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The Left Archive: Addendum to the Workers’ Party 1991 Debate from ‘Making Sense’ October 26, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Left Online Document Archive.
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Here, donated anonymously [and we're very grateful for the material] are some of the follow up articles to the last issue of the Workers Party ‘Making Sense’ that we posted a week or two ago. Also, here is that missing right hand page of the article by Paddy Woodworth. Clearly that was a printing error. As an example of the turmoil in the party I think this sequence of articles gives a good impression of the times. What is notable is that trouble was emerging across a range of fronts. It wasn’t just the collapse of the Soviet Union, but also the line on the North and the legacy of the media centred faction which was heartily disliked by apparently all in this discussion. And this I’d argue is crucial to an understanding of the internal dynamics of the WP. It was never, as its rivals and opponents lazily – albeit understandably – characterised it, a simple ‘Stalinist’ party. There were in fact many competing tendencies and currents within it, from democratic socialist, Euro Communist, hard-line Moscow socialists, as Splintered Sunrise has noted there were a small number of traditional Republicans who stuck with OSF and never left (what on earth did they make of it all? Although on second thoughts considering how the party took a bit more of a green turn post split perhaps they were just biding their time) and even believe it or not the occasional member who held Trotsky in high regard (I met that person once or twice). Then there was a socially liberal faction, a socially much more conservative grouping and so on and so forth (all sorts of fun and games in 1990, as I recall, over the issue of gay rights where one very courageous member (who as it happened was himself gay) pointed out at the Ard Fheis that logically 10% or more of those at the top of the hall were gay and the party was simply not addressing the issue from a rights basis. Cue a certain panic in the collective expressions of those who had never thought of the issue, those who had thought of it and had promptly disregarded it and those for whom it was a functional aspect of their lives and it was great to hear it being expressed). And these categories were diffuse which led to all sorts of oddities in the later split with people leaving who should by rights have stayed and people staying who should by rights have left. I’ve noted the current travails of Respect and the SWP. Somehow, although there are obvious differences, there are also similarities in the way that groupings developed and people began to assume ideological positions that would drive them politically for long after. That all this was couched in near existential terms perhaps indicates the solipsistic nature of left politics, or an inevitable human dynamic…

Here is the full Paddy Woodworth article:

woodworth1.pdf

In the March/April edition of “Making Sense” John Lowry critiques Paddy Woodworths original article.

lowry.pdf

Also from that issue – for all you BICO watchers out there – is an interesting debate on the significance of 1916 between MacGiolla and Paul Bew.

macgiollabew.pdf

Anyhow, from the subsequent Making Sense we have an article by Triona Dooney which also critiques Woodworth…

wp-cred.pdf

And a letter from Woodworth which responds to Lowry.

letters11.pdf

Enjoy!

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Comments»

1. Garibaldy - October 26, 2007

Great stuff, fasscinating. Though before I deal with the material, a quick point on WBS saying that The WP has taken more of a green turn. The aim of The WP as defined by the constitution has not changed, and is the same as that quoted in The Future is Socialism from 1985. The goal is and was a democratic, secular, socialist unitary state – a Republic. It does seem that many of those involved in the party in Dublin had begun abandonging that goal in the late 1980s as a hindrance to their electoral ambitions (how ironic now to see them talk about standing the Irish Labour Party in the North). And that may have been the atmosphere in certain branches and circles. It seems to me however that it was never party policy to abandon that goal, nor to stop talking about the true meaning of republicanism. To portray the continued use of this formulation as a green turn seems to me to be a mistake. The Starry Plough was restored as a symbol not from a green turn but as part of the reassertion of fundamental socialist principles that produced The Future is Socialism. In fact a recent book has argued that because another document, The Concept of Republicanism (1998) makes less mention of separatism than the pamphlet produced in memory of Billy McMillen in 1975 then The WP had abandoned it. I would suggest that this is also mistaken. My reading of documents from past and present shows more consistency than either reading suggests, whatever about certain millieux in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

On the Woodworth responses. Clearly The WP should be seen as part of a wider European and world left, but equally clearly it came from its own revolutionary tradition. To say that it simply adopted the Soviet model and the Soviet model is wrong. The fact that it never received the financial support the official communist movement did is a good indication for a start. Also somewhat ironic to see Triona Dooney’s response lauding WP members in the North. The DL faction were utterly cynicial in their approach to the North.

On the democratic centralist thing. I can see why the talk about authoritarianism was found very distasteful. Woodsworth I thought was disingenuous to say that it was a tactic adopted for the Tsarist regime. It was a central part of Lenin’s programme for the entire communist movement after the Revolution. To describe it in these terms is also to ignore how central it was to building the success of The WP in the first place, in difficult circumstances. A roundabout way of attacking those opposing the moves to abandon socialism.

Been reading Bew’s new book. Some of the defence of Redmondism appears word for word. Interestingly, The WP is not mentioned in the book at all, and the account of NICRA skips over the involvement of people like Goulding.

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2. splinteredsunrise - October 26, 2007

I agree that a “green turn” is probably the wrong way of putting it… maybe more accurate to say that the semi-unionist elements jumped ship. I do distinctly remember Garland speaking in IIRC 1993 and getting very het up about “two nationists” who had got into the WP.

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3. Garibaldy - October 26, 2007

Splintered, that’s a good way of putting things.

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4. WorldbyStorm - October 26, 2007

I accept I’m overstating it. But, the rhetoric compared to what had been there before was much more clearly pointed – something personally I thought was a good thing.

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5. Garibaldy - October 26, 2007

I’ve been thinking more about the amount of criticism on view publicly here, particularly in the letters page, and directed towards John Lowry. I’m a bit in two minds. Debate over party policy and direction should be internal; equally, it’s not the end of the world to allow criticism, unless it’s linked to factionalism. One of the mistakes socialist governments made was getting too het up over this type of thing. Does anyone know if criticism of De Rossa et al with the same vigour made it past the editor?

As for the competing tendencies, I wonder how many of these (not that I’m sure I like the thought pro-Moscow socialists aren’t democratic socialists!) were there in say 1983? Surely one of the things about people like De Rossa was that they were orthodox, having been in the Party since they were children, as I’ve heard it put. That is why I think that without the collapse of the USSR there wouldn’t have been such a catastrophic split, though perhaps there may have been the loss of people in ones and twos, or slightly larger groups. Then again, success breeds success, and people tend to stay with winners.

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6. Simone Burns - October 27, 2007

Does anyone know when the promised book on the Workers Party is out and will it address in a balanced way these issues or is it running with any of the factions agendas?

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7. Garibaldy - October 27, 2007

Dunno when it’s due out. As for what type of book it will be, I’d say that depends on whether the journalist or the academic will be the dominant voice.

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8. WorldbyStorm - October 27, 2007

I think the book should be pretty even handed to be honest judging from the track record of those involved. Re tendencies, I think the collapse of the Soviet Union as a dynamic in the end of the WP is completely over stated. This was much more about a power struggle between competing groups within the party than about ideology, although ideology played some part. The Party had assimilated much of the progressive thinking of the Gorbachev era, had actually applauded it and as noted here previously De Rossa had made a rather fatuous speech back in 88/89 on these matters which was certainly way to the right of where the party had been.

As someone said to me about DL, the idea was that instead of the strong centre in the WP which stifled debate to some degree or another there would be an open organisation that was more pluralistic, but as they reflected in the end DL was both smaller and more restricted because it was centred on the TDs as the power centres. Hence as I’ve said before a complete neophyte like myself could wind up on party committees whereas in WP the best I did was the Youth Committee (and even that was towards the end when things were loosening up and I was getting – ahem – a bit older).

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9. WorldbyStorm - October 27, 2007

I should add, re the book. I’d guess from this site that there is a large constituency of people on the left who are looking forward to reading it from many different strands. The WP was fascinating – even I suspect (perhaps particularly) to those who weren’t in it – being the most successful further left party this island has ever seen. It’s *the* object lesson for Irish leftists to my mind on what to do right and how it can all go wrong. Every issue, electoralism versus ideology, factions and platforms, left and further left, North and South, party structure and so on is played out there. And then there’s just the sheer incredible unlikelihood of a further left party making such gains over the 1970s and into the 1980s at a time when the further left was in retreat (and has continued to be so) during and after then. And in Ireland of all countries!

I really wish it had held it together.

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10. Garibaldy - October 27, 2007

I agree that there was a power struggle coming with elements among the TDs, but was De Rossa’s speech uninfluenced by the wall coming down? I think that the collapse of the socialist states and the subsequent demise of the USSR made many people go who would not have contemplated leaving if it had just been some ambitious TDs going, and made The WP go from being the dynamic, younger force in Irish politics to looking old hat. And in that sense the failure to rebuild or reclaim votes can only be seen in the context of the fall of the USSR. When do you think the split became likely?

Do you think the committe thing was a function of age, or a more closed shop? And if so was that due to people jockeying to put trusted members in place for their side?

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11. Garibaldy - October 27, 2007

Agree the collapse was a huge disaster. Looking at how much money has been made from the Celtic Tiger, and how little proportionately of that has been spread around, the presence of an effective disciplined and coherent radical party in the Dáil and the unions has cost Irish workers a great deal.

As for the lessons to be drawn, I guess that’s pretermined by an individual’s current political position re; democratic centralism etc.

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12. WorldbyStorm - October 27, 2007

I think the turn to the market preceded the wall coming down but I’d need to look at the chronology again. You make a very important point as regards the perception of the party. It seemed that the younger element left, but that wasn’t entirely the case by any means. I think the split was on the cards from the point the parliamentary party went over two or three. I’m not saying it was simple electoralism, but that the discipline of the centre began to fray, that in and of itself a new pole evolved inside the party – and what’s interesting about that is that the Harris pole, which had been enormously influential (or at least thought it was) when the party had no or few TDs was suddenly on the outside itself, not merely in opposition to the Garland/Goulding group but also to the TDs who were breaking free of the former. Hence all the handwaving about the ‘necessity for social democracy’ nonsense. They wanted to remain relevant in a party where the two major power groups were leaving them far behind.

Not sure about the committee. That’s a very good question. I think it was largely about track record in the party. I’d never have expected to be on a committee in WP, I simply wasn’t in the party long enough by 89 (only six or seven years) and to be honest I didn’t go looking to be on one either because I had other stuff to be doing. But I don’t think it was entirely as cynical as you propose. Although isn’t there a hint of the Harris camp pushing itself in some of the Making Sense articles?

Completely agree about your other points. I think the WP managed during a very very difficult time to not merely make public services and the left important in the public mind but by its internal discipline and coherence demonstrate that left approaches could be credible (although that’s not necessarily the best model in all circumstances). I’m not too hung up on Democratic Centralism. I think a modified format would have been necessary, but to be honest when one looks at FF or FG whinging about it I have to laugh. These are very very top down parties, centre led and DC in all but name. However, I am a fan of internal party democracy and platforms or fractions. Oddly enough, the SWP – on paper – with the right of internal platforms to organise in the run up to conferences is not the worst idea. But I think a better model is something like the SSP which is openly composed of different groups who organise themselves as they see fit. DC wasn’t the reason I left the WP and I know comrades in the ISN have a strong line on it, but it’s not a huge worry. Indeed, I also have to smile wryly when I see the SP is democratic centralist as well…

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13. Garibaldy - October 27, 2007

Interesting stuff on the Harris thing. Meglomania should never be underestimated in that case. I’m still baffled as to how he influenced so many people, but charisma is in the eye of the beholder. As for the younger thing, I agree that that the perception was there but inaccurate. The TDs as a pole of power is an important point. Although I look at parties now like the PCP (which has 12 MPs, 4 of them under 30) and wonder how come there was a major split in The WP (which had cadres and TDs with decades of experience and dedication behind them) if not the crisis of the late 1980s.

On the democratic centralism thing. Could The WP have made the impact it did without it? Would an SSP model or some such in the 1970s and 1980s have achieved so much? I suspect not. There’s a widespread belief in The WP now that it was democratic centralism that saved it from liquidation. The membership retained the final say. Personally, I’ve never seen democratic centralism as just centralism. If a leadership is elected by the membership and conference has the final say, then I don’t think it’s an undemocratic system. And if there is open discussion in branches, constituency councils, the Ard Comhairle, and the conference, then there is sufficient internal democracy it seems to me. Your point about other parties is a good one. There is nothing mystical or unusual about democratic centralism. It’s just normal practice.

As for platforms. Fine in theory. But what happens in reality is that people who are discontented or frustrated and who think they should be more important than they are coalesce, and set about frustrating the activities of the democratically-elected leadership. The SSP seems to me to have fallen victim to its organisational model.

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14. Ciarán - October 27, 2007

Are you referring to this one: Official Irish Republicanism, 1962 to 1972?

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15. Garibaldy - October 27, 2007

Ciarán,

There is a book being written by Scott Millar and Dr. Brian Hanley. I think Penguin Ireland are supposed to publish it.

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16. The Left Archive: Addendum to the Workers’ Party 1991 Debate from ‘Making Sense’ - October 29, 2007

[...] WorldbyStorm Posted something interesting today on cedarlounge.wordpress.comRead this excerpt: [...]

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17. Ed Hayes - November 1, 2007

Great posts and interesting thread. I was just wondering
a) what Paul Bew’s new book is about?
b) I presume the Paddy Woodworth above is the journalist who has written on ETA. Given that there seem to have been so many writers, academics etc in the WP why has there been no book on them before now (presuming this future book exists).
c) What do Garlibaldy, WBS etc make of Woodworth’s comments on the WP’s attitude to the Official IRA?

Finally I know that Henry Patterson’s Politcs of Illusion dealt with the history of the Officials somewhat. I read it only in the second edition of the late 90s but I remember that it recieved a glowing review when it first came out from Chris Bambery in the British SWP Socialist Review. His view, and that of the SWP leadership by that stage were that socialism and Irish republicanism were incompatible. I think the Irish SWM were a little less glowing about Patterson’s book. But they too, as I mentioned before, never called themselves ‘republican socialists’ or ‘socialist republicans’ republicanism was just another word for nationalism to them. Not too far from what Patterson said.

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18. Garibaldy - November 2, 2007

Ed,
a) A general history of Ireland from 1789 to 2006 called The Politics of Enmity
b) There have been isolated books and articles. Patterson’s Politics of Illusion was supposed to have been in effect the offical history (pun intended) but he went off on his own track if what I’ve been told is true. As for writers within The WP. More focused on practical politics, both while strong and while trying to overcome the consequences of the split I’d say. Also people not wanting to rake over the past, especially after they’d gone other directions. The book by Millar and Hanley is well underway, and I would be very surprised if it didn’t appear.
c) My attitude to the whole thing is that it has proven to be what The WP said it was in The Patterns of Betrayal – a smokescreen for a massive turn to the right and the grossest opportunism. WBS has mentioned putting Patterns of Betrayal up in the Left Archive. Hopefully the whole thing will appear at some point.

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19. "The Lost Revolution: A History of the OIRA and Workers Party" - Page 19 - Politics.ie - September 11, 2009

[...] of weasel words I've ever had the misfortune to read. The piece from John Lowry here The Left Archive: Addendum to the Workers’ Party 1991 Debate from ‘Making Sense’ T… deals with some of the arguments that were being raised around 1991. So does the document [...]

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20. "The Lost Revolution: A History of the OIRA and Workers Party" - Page 20 - Politics.ie - September 13, 2009

[...] Posted by Garibaldy The piece from John Lowry here The Left Archive: Addendum to the Workers’ Party 1991 Debate from ‘Making Sense’ T… deals with some of the arguments that were being raised around 1991. So does the document [...]

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