Lord Bew of the Stickies: Academic Marxist bags peerage
16 March 2007
Recently, Queens University politics professor Paul Bew was appointed to the House of Lords by Tony Blair. Bew’s elevation to the peerage was presumably in recognition of his service as an informal advisor to another Queens academic, former Unionist leader Lord Trimble. But this latest turn in Bew’s career is interesting in that, prior to becoming a Trimble advisor, he had been Ireland’s foremost academic Marxist, being one of a layer of “Red Professors” closely associated with the Workers Party. Even before that, he had claimed to be an early member of Peoples Democracy, although that claim of youthful radicalism soon left him.
It first needs to be said that, as a Marxist, Bew was always a partisan ideologue. His political shift to the right, which came after the 1992 split in the Workers Party, can be compared with that of another WP ideologue, Eoghan Harris, who within months of leaving the WP was acting as an unofficial advisor to Fine Gael. But to leave it at that would simply be to comment on the cynicism bred by the Official Republicans’ rotten political culture. Bew repays examination because, unlike Harris, who was and is essentially a pundit, Bew had a worked-out and quite sophisticated ideology, which lent him a lot of intellectual credibility, and has allowed him to move from Stalinism to Ulster Unionism without skipping a beat.
The thrust of Bew’s analysis, expressed most clearly in The State in Northern Ireland, was firstly to efface the role of imperialism in shaping Irish politics, and alongside that to deny any historically progressive role to republicanism. In fact, the relative economic advancement of the North (and the size of the Protestant industrial working class) underpinned the idea that the all-class Protestant bloc in the North was the major progressive force, not the anti-imperialist movement. The main stress of his model of the North was a concentration on the tensions within the unionist bloc – and there is much of factual value in his work. But the ideological imperative that socialists should back “progressive” against “reactionary” unionism is easy to identify as a rationalisation of the WP’s pragmatic position, and its orientation to “civic” unionists like Robert McCartney. It is also tempting to see here the germ of Bew’s future defection to that other “progressive” unionist, David Trimble.
But at the time (The State in Northern Ireland was first published in 1979) such a development could not have been foreseen. In fact, Bew and his co-workers like Henry Patterson were vocal in arguing that they were restoring Marxist orthodoxy against the dominant trend, which they referred to as “Connollyism” and characterised as being infected by romantic republicanism. It was of course purely coincidental that the conclusions of Bewism – the writing out of anti-imperialist struggles, the allegedly progressive nature of the Protestant bloc, the belief in the modernising role of the British state and of a mooted “progressive” wing of unionism – happened to fit perfectly with the factional needs of the rightwing Stalinist sect to which the Red Professors gave allegiance. Indeed, in a Workers Party with multiple identities, they gave an intellectual backbone to the hard-right Smullen-Harris wing.
The actual extent of Bew’s influence is debatable. By the time he rose to prominence at the end of the 1970s, the Officials were already a deeply degenerated movement, and it is arguable that the Red Professors, far from shaping WP ideology, merely managed to articulate what the WP were already thinking. However, Bew’s use of a distinct ideological structure – that of French Stalinist philosopher Louis Althusser – did give the WP’s thinking a coherence and sophistication it otherwise lacked, and his writings came to have the same importance for the WP’s analysis of the North as the Irish Industrial Revolution had for their trade union policy in the South. Bew’s writings were also important as the WP sought to influence the Southern labour movement, and less successfully the British labour movement, in their view of the North and especially in building up anti-republican sentiment amongst the bureaucracy.
But while, in the political sphere, Bew’s influence is a subset of the Officials’ influence, he came into his own in academic discourse. Up until quite recently, academic discourse tended to view the quartet of Bew, Patterson, Gibbon and Hazelkorn as representing Irish Marxism, and books like The State in Northern Ireland and Patterson’s Politics of Illusion remain required reading on many academic courses to this day. If this influence has declined, it has not been because any new thinkers have replaced them, but because the academy has been losing interest in Marxism, and because the dwindling band of academic Marxists have lost interest in Ireland.
Bew himself of course drifted rightwards with time, and, as Dean Godson points out in the Spectator (24 February 2007), in the late 1980s he became fascinated with the “Garden Centre Prod”, who supposedly epitomised a huge middle ground between Paisleyism and the Alliance Party. The “Garden Centre Prods” could, in Bew’s opinion, be shaken out of their apathy and mobilised into a serious modernising force, if only given some leadership. And he came to identify this modernising leadership in the unlikely figure of David Trimble. Once Trimble, in his post-Drumcree flush of popularity, had gained the UUP leadership in 1995, Bew soon drifted into his kitchen cabinet, a motley assortment of characters including veteran gay rights activist Jeff Dudgeon and former IRA informer Sean O’Callaghan. As for the idea that Trimble represented a modernising force, something all these oddballs seemed to believe, the splits in the post-Good Friday UUP and its eventual eclipse by Paisley would seem to draw a line under that idea. In fact, if the election results are anything to go by, the Garden Centre Prod is very happy with DUP leadership.
But the debacle of Trimbleism has barely slowed Bew down. He has continued as a popular pundit, regularly commenting on the North on TV and radio, and in the press. His political judgements – and his long-term attempts to provide an intellectual veneer for first the Stickies and then Trimble surely call those into question – are less important for the media than his ability to put forward a plausible and learned soundbite. He continues to grouse about how Blair ditched Trimble for the attractions of a DUP-Sinn Fein deal. And, now that the centre-ground unionism he hoped for has almost disappeared, he has been rewarded with a seat in British imperialism’s political museum.
What gives Bew’s career structure is not
any honest intellectual attempt to advance any form of Marxism, but the
attempt to provide justification for a progressive political mission for
imperialism and unionism in Ireland and also to justify the destruction
of republicanism as the necessary removal of an obstacle to progress.
He goes to the graveyard of feudal relics in the House of Lords with the
destruction of republicanism absolute and with anti-imperialist sentiment
at a new low. Even under these circumstances the victory turns to
ashes in his mouth. Progressive imperialism does not exist. Even
at its moment of triumph it is unable to provide a settlement that will
meet the needs of the Irish people. With Paisley as it tool, it immediately
starts again to dig its own grave and prepare the conditions for a new
challenge from the Irish working class.