A Conversation with Dennis O’Hearn Reflections of Prefigurative Politics, the IRA and the Zapatistas

Dennis O’Hearn’s recently published book, Nothing but an Unfinished Song: Bobby Sands, the Irish Hunger Striker who Ignited a Generation, Nation Books, is an inspiring and thought provoking story of rebellion and social creation. This May 5 marks the twenty-sixth anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands, who died in jail while on hunger strike. 


Andrej Grubacic and Marina Sitrin had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Dennis about his book, and to reflect together upon the possibilities and limitations of autonomous struggles today.   Dennis shared "when I started my research I thought I was writing a book about Bobby Sands, hunger striker. Since he was an icon of resistance but also an enigma, I didn’t know whether I would like Bobby Sands or not, or what would be his notable characteristics… But as I talked to more and more people about him, from his childhood to his early involvement in the IRA and his two periods in prison, I realized that I was writing a book about Bobby Sands, the person and political activist, rather than Bobby Sands the hunger striker. That is not to deny that the last parts of the book are highly emotional. The story of Bobby Sands’s death, like the other nine hunger strikers who died, is downright gut-wrenching. But the life of Bobby Sands is ultimately a highly inspiring story of how a man overcame the most extreme forms of oppression to express his own personal freedom and the collective freedom of his fellow prisoners by building solidarity, raising morale, and leading very effective and creative forms of protest. It is a story that should give inspiration and instruction not only to prison activists or armed activists but to all activists who come up against the raw power of the state".


 A & M: Can you talk about some of the politics that Bobby Sands and others were developing while in jail, especially the first time they were jailed. For example in Chapter eight, Learning to Rebel, there is a great deal of discussion not only about the growing anti-sectarianism of Bobby and others, but they were talking about the creation of a different sort of politics altogether. Much of what they were discussing was about creating their future ideal society in the present, something many call prefigurative politics. It seems that they were thinking about leadership in an interesting way, as something that is an organic practice within a community. Can you talk more about this vision, and also about some of the work that they did in the neighborhoods when they were released?


DO: You’ve hit upon the single thing that I found both most fascinating and most encouraging in my research on Bobby Sands. Many people admire Bobby Sands because he died for his cause and for his comrades. But the story of his life is his ability to reinvent himself as an activist. In so doing not only did he change his political understanding but most significantly he changed his practice. His first period in jail, during the early 1970s, is notable because he and the people around him were growing so fast in their political understanding. To do so, they had to be reflexive about many things that they had taken for granted in their early experiences as urban guerrillas. The Provisional IRA was in many ways a conservative nationalist movement and, as a primarily defensive organization, it easily slipped into practices that were mirror images of Protestant or loyalist sectarianism. Its form of organization and command structures looked more like a conventional army than a guerrilla army. There were some downright reactionary aspects to it, like the elitist roles of commanders and their punishment of men who broke under interrogation. In Bobby’s early days in prison, he and his comrades began to question these things as they read classics of radical literature, particularly from Latin America, including works like Guevara’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War. They began to ask whether they could organize in a more collective way, with less rigid command structures, more political debate and discussion, and more egalitarianism in their tasks and duties, from cleaning toilets to running classes and military parades. From a very early stage, even before they were totally aware of the consequences of their new way of thinking, they began to organize themselves in a more collective way, starting cooperatives to share prison work or to produce handicrafts to raise money for prisoners’ families.


Then, when Gerry Adams and some other key people arrived in their compound, they began to change the whole movement from within the prison. The IRA changed its structures to more effective models, including a cell structure much like the FLN in Algeria. But, more importantly, Adams encouraged the younger prisoners to debate how they could change their society by building participative community governance in their neighborhoods once they got out of prison. There is a long tradition of this kind of thinking on the Irish left, particularly by people like Liam Mellowes, a radical Republican from the 1920s. Just as Irish Republicanism has been both nationalist and internationalist, Adams encouraged these young prisoners to combine what they were learning from international revolutionaries with the experiences and writings of Irish revolutionaries. This grounded them in their own communities and made their emerging radicalism less bookish and abstract, more real in the sense that it could be applied to Irish society in the here and now.


Even in prison, Bobby got very excited about peoples’ councils and community self-government. He wrote an article in Irish, a language that he learned in prison, about building alternative Irish-language communities with schools and services and even factories, organized on a collective basis, self-managed. And when he got out of jail he immediately began putting these ideas into practice. He was only out in his community, a working-class estate called Twinbrook, for six months before he got caught again. But in those six months he did incredible things to implement the ideas that they had developed collectively in prison. He organized a group of people who set up an Irish language school, which is, by the way, still thriving today; cultural activities; a cooperative transport infrastructure; a new community-centered tenants’ association; a radical newspaper; and many other things. Although many younger activists begged him to turn his attention solely to these kinds of community organizing instead of the armed struggle, he felt that he could not ask others to do things that he was not willing to do himself. So he remained active militarily and before long he was caught and imprisoned again.


You also mentioned anti-sectarianism and this was a crucial part of the prisoners’ emerging political consciousness. Every ex-prisoner who shared time with Bobby during his early time in jail spoke to me about this aspect of their debates. They talked about "five -isms". Some "isms" were obvious, like socialism. But anti-sectarianism was one of the five key themes that they developed. Unfortunately, it was impossible to develop anti-sectarianism during a war that was so highly sectarianized and, to be frank, the IRA did not always live up to anti-sectarianism in its practice. Even today, after a decade of ceasefires and peace process, sectarianism is a lingering problem and it will be for decades hence.


A & M: Why do you think most people do not know this "other" history of the IRA and Bobby Sands in particular? What most people know about is armed struggle. Why is the prefigurative creation neglected?


DO: Well, the overwhelming reality in the north of Ireland over the past forty years has been armed conflict. Not only is it more exciting both for the mainstream media and for radicals to talk and to write about, but it dominated the lives of everyone who lived in the war zones, the very places that Bobby Sands and others were trying to organize. It is ironic that armed conflict created the levels of solidarity and support for the IRA that enabled a Bobby Sands to mobilize people around building an alternative society, yet the time-consuming priorities of fighting a war also demoted what you call prefigurative creation to a secondary concern. And, in a further irony, the subsequent process of "bringing the Republican Movement in from the cold", by encouraging them to participate in mainstream political processes, diverted and continues to divert them from putting their energies into this prefigurative creation. Of course, many alternative projects remain, particularly in the cultural and education sectors, but even here there are complications and contradictions. For instance, in the 1990s the state put money into Bobby’s Irish school and accepted it as a "maintained school". I was on the Board of Governors of this school when that happened and it diminished the school’s alternative ethos and enhanced a mainstream Catholic ethos. Soon, the school was teaching the catechism and some children had to excuse themselves from their fellow students when religious education was going on. Also, a mainstream curriculum was introduced and so on. This is not to say that the alternative vision was destroyed. There is still an alternative ethos in the school and in communities like Twinbrook, which is still to some extent a "community in resistance". But many of these lines are blurred and I think it is important to recover the history of what Bobby Sands and others attempted to do. That is why, as this biography developed, it changed radically and came to emphasize less Bobby the hunger striker and more Bobby the activist. As people read it, I hope they recover that memory of another potential society, the memory that Bobby Sands really treasured and practiced.


 A & M:  You finished editing the book in Oventic, Chiapas. Is this a coincidence? Do you see connections with the Zapatistas and some of the vision articulated by groups within the IRA?


DO: Absolutely. I have to admit that I have always been most influenced by Marxism and I still have a strong affinity to some movements that talk about taking state power and using those powerful instruments to change society. Even though I recognize the pitfalls of creating new systems of regulation and violence whenever a statist path is chosen, I am agnostic, for instance, about John Holloway’s insistence that you will necessarily be corrupted if you enter into state institutions. So when I went to live with the Zapatistas and to learn from them, I was supportive and ready to learn but also skeptical. Their project seems so small and so fragile. Yet through hours upon hours of discussing Zapatismo and witnessing how a people in resistance are building their society – in the fields of education and health and even self-managed factories – I really gained a new appreciation not just for the Zapatistas but also for Bobby Sands and his comrades, for the things they tried to achieve in Twinbrook. And, I must add, he continued trying to achieve these things in prison. Under the worst conditions, he and the blanketmen in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh were all about prefigurative creation. They came closer to realizing utopia under total lockup in that stinking prison, with its shit-smeared cells and without clothes or even a book to read, than we will probably ever achieve. This is both encouraging and disturbing. It is encouraging that people in solidarity, who genuinely love each other, can build something so dignified and open and democratic in the face of terrible violence and threats of violence, and in conditions frankly of utter material poverty. But it is disturbing if it takes such conditions to mobilize people to such an extent. There is a danger in romanticizing impoverished utopias. The real challenge is how do we, in the "normal" everyday conditions of capitalism, create solidarity and mobilize people around prefigurative creation. So I came away from Oventic revitalized and with a new understanding of Bobby Sands and of what some people within his movement wanted to achieve. It was an appreciation I never had when I was living through this period in Belfast. But I also came away. And now, even when I am living in Belfast and spending time in the very streets where Bobby Sands was active, I sometimes find it difficult to imagine just how one can live the active life he lived and try to create the kind of society he dreamed of creating.


A & M:  What do you think of what appears to be a growing or reemerging romanticization of urban guerilla struggle?  We are thinking in particular about the recent fascination with the Weather Underground and militant Black Power movements, for example. Why do you think this is happening, and what kind of contribution do you think your book can make to this contentious conversation?


DO: Well, first, I cannot comment about how Afro-America conducts its struggle although I’ll admit my own affinity to militant strands of that struggle, whether we are talking about Malcolm or George Jackson or the Panthers. I was encouraged when Mumia Abu-Jamal read the biography and said that he was lifted by reading about Bobby’s life and political development in similar ways as he was when he read Malcolm’s autobiography. Bobby Sands died for the right of oppressed people to define their own terms of struggle. He did not die for armed struggle, but for the right of people to engage in it if they find it necessary in their specific historical situation and if their decision is legitimized by popular support in their communities. This is a tricky issue. To some extent, the hunger strikers were following the example of the Irish rebels of Easter 1916. In 1916, revolutionaries like James Connolly and Constance Markievicz embarked on an action that had little public support. But they calculated that it could draw such state repression that it would awaken support and, so doing, move the struggle forward. There was an element of that kind of thinking in the 1981 hunger strike, as there often is at the inception of armed movements. The IRA was very weak and by exposing the state’s indignity and brutality, the hunger strikers hoped to awaken support and move the struggle forward. There are multiple ironies here. An act of nonviolent protest mobilized mass support for armed insurrection. But the fact that the hunger strike was nonviolent, and even included an electoral tactic since Bobby Sands was elected to British parliament as he lay dying, encouraged elements of Irish Republicanism to turn away from the armed campaign. But to return to your question, the one thing I know from living through the Irish war is that armed struggle is not romantic. To my knowledge, Bobby Sands never killed anyone, but his decision to do so if necessary was not an easy one and I believe it must have become more difficult and certainly less romantic as he became more politically aware. As I have already said, when Bobby Sands was living in Twinbrook he had to decide whether to remain a community organizer and an urban guerrilla and he chose resolutely to do both. I don’t think he took that decision lightly. I am sure he agonized over its consequences for his social projects in the community. He encouraged young activists to become involved in armed and unarmed struggle and I know of at least a couple of cases where he discouraged young people from joining the IRA because he thought they had great talents for other things. In the end, I think he realized that you cannot engage in urban guerrilla warfare unless you do so within the context of a community that is highly mobilized and deeply engaged in a much broader political project, not just a community in resistance but also a community in creation.


A & M: What sorts of things do you think those of us in the contemporary global movements, forums and networks such as Peoples’ Global Action and the Social Forum process can learn from the various parts of the struggle for Irish independence?


DO: Well, starting with lives such as that of Bobby Sands, you can see that people from very ordinary beginnings can achieve the most remarkable things. I cannot imagine achieving his level of energy, but hopefully by learning about Bobby Sands from his friends, I have become revitalized and have gained a new confidence about what is possible. There are lessons to be learned from him, as well, about struggling in your own yard, no matter how impossible your conditions of struggle may seem. I get annoyed sometimes listening to some activists talking about how great Seattle was or how great Prague was. Of course, they were great, but what are you doing on a daily basis in your own yard? And I don’t mean fighting cops but taking control of spaces and doing something constructive in them. In the parts of the book where Bobby Sands is organizing the blanketmen, his fellow protesting prisoners, to go on visits so that they can smuggle writing materials and begin a propaganda campaign, he continually shows how you can take advantage of your opportunities, even in conditions where most of us would have a hard time recognizing any opportunities. In other words, the struggle is never lost. His optimism is astonishing, even though he was always a realist about what could be achieved. Moreover, he and his comrades had to put on a prison uniform in order to go on visits and organize their smuggling efforts. They found it very hard to do that. But they soon realized that dignity comes from within and that a prison uniform could not take away their certainty that they were political prisoners and not criminals. When each man left his cell for that half hour every month he reclaimed prison spaces and in so doing opened up new arenas of struggle and new opportunities. A similar thing happened to Mayans in resistance in Chiapas. In order to maintain their communal rights in the land, they had to go to the Mexican courts and, in at least one case I know of, they had to pay a substantial fee to the Mexican state to establish their rights in law. That must have been hard for them to do. But once they did it they realized that their autonomy and their dignity could not be destroyed simply by moving into spaces that were under state control. They opened up new spaces of struggle and created new opportunities for others. So, just as the Irish movement’s efforts at prefigurative creation are exciting, so, too, are the different efforts of Zapatistas, piqueteros, MST, the people of El Alto or Cochabamba. And I suppose going back to your previous question, these experiences but also similar and relatively invisible ones all around us may provide more hope than reminiscences about the Weather Underground or romantic pangs for another Prague.


 A & M:  Eduardo Galeano wrote: "Utopia is on the horizon: when I walk two steps, it takes two steps back … I walk ten steps, and it is ten steps further away. What is utopia for? It is for this, for walking." What do you think about this? How does it make you feel?


DO: I have lived my whole life in a struggle between patience and impatience. Unfortunately impatience too often wins. But I am getting better, especially after Oventic. I grew up in rural New Mexico, in what would be considered a "slow" life and often in dialogue with Chicanos, Mexicans and American Indians. I have lived for many years in a society, Irish society, wherein the conception of "Irish time" requires great patience. I have discussed community development with Navajos, and listened to them speaking about "Navajo time". And I have lived among and spoken with Mayans, whose worldview does not even correspond to the linear notions of time with which most westerners are familiar. They remember the future as they walk into it! What has this all to do with utopias and horizons? Well, impatience can drive us into action. John Holloway talks of the scream. Zapatistas scream, "¡Ya, basta!" And the scream is good. But if we only see the enemy on the horizon, another army or a threatening race of people, our scream will eventually dissolve into silence. We may scream again, and again, but only in defense and ultimately to no effective end. So activists must, and perhaps this crucial to the definition of an activist, they must constantly point toward that utopia on the horizon, showing it to people and if necessary describing it to them until they see it, too. Then, we must ask them to describe it back to us, since they may see something that we have missed. It’s like you are showing someone a planet or a constellation, and sometimes you have to be patient until they can see it too, among the seeming random points in the sky. Even mundane university academics have recognized this. C. Wright Mills wrote beautifully of the "sociological imagination" and how by pointing out the connections between a person’s individual troubles and connected social issues, active social scientists can help create a vision of a society that overcomes or transcends those troubles/issues. So I am delighted to think that another world is on the horizon. But my impatient self wants at least to get closer to it, if not to reach it. Maybe that is a difference that remains between Bobby Sands and a Zapatista. Patient as they have learned to be, it is not enough for an Irish woman or man to walk. Sooner or later, they also want to get there. But we can continue this conversation while we go for a long walk…"


Dennis is a community activist and former Chair of the West Belfast Economic Forum. He is jointly professor of social and economic  change at Queens University  Belfast  and  professor of sociology  at the University  of  Binghamton  in New York. He lives in Belfast.


Marina and Andrej are partners, anarchist troublemakers and writers. They live in New York.





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