What are the contemporary ideological characteristics of the modern Irish state? The answer to such a question appears difficult to place in the complex history of the Republic’s current statelet government yet may be studied with reference to the overlapping factors of historical revisionism, student politics and the broader continental philosophy of the New Left.
Rather than looking at such a question normatively, this article outlines the unfortunate reality of contemporary Irish political history with particular concern towards how similar political strategies may be replicated by Irish nationalists.
The study of this era of history discusses Cold War European politics and its relationship to the then burgeoning 1960s student movements. In supporting such movements, the utilisation of the modern education system by intellectual cliques, such as Irish revisionist historians, to reach institutional fame and recognition was a significant factor. Such an analysis would be prudent to begin with a conceptualisation as to what exactly left-wing political movements are concerned with in the abstract, and how such definitions may be applied to the Irish and European contexts.
Ernst Nolte clarifies the general traits of left-wing political movements to articulate “an attitude which emphasises and affirms the moment of change in regard to the social reality in such a way that change, and improvement are identical.”
This concern with change, however, may be measured at different magnitudes by varying political factions, as Nolte notes, the moderate left is defined by its advocacy “for change merely in the framework of a fundamental consensus” with the Right, and is therefore condemned outright by radical leftists who seek to dominate the political field alone and without ideological competition.
It is from this school of left-wing radicals that the traditional Marxist revolutionaries of the twentieth century arose. Various ideological controversies surrounding the Soviet Union within Western European Marxist cliques would later develop into the European New Left, characterised by its rejection of Marxism and social progressivism.
With its social progressivism and anti-capitalism, the New Left’s departure from Marxism came from a position which, as indicated by Foucault in his analysis of power dynamics, an obsession with oppression which has developed into a pernicious moral complex. Keen to shed the totalitarian guise of Marxist ideology, but reluctant still to depart from the vision of a rose-tinted utopianism, Nolte remarks that fundamentally, it was “the myth of paradise, the myth of a perfect blameless mankind, overcoming time, which live[d] on in the thought of the New Left.”
Understanding the general beliefs of the New Left, and its relationship to establishment politics, it can now be discussed as to how such groups were able to exercise disproportionate influence over society. UCD’s Gentle Revolution serves as a key example of how student politics may be viewed as an indicator of future state politics, in that such events conveys the political zeitgeists and concerns of the next generation in contemporary political terms, and interaction with the established authorities.
Ostensibly a student protest against the lack of facilities on the new Belfield campus and the student overcrowding of Earlsfort Terrace, the UCD student protests of 1968 and 69 were guided by a vocal group of students through the Students for Democratic Action organisation. Driven by the political works of Karl Marx and James Connolly, student activists maintained links to establishment political parties such as the Labour party, or Garret FitzGerald’s liberal wing of Fine Gael.
Instead of Michael Tierney and Ireland’s conservative old guard, revisionist historians already sympathetic to such student concerns grew to prominence within the academic establishment, and hence the Irish student movement found itself – not negotiating with a hostile party – but rather an innately sympathetic one.
Irish academia in the late 1960s was the heyday of arch revisionist historians Robert Dudley Edwards and Theodore Moody, who had challenged the established notions of Irish historiography. Revisionism as a school of historical inquiry is associated with not only a reappraisal of Anglo-Irish relations, but often included an element of contemporary cultural critique appealing to liberal students.
While the institutional capture of the UCD student protests is nothing compared to the 1968 Student Riots in France, which forced acting President Charles de Gaulle to flee to neighbouring West Germany. Ireland’s experience with student protests was distinctly of a social nature, rather than the communist agitation of West German K-Gruppen or French student riots, the Irish experience with contraceptive trains and student protests is comparatively tame and ridiculous.
Student movements are often revolutionary in character, seeking the abolition of the status quo. Ernst Nolte argues that such a left-wing political philosophy was exemplified by the student protests of the 1960s, which were not spurred to action by internal political principles, but rather “by indignation over the growth of… rightist” political movements. The staunch conservatism present in many European societies at this stage, Ireland included, was itself a driving factor behind liberal, leftist and revisionist forces.
The generalised nature of the modern education system, in prioritising intellectual homogeneity, not only hinders the cultivation of young minds by reducing their individual lives to a common ideological experience but is an institution easily susceptible to ideological influences. The political strategies and behaviours of the New Left contributed to their success and must be reappraised and applied to the Right, by using education specifically such great influence is exercised throughout the rest of a society’s administrative organisations – especially in small nations like Ireland.
Antifragility and the construction of parallel institutions may be in vogue amongst right-wing political organisations, but while useful in the short-term, if relied upon as the exclusive vehicle for political activities, it loses sight of long-term nationalist goals – winning back society and rebuilding the nation. Then, political activities are best concerned with the capture of pre-established institutions, by infiltration or other means.
It is commonplace that such institutions find themselves bloated or incompetent, searching for new membership to maintain it as older generations pass on. By forcefully integrating failing establishment organisations into parallel nationalist networks, ground can be gained by nascent rightist movements. Challenging the home turf advantage possessed by contemporary liberal political actors is the first step towards cultivating a more assertive right-wing movement in Ireland.
Campus politics are a grim game, often trite and irrelevant – but serve as recruiting grounds for future political actors within the campus arena who may find themselves active in the halls of government institutions. Given the scale of liberal bias within academic institutions, it is perhaps the most challenging organisation to find oneself in – surrounded on all fronts by the SU, peers and lecturers. And yet it is a pivotal institution in the reclamation of the state, simultaneously occupied by a dopey liberal intelligentsia and crying out for proper organisers at its helm.
However, there are a variety of conservative hold-overs within extant state institutions that ought to be bookmarked for future reference. While revisionist historians like R. F. Foster are largely critical of Irish nationalism, their conclusions have seemingly only been half-adopted by the Irish political establishment.
Keen for historical legitimacy, and ignorant of their blatant ideological betrayal of their antecedents, Irish politicians now find themselves both wearing poppies and quoting the leaders of the Irish Revolution. The example of Irish revisionism should be kept in mind, as not only does it demonstrate the influence that an intellectual movement can have as it intersects with mass social demonstrations – but also as to note which elements of revisionism and progressive policies are too far for even the establishment to pursue.
“In the merely future-related achieving societies of the ‘socialist’ states, the rudiments of the New Left were beaten down, and in the realisation of their own myth the specific element of the radical Left would be ruined: protest, remembrance and faith. In this ambivalence of its relation to society, which makes possible its criticism and needs it, and which alone can defend it, no criticism of Marxism is perceptible; indeed, the New Left repeats rather the fate of Marxism, the self-chosen fate of insufficient reflection.”- Ernst Nolte, The Marx Criticism by the New Left.