Richard Montague: A tribute

Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Richard Montague: A tribute

For reasons of space the Socialist Standard is unable to fully publish this obituary of our late comrade, Richard Montague.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Richard Montague: A tribute

For reasons of space the Socialist Standard is unable to fully publish this obituary of our late comrade, Richard Montague.

It is with great sadness that we have to announce the recent death of our comrade Richard Montague in Belfast. Richard died only a few days before his 89th birthday after a short illness, though his health had been deteriorating for a while following a fall that necessitated hospitalisation and an operation.

Richard was political from a very young age. As a boy he found himself in the Republican Movement, and, at the age of 16, he also found himself in jail – or as he always referred to it, ‘Chokey’ – for a short spell. He soon became disillusioned with nationalism. When he looked at the problems that affected the vast majority of the working class in every country, he realised that nationalism, and concern for artificial borders between people, held no solutions and he quickly turned against it. One of his favourite stories was how, when he left the Republican Movement, he was proud that he’d taken 4 or 5 people out of the IRA with him.

Richard came across the SPGB when he was working in London. He vividly recalled sometime later how, after reading some of the party’s literature on the big questions of the day, his first thought was ‘where have these people been hiding?’

In finding the Socialist Party, Richard had found his political home for the rest of his life, and the Socialist Party had found one of its most stalwart, most articulate, most enthusiastic, most liked, most respected and most admired members. During the coming decades the sheer ability of the man was revealed: writing, speaking, debating, organising, letters to newspapers, electioneering, answering correspondence - even printing party literature! Richard bought and trained himself to run an old duplicator, turning out leaflets and makeshift pamphlets in the days when that was no small feat. When he wasn’t physically active, he was talking socialism. Richard lived the socialist cause he proclaimed. With him, the personal was indeed always the political and vice versa.

The Socialist Party ticked all the boxes for Richard. It can be said that he was an advocate of the views of the Socialist Party before he’d even heard of the party.

The party had a clear objective and a clear set of principles. Socialism was defined in a way that no one could misunderstand. And both its aim and its principles were printed on every piece of its literature for all to see. Education and organisation and democracy were the watchwords. On every question Richard discovered, almost with a sense of relief, that the party advocated his own hard won views.

Richard was a staunch democrat, and democracy was of vital importance to him. He was most insistent that without socialism there is no democracy and any system that’s undemocratic, can’t, by definition, be socialism. He discovered with great satisfaction that democracy was the bedrock that the Socialist Party was built upon. There was no leader, for the idea of people being followers, and the idea that some individual was especially endowed to be ‘the leader’ were absurd to the Socialist Party and, equally, to Richard. All his life, Richard had a healthy disrespect for any kind of authority and he believed passionately in freedom and democratic debate. Above all, he believed in freedom from want and suffering - for one of the most manly of men cried like a child at the sight of human suffering.

Richard discovered that all of the Party’s meetings and activities were open to the public, and there was no secrecy of any sort. Every member had an equal say and no one member was any more important than any other - no matter how long they had been in the party or what role they performed. Richard loved all this, because it all reflected exactly his own views on how a Socialist party should reflect as much as possible the socialist society it advocated.

The Party insisted that a person seeking to join must know its objective and adhere to its principles, so a Party of genuine Socialists would be the result. This was unheard of for other parties that took members no matter what their views, and, again, was exactly Richard’s view of what a Socialist Party should be.

When he was a young man, Richard kept company with some local Leninists - though he was never a member of any of their dopey groups. The question of Socialism was bound up at the time with the question of what existed in Russia? Richard knew instinctively that he was opposed to what existed in Russia, for he naturally detested anything based on coercion, or leadership or hero worship. And besides, he knew his Marx well enough not to be taken in by bogus Leninist claims.

Richard discovered that the Socialist Party had been the first Party to point to the absurdity of Socialism deriving from minority dictatorship in a backward, peasant economy and in a single country. It was capitalism run by the state, complete with all the things Richard hated - bosses and bossed, rulers and ruled, poverty for the many and luxury and privilege for the few, markets, commodity production and the wages system. It had all the hallmarks of capitalism because it was capitalism – only run by self-elected party bosses. Richard lapped it all up as his very own views on the subject. And indeed, he was extremely knowledgeable about Russia just as he was about so many other big subjects.

Richard didn’t hide his views on religion. Neither did the Party that he’d discovered. It was common for other parties to declare that ‘religion is a private matter’. But the Socialist Party declared it was no such thing. The Party based its view of history on Darwin’s theory of evolution, in regard to the organic and biological development of humans but, primarily, on Marx’s theory of historical materialism, an explanation of the social development of humans. Both of which preclude the existence of gods and ghosts or anything outside of nature. Once again, Richard, who at the age of 13 was able to embarrass his would be teachers, the Christian Brothers, by explaining back to them the absurdity of their own nonsense, discovered that his own views on religion were those of an already existing Party and he was delighted.

The main publication of the Party was The Socialist Standard, and Richard soon became a contributor. Writing was in his blood, he loved to write and he was a fantastic writer. He was certainly one of the best writers the Socialist Standard ever had in my opinion – and we have had some great writers over the years. His articles on Irish history have been praised by many. A history of the Party published in 1975 by a non-member rightly states that anyone wanting to get an understanding of what was called ‘The Irish Question’ would do well to read Richard’s articles. The party’s stock pamphlet on Ireland entitled Ireland, Past, Present and Future was written by Richard and his novel, Frank Faces of the Dead, was a story about the troubles. Published at the height of the troubles, nothing sums up Richard’s hatred for violence and division within the working class better than the dedication he wrote for his book. It was dedicated to ALL the victims of the troubles – including the British soldier, IRA member, protestant paramilitary, RUC member and UDR member.

Not only was Richard a fantastic writer - and he wrote great poetry and short stories just as he wrote articles and pamphlets and books - but he was an avid reader too. His knowledge of literature was extensive and would easily put any professor of the subject to shame. He effortlessly connected numerous writers to politics and his own socialist views. Joyce, Wilde, Shaw, Marx, Shelley, Keats, even Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam, to name but a few - Richard had them all at hand and could quote them all.

His knowledge of Shelley’s poetry in particular was second to none and he could quote huge swathes of it, for he loved Shelley. The Mask of Anarchy, a poem Shelley wrote in protest against state violence, was a particular favourite and Richard knew it by heart. And he didn’t just recite it. Indeed, he sometimes claimed that Shelley was the true originator of many ideas accredited to Karl Marx. I can hear him even now:

What is freedom, Ye can tell
That which slavery Is too well,
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.
‘Tis to work and have such pay
As keeps life from day to day
In your limbs as in a cell
For the tyrants use to dwell.

‘If that isn’t a description of the wages system, and the tendency for wages to reduce to the minimum cost of reproduction of labour power, I don’t know what is’, Richard declared.

And, of course, the answer to this tyranny :

Rise like lions after slumber
in unvanquishable number
strike your chains to earth like dew
which in sleep had fallen on you
ye are many, they are few.

Again, a description of wage slavery and of the democratic revolution of the majority envisaged later by Marx.

Richard detested violence in all circumstances. To the would be avenger of working class indignities, again Shelley was on the tip of his tongue:

`Then it is to feel revenge;
Fiercely thirsting to exchange
Blood for blood -- and wrong for wrong –
Do not thus when ye are strong.

Only half jokingly, Richard insisted that Shelley elucidated the theory of surplus value when Marx was still a babe:

'Tis to let the Ghost of Gold
Take from Toil a thousandfold
More than e'er its substance could
In the tyrannies of old.

Especially when he was younger, Richard loved Shakespeare and he could quote whole pages of him. Again, he discerned the socialist case in line after line. A favourite he often repeated was: “You take my life, when you take the means whereby I live”. It was no accident that, ‘The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath...It is twice blest, it blesseth him that gives and him that takes...’ was often quoted by Richard, for he loved any show of human kindness and detested meanness of any sort.

Richard had a deep knowledge of music too and was a fantastic singer. He appreciated classical music and singing, but he knew many traditional, and even some not so traditional, songs too.

Not only was Richard a Party colleague, but he was a personal friend of the present writer. Over 33 years I think we had a real falling out only once, and that was quickly forgotten. I first met him when he picked me up in his car when I attended a party meeting in Belfast for the very first time. For as well as being a speaker, writer, organiser and 20 other things for the Party in Northern Ireland, he readily assisted in even the small things. As soon as I got into his car, he started talking and .... he never stopped talking for the next 30 years that we were friends! For Richard loved to talk. And he always had a fount of stories and jokes that he seamlessly worked into any conversation on any topic. Admittedly, as I often teased him, he told his stories, shall we say... more than once?

Richard could be deadly serious on certain subjects, but he knew how to laugh too. I loved Richard telling jokes, and he seemed to have a new one of those each time I spoke with him. Usually, his jokes were at the expense of religion and priests and parsons, but they were just as often filthy too. He had a very precise way of pronouncing rude words that was hilarious in itself. He once told me a rude joke while we were sitting in Heathrow airport, and I slid down the chair and on to the floor, in front of all the other passengers, helpless with laughter at the way he told it as much as at the punch line.

Another way he made me laugh was the way he could insult people without it being an actual insult and without anyone even dreaming of taking offense. I was with him one time along with a friend of mine when he asked my friend a question - about socialism, needless to say. My friend said he didn’t know the answer and Richard said to him, having only just met him a few minutes earlier, “Well, that’s a good thing, at least you are aware that you are a complete ignoramus”.

That was pure Richard. In every aspect of his life, but especially in his political views: fearless, honest, clever, learned and knowledgeable, and, above all, a very decent and lovely human being. The Socialist Party was very lucky to have him.

As I’ve said, socialists don’t follow leaders, and we don’t give much credence to what’s called the great man theory of history. But we do recognise the worth of a person as an individual. Richard was one of the worthiest of individuals.

And when, in the future, we see established the kind of society that Richard stood for and worked for and argued for and defended, when we see an end to poverty and war and exploitation once and for all, on the list of names of the people who helped create that Socialist society, somewhere at the top, will be the name of our comrade - the great Richard Montague!"

NIGEL McCULLOUGH,
BELFAST