Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 25, 2013

Christy Moore sings “The Magdalene Laundries”

Filed under: Ireland,religion — louisproyect @ 11:23 pm

November 3, 2013

Mairead Maguire: pacification activist

Filed under: Ireland,Syria — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

A couple of days ago an open letter to the American people by Mairead Maguire showed up on left Internet websites in praise of one Mother Agnes, a Syrian nun who is supposedly on a peace and reconciliation mission in the United States. Maguire won the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for her work toward peace in Northern Ireland and her letter is peppered with references to a number of good souls whose path Mother Agnes is following.

Like Mahatma Gandhi in India,  the Berrigan Brothers in the  Peace Movement and the American Civil Rights Movement show us that the path to freedom and equality is a peaceful one. This journey of transformation in the pursuit of peace and justice is a constant challenge to the entrenched powers which thrive on hatred and war; acting as a constant challenge to blind prejudice and the lies that are necessary for war.

Maguire has been promoting “peace” in Syria for quite some time now. MRZine, a website associated with blind obedience to the Iranian and Syrian dictatorships, posted an article by her in July 2012 that praised Mother Agnes and others striving to defend a “secular and modern country”, codewords for Baathist rule. She called attention to “the thousands of christian refugees, forced to flee their homes by an imported Islamist extreme,” a phrase ripped from the pages of an al-Assad speech.

(For an investigation of the Mairead Maguire-Mother Agnes tag team, go to http://claysbeach.blogspot.com/2013/06/mairead-maguires-syria-connection.html.)

So who is this Mairead Maguire whose bandwagon the “anti-imperialist” and “antiwar” movement is so anxious to board? In 1976 the war against British rule in Northern Ireland was at a fever pitch. What would motivate the Nobel Prize jury to give her an award for working toward “peace”? What did peace mean in a country that was either going to be free of colonial rule or remain unfree?

Maguire became a peace activist as a response to the death of three of her sister’s young children when a car driven by Provisional IRA members lost control after British troops shot the driver to death in an unprovoked attack. A woman’s movement made up of both Catholics and Protestants began demonstrating for “peace” in Northern Ireland with Maguire and Betty Williams in the leadership.

The Provos reacted angrily to the initial march, issuing a statement that said the British military was responsible for the children’s death. Maguire and her cohorts, to the contrary, always held Britain and the Irish freedom fighters to be equally at fault. In a trip to the United States in 1983, Maguire stated that “the dominant emotion in her country is anger – anger directed at both chief antagonists, the British Government and the self-ordained freedom-fighters”, according to the NY Times.

Rob Fairmichael, also a Northern Ireland peace activist, wrote “The Peace People Experience” in 1987, the first chapter of which can be read online at http://www.innatenonviolence.org/pamphlets/peacepeople1.pdf. Here’s how Maguire viewed the role of the British military and the local police as seen by Maguire and company (emphasis added):

Of crucial importance in the perception of the Peace People on either side of the sectarian divide was the issue of informing and how they perceived the army and police. Following attacks on their criticism of army activity at Turf Lodge in October 1976 in which a boy was killed by a plastic bullet, the leaders issued a statement. This was perhaps the most forthright statement they made on such issues, and it included the following;

“We do not equate the vicious and determined terrorism of the Republican and Loyalist paramilitary organisations with those occasional instances when members of the security forces may have stepped beyond the rule of law.

Peace People policy was:

“We fully support the rule of law, and until the Northern Irish community themselves evolve their own community institutions and form of government, then the RUC and the other security forces are the only legitimate upholders of the rule of law.

Our attitude to informing is this: each individual must exercise his or her conscience bearing in mind that while we do not wish to create a community riddled with suspicion, or a landscape dotted with new prisons, such an outcome might be preferable to the unending tragedy of innocents shot, burned or blown to bits.”

In other words, the colonizers and their snitches got off the hook.

Maguire has spent decades in defense of righteous causes such as Palestinian rights, opposition to the war in Iraq, etc. but that does not excuse her from serving as key figure in the pacification (that’s the real word, not “peace”) of Northern Ireland.

Fairmichael describes the attitude of the British ruling class parties to this peace movement:

The political parties of the centre and near right welcomed the Peace People and were certainly willing to hold their fire until they saw which ways the movement headed; Alliance party members made up a strong band within the Peace People who, while supporting the call for peace made by them, were unwilling to let the Peace People stray into what might be called by them ‘political’ waters where it would conflict with the political party they supported.

The British government welcomed the Peace People and interpreted it as support for its policies on ‘peace’. They initiated a poster and propaganda campaign that “7 years is enough” of the troubles; this slogan was quickly adapted in West Belfast to “700 years is enough” – of British involvement in Ireland. Many people thought the poster campaign was initiated by the Peace People rather than the British government.

Eventually peace came to Northern Ireland through a combination of British power, the exhaustion of the IRA, and the pressure applied through the “peace” movement. Sinn Fein became a neoliberal handmaiden of British imperialism just as the ANC would become in South Africa. Nelson Mandela and Mairead Maguire had that much in common besides the Nobel trophy.

Is it any wonder that a woman who stood for the right of the British army and the Ulster constabulary to maintain law and order would adopt a similar stand with respect to Syria? Her animosity toward “extremists” responsible for senseless deaths appears both universal and pacifist in the worst sense of the word.

Furthermore, isn’t it obvious that the rebellion in Syria is demonized in the same fashion as the armed resistance to British rule in Ireland was? After all, high-minded liberals in the 1970s were as likely to wring their hands over Catholic threats to women’s liberation as a David Bromwich writing in the New York Review of Books would get his knickers in a twist over Sharia law.

Nobody had a good word to say about the Provos in 1976, just as nobody has a good word to say about the FSA today. The only thing that is curious is why revolutionaries who would have had little use for a Mairead Maguire nodding in approval of British killers in uniform and snitches back in 1976 now find her credible on Syria. But then again, the same sorts of people anxious to stand up for a stinking rat like Bashar al-Assad took the word of Carla del Ponte at face value when she accused the rebels of using sarin gas—the same Carla del Ponte who served imperialism’s interests as a prosecutor at the Hague.

Who knows? Maybe Mairead Maguire is getting paid for services rendered to the Baathists, just as George Galloway. Unlike most Nobel Peace prize winners who give the money away to a foundation or to some cause in consonance with their ideals, Maguire kept the money for her own needs (eventually surrendering it after a hue and cry went up.)

Right now she functions as a cheap propagandist, with no more credibility than the nun she stumps for, a Baathist hand-puppet. On Global Research, an Islamophobic and conspiracist cesspool devoted to the Baathist cause, there’s an article by Maguire that would be laughable if the issues being addressed were not so tragic:

In Lebanon we visited several refugee camps, hosted by Lebanese or Palestinian communities.  One Woman said: “before this conflict started we were happy and had a good life (there is free education, free healthcare, subsidies for fuel, in Syria) and now we live in poverty”. Her daughter and son-in-law (a pharmacist and engineer) standing on a cement floor in a Palestinian refugee camp, with not even a mattress,  told us that this violence had erupted to everyone surprise’s and spread so quickly they were all still in shock, but when well armed, foreign fighters came to Homs, they took over their homes, raped their women, and killed young males who refused to join their ranks, so the people fled in terror.

This is the kind of shit you would read on an ultraright website like Shara Unveiled. In fact, something like this: At least 15 FSA Rebels Rape and Torture a Young Christian Girl in Syria Then Murdered Her. What a strange, strange, strange world we are living in when a broad section of the left and a website that has a picture of a young girl titled “Please Fight Islam for me” would be circulating essentially the same big lie.

(Hat tip to Dick Gregory for mentioning Maguire’s role on FB. I should add that I am referring to the former member of the British SWP, not the beloved fruitarian African-American comic.)

January 22, 2013

Ernie Tate and Jess MacKenzie

Filed under: cuba,Ireland,socialism,workers — louisproyect @ 2:13 am

In January 2011, when I and my wife were on a month-long vacation in South Beach—a place that both of us love—we were pleasantly surprised to run into veteran socialists Ernie Tate and Jess MacKenzie who were staying only two doors away from us.

I did an interview with them that was supposed to be part of a longer video on “The Unrepentant Marxist Goes to South Beach” but for some reason I never pulled it altogether. I don’t tend to procrastinate but in this case things have slipped to the point where I decided to put up the interview with Ernie and Jess since it is just too good to get shelved any longer. After doing my interview with Beryl Rubens, a 90 year old CP’er who organized a trade union in my little village in the 1950s, I realized that there’s no greater calling than to get out the story of those who challenged the status quo in good times and bad.

Born in 1934, Ernie was a working-class Irish Protestant kid from Belfast who took a vacation in Paris in 1954 just after the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu. The powerful demonstrations celebrating the victory organized by the CP were such an inspiration to him that he decided on the spot to become a communist.

Jess joined the movement in 1964 and before long found herself on a trip to Cuba that would put her in touch with Robert Williams, the NAACP leader who had organized a militia to defend African-Americans against Klan terror. She found herself functioning as a courier between Williams and his comrades in the U.S.

They relate their experience in the movement and offer some thoughts on why they remain socialists to this day. A very inspiring story.

December 24, 2010

Des Derwin on the United Left Alliance in Ireland

Filed under: Ireland,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

Des Derwin

I want to call your attention to an article that appeared in the Irish Left Review by Des Derwin, a long-time labor and left activist. Titled ULA! “No one would have believed….”, it takes a close and detailed look at a new electoral formation that has arisen in the wake of the devastating financial crisis. Derwin has apparently been following the debate about party-building methodologies internationally since he supplies a very informed appendix of links to various articles on the topic, including a couple that I have written.

It might be useful to summarize three approaches on the far left to building socialist or anti-capitalist parties:

1. “Old School” Marxism-Leninist: This is the type of party that considers itself to be based on Lenin’s Bolsheviks. It believes in “revolutionary continuity”, a kind of ideological bloodline that can be traced back to Karl Marx. It sees its duty as defending the revolutionary kernel of Marxism against petty-bourgeois germs in much the same manner that General Jack D. Ripper fought against the presence of fluoride in water supplies in Stanley Kubrick’s “Doctor Strangelove”. By waging an ideological war on behalf of a pure Marxist program and by participating in “united fronts” under their tight control, such groups have deep faith that they can lead proletarian revolutions.

2. Socialist Alliances: These formations have been tried exclusively in English-speaking countries over the past decade or so. They came into existence largely because groups in the first category found it useful to work within a broader framework that addressed the concerns of working people, thus facing the reality that the average left-minded citizen is not ready to accept the direct leadership of some group calling itself the Communist Workers Party that festoons its newspaper with hammer-and-sickles and lengthy articles about “the lessons of October”. Within the Socialist Alliances, they operate under their own discipline and no matter how persuasive the arguments of independent members of the alliance about one or another tactical question, the Leninists vote on the basis of what their own central committee considers correct. In some ways, the Leninist groups that operate in such electoral coalitions see unity as a temporary arrangement or even a maneuver in the classic United Front manner of the 1920s that was captured by the motto “March separately, strike together”. Unfortunately, this approach applied to party building does not foster a transparent and mutually respectful internal culture. Speaking of respectful, one might say that it led to the undoing of RESPECT, a socialist alliance led by George Galloway that came a cropper with the British SWP, one of the more intelligent groups operating in the first category that has never really come to terms with what Lenin was really about.

3. Broad left parties: Although these types of formations (NPA in France, Die Linke in Germany, etc.) appear brand new in a European context, this has been the modus operandi in much of Latin America for decades now. Whether in conditions of civil war (FSLN, FMLN) or in the new left electoral framework of Venezuela or Bolivia, Marxists have tended to supersede the sectarian small proprietor mentality of the self-styled Leninist left. Venezuela, in particular, has been most instructive. Marxists have always seen their formations as temporary, serving mainly as stepping-stones toward the larger goal of transforming society. You can find the history of this process in Richard Gott’s book on Hugo Chavez that I wrote about in 2007. Here’s a relevant excerpt from my article:

After an unsuccessful coup attempt in February 1992, Chavez was sent to Yare Prison. Just like Fidel Castro’s imprisonment after the unsuccessful raid on Moncada, Chavez began making new plans for the seizure of power from behind bars. For the next two years, the political mood began to change radically in Venezuela. The ruling party began to fall apart at the seams, while leftist coalitions like Convergencia (which included Movimiento al Socialismo) and parties like Causa R began to grow rapidly. From within his prison cell, Chavez began to reach out to them. He did draw the line, however, when it came to ultraleftists like Bandera Roja that claimed to be the inheritor of the mantle of the guerrillas of the earlier period. Chavez never had much time for such ultraleftists:

Groups like them appear to have given themselves the holy mission of proclaiming themselves to be the only revolutionaries on the planet, or at any rate in this territory. And those who don’t follow their dogmas are not considered genuine revolutionaries. I have never talked for more than five minutes with a single leader of Bandera Roja.

So, to make myself crystal clear, I advocate that the left in the developed countries adopt a mindset much closer to Convergencia or Causa R. Rather than trying to build parties that are the kernel of modern era Bolsheviks, it should think much more in transitional terms. Even though he was a paradigm of category one, James P. Cannon, the father of American Trotskyism, had it right when he said, “The art of politics is knowing what to do next.”

Although I am not at all familiar with Des Derwin, I have great confidence that he understands all this, even though he is much more tactful than me. Frankly, everybody is.

Derwin refers his readers to an announcement of the United Left Alliance that appeared on the People Before Profits website:

At a meeting held in Dublin last Sunday, 24th October, involving the People Before Profit Alliance, the Socialist Party, the Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Group, and Cllr Declan Bree and his local group in Sligo, a historic decision was taken to establish a left alliance to contest the next general election and to take the first steps towards a new, left, anti capitalist formation to represent working people.

It is to be called the United Left Alliance. A strong, left wing, anti capitalist and anti coalition with right wing parties, programme has been agreed. This will be circulated as soon as a few small agreed amendments are made. The alliance will be open to anyone who accepts its basic programme and aims, but the aim is to attract as many workers and young people as possible.

We learn from Derwin that the Irish section of the international movement founded by Tony Cliff is behind People Before Profits:

Since the turn of the millennium some of the world wave of left liaison has lapped these shores. There have been several political alliances of varying life spans: The Socialist Alliance briefly brought together the SWP [the Socialist Workers Party, the Cliffite group named after its mother ship in England], Socialist Democracy and independents. Some of these independents (recently described on the blogosphere as “the usual left unity suspects”) are a common denominator along this many-leagued road of leagues. The Socialist Environmental Alliance comprised the SWP, environmentalists and some others in Derry. The People Before Profit Alliance consists of the SWP plus various and varying activists, groupings and independents. The Campaign for an Independent Left enfolded at one time the Dublin South Central based Community and Workers Action Group, now in the PBPA, the South Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group, the Irish Socialist Network, and some independents. The rump of CIL [Campaign for an Independent Left] is now in the PBPA and still meets occasionally. Last year the SEA [Socialist Environmental Alliance] in Derry joined the PBPA.

In addition to the SWP, the Socialist Party of Ireland is playing a major role, which was reflected in an article that appeared on its website:

The newly established United Left Alliance, which will be publicly launched at a rally in the Ashling Hotel , Dublin on Friday 26 November, involves the Socialist Party, the People Before Profit Alliance, the South Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group and the Independent Socialist group of Declan Bree in Sligo.

The ULA is a joint slate or alliance of candidates that will put forward a real left alternative in the general election and challenge the austerity and capitalist consensus amongst all the parties in the Dail, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, the Greens but also clearly including Labour and Sinn Fein.

The ULA flows from a process of discussions initiated some time ago by the Socialist Party. It is a necessary and principled attempt at serious co-operation between left groups and while we will have to see how it goes over the next months, the Socialist Party hopes that the ULA will be an important first step in the formation of a new mass party for working class people, based on socialist policies.

The Socialist Party is the Irish section of the Committee for a Workers International led by Peter Taaffe. This is the Trotskyist group that is best known for its deep entryist tactic in the Labour Party. Formed by Ted Grant shortly after the death of Leon Trotsky, it came on the scene just around the time that Tony Cliff became convinced of the theory of state capitalism and decided to launch his own international movement. With figures like Grant and Cliff, as close to Trotsky as the apostles were to Jesus, it is not surprising that Trotskyist concepts of party-building pervade their respective movements.

It should be mentioned that Grant and Alan Woods broke with Taaffe in the early 1990s and started their own international movement. I would be hard pressed to distinguish the two formations politically, except for Woods’s well-known affinity for Hugo Chavez’s movement, despite his failure to grasp its non-sectarian essence. By the same token, the British SWP has endured the same kind of splintering. Around the same time that Grant and Woods got the heave-ho, the American Cliffites—the ISO—were expelled from their world movement. More recently, the British SWP split over issues raised by the RESPECT fiasco, with John Rees and Lindsey German starting their own new group. As was the case with the Taaffe-Woods split, I would be hard pressed to find any major theoretical differences between Rees/German and Alex Callinicos, the chief of the SWP. Needless to say, all this does not bode well for any electoral formation they get involved with.

Derwin has a good grasp of the need for something like the ULA and the possible pitfalls given the history of the prime players:

It is by no means just in the electoral field that cooperation must replace competition on the left. In the trade unions the scattered forces of the left  – as well of course as the general weakness of organised labour – have allowed a pathetic and pampered peerage to prostrate the unions and propose in perpetuity, as the only ‘alternative’ they perceive, a depreciated partnership that has been passed over by patrons and politicians. In the face of impending catastrophe – not my words – the trade union leadership, or sections of it, has begun to stir into life. It could be only another false beginning like February, March, November and December 2009. Yet the preparatory machine, authoritative call and turn out for Saturday 27th November contrasted clearly with the meagre mobilisations wrought by the left throughout the year. So clearly that we surely must be open to some lessons in intra-left pooling and modesty and extra-left orientation to union and community structures however professionalised they are at present.

And during the very birth of a new alliance the same old crap repeats itself even among the allies, reminding us how far we have yet to travel.  One organisation, a ULA participant, through a closely associated campaign, organises a march for Budget Day. Another organisation in the ULA, along with almost all the rest of the radical left, wishes to organise a joint left march for the same time. This might have been sorted out in the spirit of the new departure. But after some diplomatic efforts the original organisers refused to convert the march to a joint one and ‘the rest of the left’, in those circumstances, declined to row in behind the original march. The march therefore proceeded with the weight of just one section of the left, while the ‘rest of the left’, rather than gritting their teeth, raising their eyes to heaven and joining the march anyway, held a separate rally at the Dáil before the march arrived there. ULA? Ooh alors! The ULA will either merge the train sets or derail.

Despite my skepticism about the long-term prospects for the ULA, I think it is a good thing that socialists are getting together to fight against the disastrous cuts being forced on Irish working people. Perhaps in the crucible of struggle people will begin to figure out that it is high time to dump the “Russian questions” as a litmus test and begin to make the Irish question for the people of Ireland paramount just as it is necessary to make American questions primary for my own countrymen.

As Des Derwin said most eloquently, “The ULA will either merge the train sets or derail.” This is the question facing the revolutionary left in one form or another everywhere in the world today. Let’s fight against derailment, comrades.

December 16, 2008

Hunger

Filed under: Film,Ireland — louisproyect @ 6:59 pm

He deserved better than “Hunger”

If you expect “Hunger”, Steve McQueen’s new movie about Bobby Sands and the hunger strike at Long Kesh prison in 1981, to be anything like Ken Loach’s “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”, you will be bitterly disappointed. I had to restrain myself from bolting from my seat several times at last night’s press screening and only stuck around to the conclusion in order to gather sufficient material to put a nail in the coffin of this dreadful movie.

The most obvious antecedents to McQueen’s movie are Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and Alan Clarke’s plague-on-both-your-houses “Elephant”. Like Gibson, McQueen has a sadomasochistic streak. The last 15 minutes or so of “Hunger” is devoted to a clinical study of the consequences of Bobby Sands’s hunger strike, with close-ups of bed sores and bloody bowel movements. Michael Fassbender, who plays Sands, lost 33 pounds in order to lend credibility to his character, inverting Robert De Niro’s bloating up for the roles of Jake LaMotta and Al Capone.

If McQueen was truly interested in conveying reality, he would have had his screenwriter put the right words in his main character’s mouth rather than having him lose weight. In the entire movie there is only one scene in which the characters actually discuss politics. That consists of Bobby Sands in a dialog with a Catholic priest who warns him that a hunger strike would be devastating to the families of the strikers. Suffice it to say that Sands defends the tactic as only a “hardened revolutionary” would.

For McQueen, the stubbornness of the IRA prisoners is detached from their politics and mainly serves as a device to move the plot forward in a series of scenes that pits the British cops against the prisoners in a test of will. He is not interested in conveying the thinking of the embattled prisoners but in dramatizing their largely futile resistance. In one scene, the naked prisoners run through a gauntlet of cops who beat them bloody. For me at least, these ever-increasingly violent set pieces have about as much interest as the average sadistic horror movie like “Saw” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.

Although McQueen does not go as far as Alan Clarke in making the IRA guerrillas as demonic as their enemies, he does make sure to dramatize the toll that the struggle was taking on the cops. In the gauntlet scene, one cop is standing off to the side sobbing. This was of course calculated to demonstrate the film’s evenhandedness. Whether or not it corresponded to the reality of Long Kesh is another story entirely. My guess is that any cop working there had to be fairly sadistic to begin with.

There are signs that McQueen was influenced by Clarke’s film-making techniques as well. In one scene that lasts a good five minutes, we see a cop mopping up urine from the floor of a hallway between the prisoner’s cells. In Clarke’s “Elephant”, tension is also sustained by having long static shots leading up to the inevitable firing of a gun. In McQueen’s movie, such a scene functions more in my opinion as the “er” or the “um” in conversation.

In keeping with the prevailing ethos of the bourgeois-minded artist, McQueen pointedly regards himself as avoiding “simplistic” notions of ‘hero’, ‘martyr’ or ‘victim’, according to the press notes. McQueen, an artist before he started making films, was embedded with the British military in Basra in 2003 on assignment from the Imperial War Museum. He came up with the idea of turning the images of dead British soldiers into postage stamp-like paintings that were shown in an exhibition titled “Queen and Country” that he hopes to turn into real postage stamps some day. In an interview McQueen insisted that the stamps were neither pro-war nor anti-war. He said, “To be on stamps you have to be either royal or dead. These boys are dead in the service of queen and country”. Of course, no artist living in the hip 21st century would ever want to be confused with Picasso’s “Guernica” or other such preachy works.

Despite his aversion to propaganda, there is evidence that McQueen made “Hunger” partly as a statement on current events. In the press notes, he states:

When Jan Younghusband at Channel 4 approached me at the beginning of 2003 there was no Iraq War, no Guantanamo Bay, no Abu Ghraib prison but as time’s gone by the parallels have become apparent. History repeats itself, lots of people have short memories, and we need to remember that these kinds of things have happened in Britain.

Now this might be an admirable ambition, but not at the expense of the Irish liberation struggle. In order to understand the motivation of the hunger strikers, you have to understand Irish politics something that is of little interest to the production company.

March 5, 2007

The Wind that Shakes the Barley

Filed under: Film,Ireland — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

You know that you have entered a kind of parallel universe when you read the first paragraph of the press notes for Ken Loach’s “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”:

The English ruling class first invaded Ireland in the twelfth century, when feudal barons staked out their territory. Over the centuries English landlords grew rich at the expense of the Irish people.

The irony, of course, is that Ken Loach’s world is real and the world that a typical Hollywood film depicts is unreal.

The specific slice of reality dealt with in Loach’s latest and perhaps greatest film is the Irish war for national independence, and the subsequent civil war between the Irish Free State regular army and IRA irregulars opposed to the sell-out treaty that ended the first war. As in the past, Loach has demonstrated a willingness to scrutinize revolutionary struggles sans romantic illusions. In his 1995 “Land and Freedom,” which dramatized the clash within the Spanish left about how to resist fascism, he staked out a uncompromising socialist position which argued in favor of organizing around class demands.

This is exactly the same outlook that shapes “The Wind that Shakes the Barley.” This is not only of historic interest. Anybody who has been following the recent drift of the Sinn Fein will understand the relevance. Unless the struggle for national independence confronts the domestic as well as the foreign ruling classes, it is doomed to fail.

Damien and Teddy O’Sullivan, IRA combatants and brothers, symbolize the two opposing currents within the Irish revolutionary movement. Damien (Cillian Murphy) is a medical student who only decides to take up arms after watching British “Black and Tans” beating up the crew of an Irish passenger train that has refused to transport them, on instructions from their trade union. His brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) is less educated but more of a natural leader, who joined the movement earlier than Damien.

Although Teddy was initially the more headstrong and militant of the two brothers, he becomes more and more compromised after the Irish Free State is established. As a Free State military officer, he is responsible for reining in–using deadly force if necessary–the recalcitrant IRA’ers who view the treaty as a violation of Republican principles. They are especially opposed to the rump Unionist state in the North and to Ireland’s fealty to the crown.

 

Ken Loach

In key scenes, we see these differences being debated out within the movement, always with scrupulous attention to historical accuracy. After the revolutionaries have taken power in a given town or neighborhood, they begin to institute new institutions of law and order, just has always been the case in conditions of what Marxists call “dual power.” A dispute between a usurious landlord and a poor, elderly woman who owes him back rent is being reviewed by the female judges of a Dail court, who are also members of the Cumann na mBan, the IRA woman’s auxiliary. After hearing both sides, they rule in favor of the woman and order the landlord to pay money to her!

This infuriates Teddy, who reminds his brother Damien–a supporter of the judge’s decision–that the landlord has been a major financial backer of the IRA. A major arms shipment is coming in soon from Glasgow; and without his money, they will not have the guns to fight the British. Damien replies that the movement is not just about replacing British landlords with Irish ones. As a disciple of the martyred James Connolly, Damien agrees with him that “If you remove the English army to-morrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.”

After the British announce their intentions to allow the creation of a “free state,” Damien, his brother, and other veterans of the struggle debate how to respond. Teddy, always the pragmatist, argues in favor of accepting the British terms since this will provide an opening for further gains.

These debates are reminiscent of those that take place in Peter Watkin’s “Le Commune,” another film that has a fierce dedication to socialist principles and a belief that ordinary working people are the agents of historical change. Loach apparently has the same kind of ability that Watkins does to motivate his actors to think hard about the political beliefs of their characters.

Cillian Murphy, who plays Damien, is a well-traveled Irish actor who fought off the zombies in “28 Days” and tried to carve up the female protagonist of “Red Eye”. Reflecting on his character in the press notes for “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” indicates the engagement that the cast had with the ideas that Loach was grappling with:

Damien would have read Connolly, and be aware of that way of thinking, but Dan really solidifies these ideas into what sort of a republic must be put in place. Through Dan, and also knowing Peggy and all the hardship that she has lived through, Damien can see that this is the closest Ireland’s ever come to changing for good. Being a doctor, he sees the families of the under-privileged, and how that level of poverty has been a constant all the way through Irish history. He sees how, even though Ireland seems to be approaching the Free State, there’s still the constant of starving families. That’s the thing that he feels we should be changing. Of course, Teddy has never had this kind of experience, and Damien feels this limits his judgment.

After Teddy’s supporters become the majority, a civil war will leave Ireland in the sorry state that it is still in today. Loach’s unstinting portrayal of British manipulation and malfeasance, and a willingness of the formerly colonized political leadership to accept the colonizer’s terms, is unparalleled in motion picture history, with one obvious exception. “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” now joins Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn” as the quintessential study of the power of the imperialist to derail freedom struggles. Loach is crystal-clear in the press notes about how the powerful maintain their grip on the less powerful:

I think what happened in Ireland in 1920 -1922 is one of those stories that is of permanent interest. Like the Spanish Civil War, it was a pivotal moment. It reveals how a long struggle for independence was thwarted at its moment of success by a colonial power who, in divesting itself of its empire, still managed to keep its strategic interests in tact. That was the cunning of people like Churchill, Lloyd George, Birkenhead et al. When they were forced into a corner, when it wasn’t really in their best interests to keep denying independence, they sought to divide the country and give their support to those in the independence movement who were prepared to allow economic power to stay in the same hands, who, in the time honored phrase, ‘they could do business with’. There is a pattern you see again and again – this kind of manipulation by the ruling power, how different interests will unite in the face of a common oppressor and then ultimately how those contradictions inevitably have to work their way out. I’m sure you can see it in places like Iraq now, where the opposition to the US and Britain brings together a lot of people who will find that they have different interests when the US and the British are finally forced out.

Considering all the roadblocks that are put in front of serious, political film-making today, it is a testament to Ken Loach’s creativity and professionalism that he breaks through them time and time again. Along with Gillo Pontecorvo and Ousmane Sembene, Loach demonstrates that there is no conflict between political engagement and art. Since the problems of how to achieve genuine national independence are among the most pressing of our time (from Iraq to East Timor), the films of Pontecorvo, Sembene and Loach amount to weapons in our arsenal–important in their own way as the writings of Frantz Fanon or Edward Said.

“The Wind that Shakes the Barley” opens in New York City and Los Angeles on March 16th and elsewhere around the country later on. It is a film for the ages and should not be missed.

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