The Table-Talk of Desmond Greaves: 1960 – 1988
Insight, Ideas, Politics
Edited by Anthony Coughlan
Charles Desmond Greaves (1913-88), English-born historian of the Irish national and labour movements and life-long political activist, was one of the brightest minds of his time. His Table Talk contains many original insights into human life and affairs and into Irish, British and international politics in the late twentieth century, mediated through the character and voice of an extraordinary man. Its wisdom, particularly in its two opening sections on “Life and Living” and “Politics and Society” bears comparison with that of Johnson, Coleridge or Goethe. Like theirs it offers a coherent, if unusual, view of the world.
Historian, scientist, poet, political organiser, newspaper editor, orator and wit, Desmond Greaves’s genius confidently spanned C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”, science and the humanities. In character he was one of those life-enhancing people whose company heightened one’s sense of the potential of existence. Although without obvious vanity and a caustic subverter of cant and humbug, he did not pretend to false modesty: “I don’t suppose I have a really profound knowledge of any subject,” he said once, “except perhaps Irish history and affairs; but I think I have a wider knowledge of more things than anyone I have met.” It does not seem an exaggerated claim, to judge by the range of topics covered here. He was fond of quoting the favourite mottoes of Marx and Engels which they once gave in a Victorian game of questions for the Marx children. For Marx it was, “Doubt everything”; for Engels, “Take it easy.” Greaves was well able to take it easy, especially when relaxing over a drink with friends. His conversation on such occasions provided most of this Table Talk, which was jotted down after the event by his friend and political colleague Anthony Coughlan who sought in so doing to recapture as closely as possible the words and tone of voice of the man himself. A few items are based on the recollections of others and some remarks by Greaves in his Journal which he repeated in private conversation.
Desmond Greaves was born in Birkenhead in 1913, across the Mersey from Liverpool when that city was still not far from its nineteenth century zenith as the greatest port in the world. He was of middle-class background and Methodist Protestant by religious tradition. His father was a Post Office official. The family was musical. His father conducted the Liverpool Post Office Orchestra and his mother had a degree in music. Greaves used say that he knew more about music than any other subject. He began writing verse in his teens and continued doing so throughout his life. He attended Liverpool University from 1932 to 1936, graduating in botany and chemistry, and went to work in Britain’s chemical industry. During World War 2 he worked for a time in Woolwich Arsenal. After the war he became chief research chemist with the coal company Powell Duffryn and had scientific patents to his name. He never married, for reasons given in the Table Talk.
In the politically dramatic decade of the 1930s, with fascism advancing on the continent, the best of Britain’s young middle class intelligentsia moved to the Left. While at university Greaves joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, which he remained a member of throughout his life, although often a highly critical one, as remarks here show. He was always more interested in issues of nationality and imperialism than in socialism. Liverpool is near the Welsh border and across the Irish Sea from Dublin. Greaves had Irish and Welsh relations and used spend his childhood holidays in Northern Ireland. From an early age he identified emotionally with Ireland and as an adult he decided to devote himself, as he put it, to “the cause of the emancipation of the Celtic peoples”. He was influenced by the classic view of Marx and Engels that complete British disengagement from Ireland was in the interest not only of the Irish people but of the peoples of Britain. The CPGB was the only party in Britain that held this view. Greaves early on reached the conclusion that the principle of internationalism requires the free cooperation of sovereign independent Nation States. States must be sovereign and independent and have the freedom to chose before their people can opt for any particular economic system. National independence comes before socialism in other words. He believed that classical leftwing thought had tended to neglect the factors making for stable State boundaries. For this reason Greaves opposed British and Irish membership of the EEC from the time that was first mooted in 1961. Political events since his death in 1988, with the dissolution of the multinational federations of the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechslovakia, the emergence of many new States internationally, the proliferation of national movements around the world and the tensions arising from European supranational integration, culminating in the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union in 2019, have amply confirmed Greaves’s view of the importance of the national question for our times.
Greaves left the chemical industry in 1951 to work full-time as editor of the Irish Democrat, London, the monthly journal of the Connolly Association. Founded in 1938 and still in existence, the Connolly Association sought to win support in Britain, and particularly in British Labour and Liberal circles, for a united independent Ireland. Its objective was to organise the substantial Irish immigrant community in Britain in defence of their interests as residents and workers in that country and to win allies there for the Irish cause. In the 1950s, as the guiding political brain of the Association, Greaves advanced the view that the way to a peaceful solution of the Irish problem was to discredit Ulster Unionist majoritarianism in Britain through exposing there the discriminatory practices that then prevailed under the devolved administration in Stormont, Belfast – in the process winning support in Britain for the cause of Irish reunification. There followed a fifteen-year-long campaign of education and propaganda, directed mainly at the British Labour Party and Trade Unions, which did much to ensure that when, in 1968, a civil rights agitation got going in Northern Ireland itself, British public opinion was substantially behind the Irish Nationalist rather than the Unionist side. For his work in pioneering the idea of a civil rights campaign as the way to undermine Ulster Unionist majoritarianism, there is a good case for regarding Desmond Greaves as the intellectual progenitor of the 1960s Northern Ireland civil rights movement which shattered Unionist hegemony in that area. He also had considerable personal influence on some of those involved in that movement.
Thirty years later, following the long interval of the military campaign of the Provisional IRA, Greaves’s judgement has been vindicated by the recognition by virtually all elements of Irish nationalism that a political approach along these lines, entailing a devolved legislature in Belfast and guarantees of equality of treatment and parity of esteem for both Northern Catholic and Protestant communities, is the only practical basis for obtaining majority consent in Northern Ireland for eventual Irish reunification, however long that may take. The diminution of religious-political sectarianism in that area is obviously a prerequisite for the recognition by Unionists of the political implications of the common Irishness that they share with their Nationalist and Catholic fellow countrymen and women. The Bill of Rights concept which Greaves advocated in 1968-71 prefigured the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The comments in the Table Talk on Northern Ireland from the 1960s to the 1980s are illuminating as regards the politics of that time and interesting in the light of the subsequent “peace process” which led to the ending of the “armed struggle” of the Provisional IRA in 1997.