From Socialist Voice, November 2007

Book review

A half-century of failure

Roy H. W. Johnston, Century of Endeavour: A Biographical and Autobiographical View of the Twentieth Century in Ireland (Carlow: Tyndall Publications, in association with Lilliput Press, Dublin, 2006).
     Roy Johnston is a radical scientist, born in 1929 and educated at St Columba’s College and Trinity College, Dublin. He held a scientific appointment with the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and in the 1960s worked in England, where he was active in the Connolly Association. Back in Ireland, he became an active member of the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society and was a pioneer of science journalism, introducing the “Science and technology” column in the Irish Times (under Douglas Gageby) in the 1970s.
     The author’s father was Dr Joseph Johnston, a gentleman-farmer and agricultural economist, fellow of Trinity College and Free State senator, whose views became more progressive over the years.
     Century of Endeavour tries to be four things simultaneously: a biography of Joe Johnston, an autobiography of Roy Johnston, a critique of science policy, and a critical history of the Irish left. The author juggles with the various subjects, linking them clumsily in “streams” that crisscross the conventional chapter structure, even presenting some elements in the form of hypertext links within the on-line version of the book on the author’s web site (to which, however, access is restricted). The result is an undisciplined mishmash, the kind of spurious innovation that gives scientists a bad name.
     The young Roy Johnston was a founder of the Promethean Society while still a student and then in 1948 a founder-member of the Irish Workers’ League, one of the forerunners of the present-day Communist Party of Ireland. Not being able to convince it of the error of its ways, he drifted away from the party to become, in succession, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, of Sinn Féin and the Official IRA, of the Communist Party of Ireland again (expelled in 1977), of the Labour Party, and finally of the Green Party. One after the other, he used these parties as vehicles for promoting his strategy of “left-republican convergence” and more recently an imagined “left-green convergence.”
     He loses no opportunity to abuse the Communist Party and to question its bona fides, repeating at regular intervals such terms as “Stalinist bureaucracy” and “the dead hand of Stalinism” and even at one point referring to the “pathology” of the CPI. There is much to criticise in the dogmatism and other failings of those years, but such criticism needs to be more than a repetition of Cold War slogans.
     Little or no credit is given to the programme of the CPI adopted in 1962, which identified the denial of democracy and civil rights as the Achilles heel of unionism, leading to the establishment of the civil rights movement, nor to the influence that programme had on a defeated and demoralised republican movement after yet another disastrous military campaign.
     It is a pity that Dr Johnston resorts to allegations that are completely untrue in his desire to blacken the CPI. He does this in particular in reference to the debacle of the Resources Protection Campaign, a broad organisation founded in 1973 to campaign for social control over newly discovered mineral resources. This organisation was sabotaged by members of the Workers’ Party (who are now advisers to Bertie Ahern and Tony O’Reilly), who voted out of office everyone who was not part of their organisation. Johnston lumps together those who wrecked the campaign and those (including some members of the CPI) who tried to defend it as a genuine broad organisation; he describes its final crisis as “an ignorant petty-bourgeois struggle between two so-called ‘working-class’ voting machines, in a contest for the ownership of an organisation which neither of them understood.” (The CPI has been called many things but probably never before petty-bourgeois.) Only malice could produce such a false and bitter account of those events.
     With regard to socialism, Dr Johnston quotes with approval Seán Mac Stiofáin’s truly petty-bourgeois ideal of “distributive ownership or co-operativism” as an alternative to the nationalisation of industry by a socialist state. Johnston’s aim, according to himself, was “to build a neo-Marxist ‘market socialism’ model,” of which the central idea was “direct democratic control over the capital investment process by the people concerned,” with the state being “the referee and not a player.”
     This drastic failure to understand the nature and role of the state is a feature of all Roy Johnston’s interventions in left-wing politics, making his views more akin to utopianism than to Marxism.
     Some of the most interesting parts of the book are the extracts from the diaries of C. Desmond Greaves, an English communist closely identified with the Connolly Association and indirectly with the CPI and Wolfe Tone Society, whose frank (and sometimes cynical) comments on personalities and events add a new dimension to our knowledge of those years.
     Dr Johnston justifies his own role in important events, including some that shaped the latter part of the twentieth century in Ireland, in a way that makes it seem that he was the only one who operated honestly, while others are only manipulators or manipulated.
     His belief that the Green Party is the last remaining hope for “bottom-up democracy” must have taken a knock with that party’s participation with Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats in a Government that is abolishing the public health service, allowing Shannon Airport to be used as a US air force base, and permitting Shell to proceed with its economically (and scientifically) disastrous pipeline in Co. Mayo, not to mention Éamon Ryan’s announcement of support for the revived constitution of the European imperialist bloc.
     With his characteristic arrogance and an invincible belief in his own correctness, Roy Johnston has left behind a trail of half-baked initiatives and failed interventions. A century of endeavour, perhaps, but also a half-century of failure.

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