Interview with Alan MacSimoin of the Irish Anarchist Historical Archive


Interview with veteran Irish anarchist activist Alan MacSimoin on how he became interested in anarchism, his work in researching the history of Irish anarchism and hopes for the future.

You have been active in the anarchist movement for over 30 years. When did you become interested in anarchist ideas?

In the early 1970s I was a member of the Official Republican Movement (now known as the Workers Party). I remember it as a time of optimism, modern ideas were challenging the conservative ones, the civil rights movement had brought out tens of thousands across the North, the Vietnamese were beating the mightiest military power on earth, the women's movement was winning very real reforms.. Big change seemed possible.

By 1975 the pro-Moscow tendency inside the Officials had become dominant. At the same time I was moving towards anarchism. Having checked out other groupings on the left, anarchism was the most attractive. It could explain to me why the inspiring Russian revolution had ended up as an institutionalised Stalinist tyranny, why participative democracy is essential, why no minority – no matter how well-intentioned – should ever be trusted to rule over us. And what we saw in Russia at that time was not some sort of deformed or damaged socialism, it was just another form of capitalism.

In short, I found that anarchist politics strengthened my views because they emphasised the basics of socialism.. the desire for a society where satisfying human needs is paramount, where there is the both political and personal liberty for all, where the wealth of the world is used to benefit all and no minority is allowed to exploit others. Just as importantly anarchism explains that unless the vast majority, working people and families, have the possibility of exercising power though their own grassroots democratic councils we will not end up with socialism. If the majority can not have a direct say in the things that effect them, then a minority will rule. And that minority will attempt to strengthen its position, is that not how a new ruling class emerged in Russia?

Compared to other countries the anarchist movement is quite small in Ireland. Why do you think this is and what is the purpose of the Irish anarchist archive?

Every movement starts somewhere. Today there is a small movement in Ireland, there are anarchists in most of the cities and bigger towns, and a fair few smaller ones too. When I first got involved you could have got every anarchist in the country into one single decker bus.

There are, though, two historical factors which made it difficult for progressive ideas, of all varieties, to make significant headway. One was the successful appeal to put class issues to one side until the border is gone / the border is secure. The other was mass emigration, which disproportionately took away the discontented, the forward-looking and the energetic. Those with “get up and go” were usually the first to leave.

Since going online have you received much new material, Is there any particular material from a certain period you are lacking?

We probably have at least couple of hundred papers and pamphlet to scan. Almost all of these are from the mid-1970s onwards. What we are lacking is material from the 1880s like the Socialist League and the Dublin Democratic Association, and from Belfast in the late 1960s and very early 1970s.

Is there any period or anarchist militants who has caught your imagination and what lessons can we learn today?

For me, it has to Spain during the civil war. You had a country where most had only a few years of education, where the Catholic church still enjoyed feudal powers, where attempts at reform were regularly met with jailings and executions. And even the middle of a war, hundreds of thousands seized factories and the estates of the gentry, reorganised the economy, made their own decisions, created their own militias; and made it all work. If they could do that then, people in Ireland should be more than capable today.

What do you think are the main strengths and weaknesses of the anarchist movement in Ireland right now?

It now has some visibility, and a whole layer of people interested in left politics have some understanding of anarchism. This is a big shift from the days when there were only a handful of us and it seemed everyone else thought an anarchist organisation was a contradiction.

A problem I think we have is that anarchists, and the rest of the left share it, is that our political goals are not given enough publicity. If you have an interest in politics to the left of Labour or Sinn Fein you are likely to hear about anarchist opposition to cuts, opposition to union bashing, opposition to all sorts of injustices. This leaves
us being seen as good fighters against injustice, and we often can get substantial support around particular issues. But this won't magically translate into support for anarchism merely on the basis of our good example or being properly democratic.

There is a battle of ideas to be won. The biggest and most important reason people can be quite militant on a particular issue but still conservative in their general outlook is that their idea of what is 'natural' or 'normal' is still coming from politicians, industrialists, clerics and the like. Rarely do they come across anything at all that advocates revolutionary change. So the notion that capitalism can be replaced with something radically different is seen as almost insane.

I guess what I saying is that we should be a lot more positive about promoting anarchism. We should be putting more effort into explaining what is means, otherwise we leave that field to the supporters of capitalism, and few people will see any viable alternative other than a choice between the Provos and the SDLP, or the DUP and what remains of the Unionist Party.

We are living in an era in which social and economic inequality underpinned by capitalism is exposed now more than ever which can be both frustrating and promising for radicals. Do you remain optimistic for revolutionary change in Ireland and the wider world?

Bad times can, quite rightly, make people a lot more pissed of at blatant inequalities. But recession also can make people feel despondent and defensive. The most that a lot of people hope for is to get back to where they were before the banks started flushing money down a speculators' toilet.

The reality we are faced with is that there is no alternative to austerity as long as we have capitalism. What we can do, however, is to hold on to as much as we can. That would be one of the reasons that a fair number of organisers in the non-payment campaign against the new home tax are anarchists.

Alongside the necessary involvement in day-today struggles, we also have to able to explain why capitalism will always move from boom to slump, why there is incredibly limited space within capitalism at the moment for struggles to improve our living standards.

Until we live in a world capable of housing, feeding, clothing and educating every single person on the planet the case for anarchism grows stronger all the time. Our successes and failures will be largely tied to the ebbs and lows of the class struggle, when people are losing they are less likely to have the confidence to uproot a
whole social system. When they are winning they are more likely to be confident in their ability to bring about change.

The Irish Anarchist Historical Archive can be viewed online from this address