trainspotters (phew!) around it produce ‘much’ of ‘wretched quality’. The only example given, my ‘hagiographical’ obituary of Al Richardson, serves again to demonstrate John’s meanness of spirit. I laughed like a drain at his dismissive reference to ‘Devotees’ of ‘this or that revolutionary… fascinated by old factional struggles’. Rich indeed from an epigone who has spent the last 35 years inside first Cannon and subsequently Max Shachtman.

If we lend some coherence to his diffuse, verbose observations, what he seems to be saying in essence is this. Those around Revolutionary History do not, as is indispensable, combine theory and practice. They do not participate in the class struggle. They ran away. Now, leaving aside exactly how we define theory and practice and accepting John’s perhaps simplistic dichotomy, this is patent nonsense. To take one example of those around Revolutionary History, Barry Buitekant is active in the Labour Party. He may have ran away from John. He did not run away from practice. Ian Birchall and Esther Leslie are active in the SWP: they practice. To criticise their practice is not to demonstrate that they do not practice. To criticise their politics is not to say that they are not political or that they fail to combine, in John’s terms, theory and practice. Or that they ran away from the class struggle. Or that they are kibbitzers, whatever that may mean, or trainspotters.

Paul Flewers, unlike John, works in a 9–5 job. He attends his union meetings, political meetings and demonstrations. He writes, edits and produces a stream of socialist publications. Paul does not practice as John would have him practice. But John, a word in your ear: he practices all right. But, to touch on the real difficulty, not on the basis of your politics. He has not run away from the class struggle: only from your questionable version of how it should be prosecuted. 

What John is doing is monolithically and falsely identifying political practice with the practice of one marginal splinter of perhaps 100 members: John’s group. I am putting my finger here on an enduring problem of the left. I refer to the abiding belief of many small, ineffective groupuscules that they are the chosen people, the revolutionary party, or its embryo: join us or you don’t practice; join us or you’re a trainspotter! John is coming close to one aspect of the Healyism he deserted when he broke from the Socialist Labour League. 

I leave aside the question of John’s own practice. I pass over his vicarious involvement in the class struggle through an ever-changing cast of others, his lack of significant personal engagement in the labour movement for 30 years, his own unedifying ‘prattle and word processing’. The simple, central point which seems to elude him is that Revolutionary History is a meeting place — open to John and members of the AWL — where those with very different theories and politics and practices can engage, argue and achieve a degree of collaboration. Nobody, except perhaps John, is more critical of Revolutionary History than I am, as its editors will attest. But such a meeting place, such collaboration, is surely desirable given the state of the class struggle and today’s distressed, divided left.

It would help immensely if John broke from old antagonisms, discarded personalised carping and renounced casual abuse to tell us concretely, specifically, in relation to content, precisely how he thinks Revolutionary History should develop. In terms of concrete criticism Solidarityhas not carried a review of Revolutionary History for years. Yet quite recently John (under a pseudonym) wrote a piece instructing us all in how important history is. He concluded: ‘If the labour movement and the left does not know its own real history then it will be unable to learn to avoid repeating its mistakes.’ (Solidarity, 18 November 2004) A similar statement used to appear on the front of Revolutionary History. Is John really saying that authentic history can only be produced by those in the AWL, or those who base themselves on its politics? If not, what exactly ishe saying?

John McIlroy