Matgamna on Irish Catholics, Muslims, and the Left

November 14, 2013 at 10:35 pm (AWL, Catholicism, communalism, From the archives, history, immigration, Ireland, Islam, islamism, left, Marxism, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", relativism, religion, stalinism)

Sean Matgamna.jpg

My friend and comrade Sean Matgamna has lately been the target of an ignorant and/or malicious campaign of largely synthetic outrage and accusations of “racism” (described and analysed here) from sections of the “left” who don’t like his militant secularism and anti-clericalism. The following short piece (from 2002) explains some of the background to Sean’s stance:

The Communist Party with Catholic Irish immigrants then, and the Left with Muslims now

There are striking parallels between the conventional Left’s attitude to Islam now and the way the Communist Party used to relate to Irish Catholic immigrants in Britain. I had some experience of that.

For a while, over forty years ago, I was involved in the work of the Communist Party among Irish people of devout Catholic background in Britain, people from the nearest thing to a theocracy in Europe, where clerics ruled within the glove-puppet institutions of a bourgeois democracy.

Hundreds of thousands of us came to Britain from small towns, backward rural areas, from communities of small commodity-producers that were very different from conditions we encountered in Britain. We spoke English and were racially indistinguishable from the natives, but we brought with us the idea of history as the struggle of the oppressed against oppression and exploitation, derived from what we had learned from teachers, priests, parents and songs, and from reading about Ireland’s centuries-long struggle against England.

Such ideas had very broad implications. It needed only a small shift – no more than a refocusing of those ideas on the society we were now in, and which at first we saw with the eyes of strangers not inclined to be approving – for us to see British society for the class-exploitative system it is, to see our place in it, and to reach the socialist political conclusions that followed from that.

Vast numbers of Irish migrants became part of the labour movement. Quite a few of us became socialists of varying hues, a small number revolutionary socialists. Catholicism was the reason why large numbers of Irish immigrants, whose mindset I have sketched above, did not become communists.

The CPGB ran an Irish front organisation, the Connolly Association. Instead of advocating socialism and secularism and working to organise as communists those being shaken loose from the dogmatic certainties we had learned in a society ruled by Catholic “fundamentalists”, the Connolly Association disguised themselves as simple Irish nationalists. They purveyed ideas not seriously different from those of the ruling party in Dublin, Fianna Fail, except for occasional words in favour of Russian foreign policy.

The real history of 20th century Ireland, and the part played by the Catholic Church and the Catholic “Orange Order”, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, in creating the conditions that led to Partition, were suppressed by these supposed Marxists. Instead, they told a tale in which only the Orange bigots and the British were villains. The concerns and outlook of narrow Catholic nationalism were given a pseudo-anti-imperialist twist. All that mattered was to be “against British imperialism”.

The CPGB thus, for its own manipulative ends, related to the broad mass of Irish Catholic immigrants – who, in the pubs of places like South Manchester, bought the Connolly Association paper Irish Democrat, in large numbers – by accommodating to the Catholic nationalist bigotries we had learned from priests and teachers at home and battening on them.

We had, those of us who took it seriously, a cultural and religious arrogance that would have startled those who did not see us as we saw ourselves – something that, I guess, is also true of many Muslims now. The CPGB did not challenge it. (If this suggests something purely personal to me, I suggest that the reader takes a look at James P Cannon’s review of the novel Moon Gaffney in Notebook of an Agitator.)

For the CPGB this approach made a gruesome sense entirely absent from the SWP’s antics with Islam, because Moscow approved of Dublin’s “non-aligned” foreign policy, which refused NATO military bases in Ireland. Russian foreign policy, and the wish to exploit Irish nationalism against the UK – that was the CPGB leader’s first and main concern.

In this way the Connolly Association and the CPGB cut across the line of development of secularising Irish immigrants: large numbers became lapsed Catholics, but without clearing the debris of religion from their heads. It expelled from its ranks those who wanted to make the Connolly Association socialist and secularist. Instead of helping us move on from middle-class nationalism and the Catholic-chauvinist middle-class interpretation of Irish history, it worked to lock us back into those ideas by telling us in “Marxist” terms that they were the best “anti-imperialism”. What mattered, fundamentally, to the CP leaders was who we were against – Russia’s antagonist, Britain.

(from the Workers Liberty website)


  1. J V Stalin said,

    Matgamna sounds like a filthy, filthy racist. What are you doing in his cult Jim?

    • Jim Denham said,

      To anyone with a basic Marxist education (or, indeed, some common sense) Matgamna sounds like what he is: a consistent, educated communist and secularist. Your comment is bizarre, coming as it does from someone naming themselves after one of the greatest racist mass murderers of all time.

      • Jim Denham said,

        It has occurred to me that “JV Stalin” may be simply taking the piss: in which case I apologise for missing the joke at first.

  2. Matgamna on Irish Catholics, Muslims, and the Left | OzHouse said,

    […] Nov 15 2013 by admin […]

  3. Sarah AB said,

    Jim – some of the analysis may be reasonable, whether or not one agrees with it. But this seems different:

    “Like desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity enviously eyeing a rich and decadent walled city and sharpening their knives, or country folk in former Yugoslavia eyeing a city like Dubrovnik, so, now, much of the Islamic world looks with envy, covetousness, religious self-righteousness and active hostility on the rich, decadent, infidel-ridden, sexually sinful advanced capitalist societies.

    Neither covert Western encouragement, nor neo-con manipulation, is the fundamental root of the luxuriantly thriving Islamic fundamentalism.

    The existence of large Muslim minorities in Europe is making political Islam a force well beyond the traditionally Muslim world: the Islam which failed outside the walls of Vienna over 300 years ago is now a force in the great cities of Europe.”

    There’s a nasty snark in the first sentence which implies a low view of Muslims generally, appearing to imply almost praise for the ‘simplicity’ of these tribes and then making it clear they are bloodthirsty savages (unlike other people in the Dark Ages/Middle Ages). There are problems with political Islam, sure, but this language is tendentious. Also in the last sentence the enemy is not ‘political Islam’ – just Islam – and this becomes a continuation of a clash which notes dates back to at least 1683, an existential clash with Islam, rather than a clash between one particular manifestation of Islam which has arisen due to a range of social and political factors as Matgamna seemed at first to be arguing.

    • Jim Denham said,

      I honestly don’t see any “nasty snark” there, Sarah. I realise you don’t share all the “leftist” criticisms of Sean’s piece, and also that you’re not a Marxist (so, for instance the fact that much of Sean’s terminology derives from Engels, won’t cut any ice with you),but the following strikes me as a pretty devastating riposte to “leftist” critics of Sean’s piece:

  4. Sarah AB said,

    Hi Jim – don’t you think there’s a disjunct between ‘simplicity and purity’ and ‘sharpening their knives’? I can’t say I find that article deals satisfactorily with my first objection or, I think, at all with my second (the Vienna one). I do indeed find the invocation of Engels a perverse kind of appeal to authority. A bit like citing Marx to excuse Atzmon.

    • Jim Denham said,

      Sarah: I thought I had made it clear that mentioning the fact that Sean’s article is very similar to (and clearly based upon) a piece by Engels on the same subject, is not intended to deflect criticism and is certainly not intended any kind of appeal to authority, beyond merely pointing out something that many would-be “Marxist” critics (ie not you) ought to be aware of.

      As for your objection to references to “simplicity” etc and the gates of Vienna, I think Martin’s piece does deal with that, especially when he discusses the historical/ideological roots of modern Islamism:

      “[The objections to] Matgamna’s comparison of ‘desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity enviously eyeing a rich and decadent walled city and sharpening their knives’ with contemporary political Islam [are based upon an evident ignorance of the ideological roots of political Islamism]…

      “[…] the political Islamists themselves … see Muhammad and his companions and followers – the 7th century desert tribes who embodied original (or primitive) Muslim virtue and made the first great Muslim conquests – as a model!

      “Sayyid Qutb, in a classic text of modern political Islam [Chapter 2, ‘The Nature of the Qur’anic Method’ of ‘Milestones’) confirms that the pattern outlined by Engels remains a model for modern Islamists:

      “‘As soon as a command is given, the heads are bowed, and nothing more is required for its implementation except to hear it. In this manner [in the days of the prophet Muhammad], drinking was forbidden, usury was prohibited, and gambling was proscribed, and all the habits of the Days of Ignorance were abolished – abolished by a few verses of the Qur’an or by a few words from the lips of the Prophet…

      “‘Compare this with the efforts of secular governments. At every stage they have to rely on legislation, administrative institutions, police and military power, propaganda and the press, and yet they can at most control what is done publicly, and society remains full of illegal and forbidden things’.

      “Qutb considered ‘private property’ an essential means of “the freedom to express individuality”; but he censured the ‘individual freedom’ which he observed on the visit to the USA which converted him to Islamist militancy as ‘devoid of human sympathy and responsibility for relatives except under the force of law’.

      “He condemned individual freedom especially in sexual matters. ‘In… modern jahili [un-Islamic] societies… illegitimate sexual relationships, even homosexuality, are not considered immoral… Writers, journalists, and editors advise both married and unmarried people that free sexual relationships are not immoral… Such societies are not civilised…’


      “Our introduction stressed the novelty of the rise of global political Islam. It is a modern movement – but one which responds to modern problems by invoking bygone times as a model. That political Islamists hark back to the caliphate (Islamic empire) and to what they see as original Muslim virtue is not a ‘chauvinistically offensive’ slur on them, but what they pride themselves on.”

  5. Babs said,

    There are things Sean says that are EXACTLY the same kind of argument and examples I often see from the likes of the far right and the bourgeois press that serve State power who in turn serve the Business Class. Primitive bedouin Muslim tribesman, gates of Vienna, taking over Enlightened Europe by demographics to enforce barbaric Sharia Law, Mad Mullahs in Iran who want nukes so they can nuke Israel even though they will be nuked and destroyed in retaliation (but this will bring about the Mahdi/Messiah).

    The question is, is Sean (and the far right) correct in their assessment of the power and threat from Islam and Islamism to the wider world? Do we have our heads buried in the sand and are more and more Muslims in Europe something of a fifth column which is what Sean (and the far right) are implying in their articles?

    I have to wonder what Sean the Marxist reads when he researches material on Islam/Islamism because I do read right wing material out of curiosity (though very rarely find anything to agree with) and it’s uncanny how close his views, choice of words and examples are. No kidding, ex Marxist David Horowitz would welcome Sean’s articles on his webpage.

    That’s something else I’ve noticed. The relatively common switch of political ideology of far left loonies to that of far right nutters. It’s almost like all they’ve done is switched their allegiance from absolute State power to the power of the Business Class.

    • Jim Denham said,


      Have you read the response from Martin Thomas, to which I provided a link in my reply to Sarah?

      The idea that Sean’s anti-religion and anti-Islamist polemic can seriously be equated with the far right is, quite simply, preposterous and, to be frank either rooted in a profound ignorance of the secular leftist tradition on religion and (in particular) politicised religion, or on malice. I do not believe its malice in your case.

      Apart from Martin Thomas’ pretty devastating riposte to “leftist” critics, Kanan Malik has also, recently written a very apposite contribution on this topic. He’s not discussing Sean’s article, but deals with many of the issues being raised by those who are critical of it. You can read it here:

      I think critics of Sean’s article (ie the one you and Sarah are referring to) need to make it clear whether its his choice of words (eg “primitive”) that you object to, or his analysis of Islamism as thoroughly reactionary. and not just a creation of “imperialism”, but an independent ideological current. I suppose it’s possible to object to both, but I suspect most “liberal” critics (and I use “liberal” in a non-derogatory sense) object to the choice or words, whereas the “anti-imperialist left” primarily object to the analysis.

      I repeat, Sean’s article is mainstream Marxism, using language and imagery derived from Marx and (in particular) Engels. That, of course, doesn’t mean it can’t be criticised, but it does mean that critics should be aware of what it is they’re attacking, and where it comes from. I do not, by the way, accept Sarah’s suggestion that pointing this out is in any way comparable with trying to justify Atzmon’s anti-Semitic conspiracy theories with a few out-of-context quotes from Marx (”On The Jewish Question.’).. Sean is reiterating, the fundamental Marxist view of history (see, for instance the Communist Manifesto), unlike Atzmon who at best regurgitates a few out-of-context asides from one article by Marx.

      Paradoxically, I have more sympathy with liberals who are a little taken aback by Sean’s language than I do with so-called Marxists (usually not Marxists at all, but Chomskyite/Saidists) who try to make out it’s some sort of capitulation to imperialist ideology.

      • Sarah AB said,

        Jim – I wasn’t suggesting you were appealing to authority by the way, just Martin Thomas. I thought Kenan Malik’s post was really excellent, which probably connects with the fact that my concerns with Sean Matgamna’s essay are purely to do with rhetoric – i.e. they derive from what you identify as a liberal, not an anti-imperialist left, perspective. I don’t find it fully adequate to excuse that rhetoric as a reflection of an Islamist position – he seems to have internalised that idea of Islam itself being a fundamental, existential threat:

        “The Islam which failed outside the walls of Vienna over 300 years ago is now a force in the great cities of Europe.”

        Was that really the same sort of Islam? Was the clash between the Ottomans and the European powers 300 years ago comparable to conflicts involving political Islam today? If he was a counterjihadist he might just say ‘yes’, but I don’t think he is, so it seems a pity to strike these rather discordant notes.

  6. Jim Denham said,

    Sarah: I’m honestly not clear on where you’re coming from or what you’re trying to argue on this.

    For instance, you ask, “Was the clash between the Ottomans and the European powers 300 years ago comparable to conflicts involving political Islam today?” to which the answer is probably, “not all that much.”

    But I’d ask, “Is present-day Islamism (Please note: Islamism, not Islam) a mortal (“fundamental, existential” if you will) threat to democrats, secularists, women, gays, other minorities, the labour movement and, indeed, liberals?” to which the answer is clearly an emphatic “yes.”

    The problem with much of the “anti-imperialist” “left” is that they think Islamism is progressive – or at least, an adequate substitute for the organised working class that they consider to have failed them.

  7. Sarah AB said,

    Happy to answer yes to the question in the penultimate paragraph, and would just like to note that ex-Muslims are another important threatened group. But – and I’m sure of course that you’d acknowledge this wholeheartedly – all those categories ‘democrats, secularists, women, gays, other minorities, the labour movement and, indeed, liberals?’ include Muslims, Muslims who might thus agree with many of the substantive points raised by Sean Matgamna. As I reread the parts of the essay I quoted, I cannot feel he had such Muslims at the forefront of his mind. In that Vienna sentence he says ‘the Islam’ not ‘Islamism’. Now ‘the Islam’ is certainly better than just ‘Islam’ as it allows for the possibility of other ‘Islams’ which are less political and aggressive. But I still feel that a couple of these sentences would seem a bit too at home on a counterjihad site.

    I think our views on the substantive issues are pretty similar, so perhaps one reason I react more negatively than you Jim is that I find myself reading quite a lot of counterjihadist discourse and bits of Matgamna plug into its patterns and rhetoric, for me, and so may distort my view of the article.

    • Jim Denham said,

      Excellent point about ex-Muslims, Sarah. I would also add Muslim women, gays, etc, in Muslim countries and, indeed Muslim communities in Europe and the UK. Sean may not have emphasised that point in the particular article we’re talking about, but he certainly has in others.

      I don’t think we’re all that far apart on this.

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