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My glorious career in student politics and what I almost learned from it. July 31, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Greens, Labour Party, Sinn Féin, The Left.


On foot of discussions about the strangely long-lived impact student life appears to have had on Eoghan Harris, I’m reminded of the 1980s. Now the WP was an organisation which really placed no great interest in third level, probably since its grip on USI was by the mid-1980s but a distant memory (the student princes of OSF, Rabbitte, Gilmore etc having decamped to the unions or the public sector) and subject to a fightback by both PSF, fellow travellers of one stripe or another and the Labour Party (always more radical at the more – ahem – youthful fringes). As it happened I was probably one of the very very few reasonably active members of the party at both constituency and student union level, quite a trick considering the demands of the former and the way in which the party was regarded as the most Machiavellian and negative political operator in the latter. Anyhow, in my attempt to radicalise my fellow comrades in the student body I would bring in speakers from the party or try to organise that they might go to party conferences.

This was a project which met with mixed success, which is to say none at all. A small number from the Womens’ Group went to a WP Womens’ Conference but returned entirely unimpressed by the lack of theoretical enquiry and “boring” (I quote directly) concentration on childcare, housing and health.

On a separate occasion Pat McCartan, as Industrial Spokesman for the party, was dragged into the college to lecture on the Workers’ Party plans for dealing with the economy and unemployment. This too was met with a certain disdain by the more radicalised elements amongst my peers, the Maoists (of which there was one) found it insufficiently revolutionary and too detached from the rural (actually the latter point wasn’t the worst analysis I heard), those who were premature SF supporters had already developed a deep and abiding hatred for the WP, while most others found the ideas of large scale factory fishing ‘dull’.

Another time I brought a member of the party who had achieved some significance in the cultural field in to talk about his politics. The posters around the college made this fairly clear. Or so I thought. Unfortunately, after the visitor had waxed lyrical about his political education and the way in which the party had changed him for the better (I kid you not, there was more than a hint of a religious conversion at work here) it was announced by one tutor who had brought an entire year group to see this dialectical education that he had expected to hear about the cultural achievements, not the man.

I sort of gave up after that and ceded the field to the SWM who held meetings no-one went to and which even pity wouldn’t drive me to attend. The CPI-ML met with greater luck. They had one member on site and their TCD contingent would troop up on a weekly basis to be met with some interest by the more Republican on campus. Mind you none of those Republicans ever joined PSF, so perhaps their support was also more rhetorical…

I was never elected to USI, but spent some time on the fringes as a delegate to conferences. All good stuff. Particularly Portrush one year where I wound up in the bar having to listen to the large SF contingent give voice to that traditional song which contains the lines “Up the Provo’s, down the Sticks”. Still, this was after I’d been harangued for an hour or so by another member of the CPI-ML (who went onto much more exalted things) about the revolutionary necessity of the armed struggle. Not that this sort of discussion was restricted to the margins. The raw hatred during debates between some in the Campaign for Labour Representation and Nationalists and Republicans was remarkable and to some degree inexplicable at that point, although not quite so much in retrospect once one realises that the malign influence of the BICO was there…

I never saw that as a terribly important ‘site of struggle’. As a hostage to a perhaps delusional pragmatism I saw the real work as in the constituencies. Now, that view might well be correct although much of that work in retrospect seems to have been about getting certain people elected to a certain democratic institution, and not so much about seeing the ideology implemented.

And this in a sense brings me back to discourse. Because I’m innately suspicious of political parties that centre their activities on students. Or maybe suspicious is overstating it. Perhaps it is that I just don’t believe that it is possible to develop large scale long term political allegiance from such protean material.

And again to refer back to Eoghan Harris, his fears of Ireland slipping into ‘civil war’ seem to me to be akin to the idea that somehow May 68 could be played out on the admittedly smaller canvas of the Republic of Ireland with a students/students alliance spearheading such change, with presumably the SWP or whoever providing the ideological cement. Not that it was ever put in such terms. Both work on the line that you can leverage societal change in the most unlikely of conditions (and this reminds me of a friend of mine who was strongly involved in the bin tax protest who saw it as a means of displaying the true reactionary face of the state and therefore being an exemplar to the working class of the nature of that state. Anyone who has signed on in the dole office around the corner from the Rotunda will already have a fairly good idea as to the nature of the state, for bad and good).

The SWM, later the SWP, seemed to me to be living in a fantasy land (oh yeah, well I remember a certain E. McCann at Portrush bringing a certain star quality to proceedings, or not as the case may be) of mobilising people who didn’t want to be mobilised. This had a specific resonance for me because I was involved in the student administration of the college I went to on anti-Fees campaigns and such like.

From 1985 through to mid-1989 which was the period of my deepest involvement we (the Union) found it impossible to seriously mobilise the student body to combat a continuing process of fee increases. Not that there was no protest. There were sit-ins that disabled the College administration for weeks on end. There were also larger protests in tandem with other institutions in Dublin and elsewhere across the island.

But the point was that it was short lived and a basic problem was the rapid churn of students as one year arrived just as another left. Events from even three or four years previously achieved a mythic quality. I saw Joe Duffy on the back of a truck outside the GPO during a USI protest – or did I? I genuinely can’t be sure one way or another. The wars against OSF in USI were spoken of in hushed tones, but who could tell what were the details? I got my hands on some of the USI reports of the time and it all seemed curiously innocent to me, the sort of petty manipulation that characterised students politics during the period and ever after.

This ‘churn’ of students meant that campaigns would run into the ground too rapidly, would mean that only those outside of exam years, or what laughably were called ‘mature’ students, were really willing to give it their all, and even they were a minority of a minority (incidentally in my one size fits all paranoia it always struck me that the pressure to cut degree course from five to four, or four to three years was in part motivated by a wish to exacerbate the churn). Which meant that that SU activity tended to revolve around general administration and “ents”. Some years later, in the early 1990s, in UCD while doing a post-graduate course I saw almost the same pattern reiterate itself, albeit in somewhat better economic conditions. Oddly enough, for all the supposed sectarianism of the times on the left I found there was a broader comradeship between many of the different left groups I met there, from those who would later be in Red Action, Labour Youth and whoever.

But consider this. The mid-1980s was arguably the time of greatest prolonged economic crisis the 26-county state ever saw. Unemployment was sky-high, emigration was a constant. Yet it was impossible to motivate students to any sort of sustained activity. If not then, when? And if not, why? I’d argue that the reason was two-fold, firstly although students were more clearly middle-class then than now, the situation was so grim it made no difference – all would emigrate a seemingly failing state. Secondly the essential conservatism of the society rubbed off and lent a passivity to people. Revolution was rhetoric and everyone knew it – even at that point. A third possible reason was the sheer blandness of the alternative – Soviet style communism, in whatever variant was fairly unattractive, perhaps particularly in an Ireland that was just emerging from the permafrost of a mildly culturally and socially repressive state itself, and in any event was also a clearly failing system at that point.

This isn’t to argue that there was no capacity for change driven by students (although I’m also innately suspicious of theoretical models which try to reify their agency in political struggle). The late 1960s and early 1970s had seen student agitations which had specific results. Speaking for the institution I was in, moribund curricula were replaced. Tuition was altered. Staff were replaced and buildings and equipment developed. But these were essentially reformist demands, and as such were conceded when funding was available.

Afterwards, almost inevitably, the funding diminished and with it so did the fabric of the buildings, the number of staff and so on.

And I think it is interesting that political parties, such as the SWP, have recognised the necessity to break away – even slightly – from the college over the past decade or so (ironically at the very point where one could argue Third Level education has become somewhat more widely accessible to those from working class backgrounds – that too tells us something about the changing nature of our society and the intriguing ideological frameworks within which certain parties have operated). Again, I wonder if the emphasis on ‘youth’ sections, and students, has in reality been a minor contributory factor to the almost complete failure for radical left projects both in Ireland and abroad. There is a general cynicism about the left in this society, a sense that it is not entirely serious. I wonder how much of that is driven by the sense that ‘ah, it’s just a bunch of students protesting’. Students, rightly or wrongly – and perhaps wrongly, are considered a fairly cosseted group within the society. That the major visual manifestation of further left projects has rested in the past on such groups to provide much of the muscle is unfortunate. And unfortunate as well, if only because there is no reason why students shouldn’t participate fully in political activities. The process of Third Level can radicalise and inform. But can it do much more than that, and if not is this yet another case of the left looking back to partial victories, say the Russian Revolution, say 1968 and trying to crush all future activity and activism into their template?

If one believes in the generally accepted form of the political party, and I know there are those who with good reason don’t, parties have to organise beyond the academic institution. In a way the recent performance by Richard Boyd-Barrett, which was in all fairness quite good, might exacerbate this trend (although, as has been pointed out here and elsewhere he was flying something of a flag of convenience – but at least a convenience that broke away from the traditional image of the further left). Alternatively they might look at Joe Higgins and the Socialist Party and conclude that it really is a little too much hard work and better to wait until the conditions come right. Problem is conditions often don’t come right unless they’re nudged, or unless there is a serious component willing to step up at the necessary moment.

Actually I wonder what effect the most recent election will have on those fractions. Sinn Féin appear to be battening down the hatches and getting on with things. Labour seem to be waking up from the dream that was the Mullingar Accord. But beyond them how will the analyses stack up? No element or even relation of the further left was returned (sure, Seamus Healy did relatively well, and on another analysis so did Joe Higgins, but nowhere near well enough). I’ve spoken to one individual who would broadly be in the further left, although not aligned with a party, who told me a couple of weeks after the result that he was giving up on electoral politics. Good on him, but perhaps it gave up on him.

Yet in the face of the hegemonic grip by the centre centre/right on Irish politics that I referred to previously, where now for those groups? Opposition has its own charms, and we’ve seen various groups survive for decades simply by a sort of activism which bends and shapes itself to whatever is the issue of the day. But it’s unappealing surely? And then there is the instructive example of the Greens. A generous (and not necessarily incorrect) analysis of their words and actions since the election would merely serve to underpin the idea that they too had to accept that hegemony – even once they had stepped inside the tent. That they see no way of altering that until they are given time. It’s not the happiest of prospects, now is it?


1. franklittle - July 31, 2007

Great post chara. I remember too utmost seriousness with which college politics was taken during my time there in the 90s. At times the struggle to prevent Fianna Fáil from taking over the Students Union seemed to be on a par with the fight to save Moscow from the Germans or Madrid from the Fascists so earnest were many comrades.

What interests me is that these days the various youth organisations in the parties these days seem to be almost entirely college based. Parties don’t have youth wings as such, they have student wings.

Finally, in regard to your last point, the reality is that the left needs to be more prepared to work together to present an alternative. Electoral or otherwise. The deal between Labour and Sinn Féin, without wanting to overstate it, might be a positive indicator. It would be good to see people like the SP part of that, but they’re not able for the compromises that would be necessary.

Until the various parties, factions and fractions on the left realise that we have more in common than we have to separate us we’re going to see the centre-right trend continue in Irish politics because before electoral success can be achieved, we need to start challenging the ‘accepted wisdom’ of Irish society, to challenge the hegemony of right wing thinking.

As Benny Franklin put it: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately.”


2. WorldbyStorm - July 31, 2007

Yeah, it’s funny isn’t it. There is a lot in what you say about every small battle being made into the most significant conflict ever. Funnily enough the WP Youth in the 1980s, mid to late when I was involved wasn’t that student based (altohugh oddly there always seemed to be a presence in Maynooth and the teacher training colleges). But then again, it wasn’t huge either…


3. ejh - July 31, 2007

every small battle being made into the most significant conflict ever

I can think of two reasons at least for this:

1. if you’re young and you’ve not been involved before, then of course it must seem like that anway.

2. the left in general, or much of it, is haunted by certain events in which apparently small matters suddenly blew up into enormous rebellions: 1968, 1905, I’m sure we can all think of others. So it’s quite reasonable to be aware that this can happen: the downside of course is that it does tend to skew one’s perspective as to what is likely to happen and as to what is actually important. (Not to mention a moral point, which is that if you say about any given issue that it’s not all that important, you’ll always be accused of not giving a stuff about the actual human beings involved and so on.)


4. Damian O'Broin - July 31, 2007

Looking back from a safe distance at my student politics, Nixon’s quote (about acadmeic, rather than student politics) always seemed apt.

“The reasons why the passions were so high is that the stakes were so low”

Of course, at the time, every nuanced disagreement was a matter of life and death.


5. Worldbystorm - July 31, 2007

Or more important than either…


6. Damian O'Broin - August 1, 2007

Mention of Joe Duffy and left-wing factionalism reminds me of a tale from the early nineties – after the formation of DL – while I was a USI officer.

A reunion had been organised to celebrate the opening of the new USI premises on Aston Place (now sadly demised). A good turnout of ex-officers showed up and immediately clustered into their respective cliques – Shinners in one corner, CPI-ML in another, the newly scrubbed and cleaned Dem Left in another. However, one guy (can’t remember his name) had stayed put in the Workers Party after the split, and literally spent the night, pint in hand, on his own.

But anyway, Joe Duffy arrived and myself and a colleague who formed the welcome party started chatting to him. He was in great form, talking about his days in Trinity, the occupations, the arrests and his battles with the then Workers Party dominated USI. Suddenly he stopped mid-flow, his eyes narrowed suspiciously and he glared at us: ‘wait a minute, ye’re not sticks now, are yis?’ After our furious denials he relaxed and carried on with his tales!

Sometimes the enemies you make as a student are the bitterest of all 😉


7. WorldbyStorm - August 1, 2007

Yeah, I’d forgotten, he was one of those who led the charge against the WP back in the day…


8. Mark P - August 1, 2007

My own days as a student activist were considerably later than those of WbS, and I think it’s fair to say that there wasn’t much in the way of student radicalism.

The SWP were definitely the dominant group on most campuses. This wasn’t because they were particularly huge. It was because the rest of the left was so small and they were often the only people to the left of Labour or Sinn Fein who were organised at all. They ran a relatively tight ship. Many of their core activists were recruited at UCD and by the end of the 1990s they were able to challenge seriously for the TCD SU presidency and even win it on one occasion.

It was all small scale stuff though. A regular diet of meetings and small campus protests, organised by perhaps ten or so activists in a college, ensuring a small but steady trickle of recruits.

Meanwhile, at least in Dublin, the rest of the left was nowhere in the colleges. I was an oddity in the Socialist Party as a student in that period, although there had been some student activists involved a few years earlier and would be again a few years later. The Workers Party had disappeared entirely. The anarchists had a total national membership of less than a dozen. The very idea of a CP student was laughable. Labour Youth existed but did very little and lacked even the slight radical edge it currently has. Sinn Fein were growing rapidly at that point, however.

The SWP have since lost their presence in the universities, more by chance than for any other reason I suspect. Their position was much stronger than anyone elses but it was always tenuous – as the article notes turnover of the student population makes it hard to keep a group stable and it only takes a couple of bad years to all but wipe out a presence in a university. In most places they had that couple of bad years and in UCD, their strongest group split away. The interesting thing is not that they happened to lose those groups but that they have not made rebuilding their Universities their over-arching priority in the years since. Essentially they think that they have bigger fish to fry elsewhere, I suspect.

In the meantime, a kind of vague anarchoid sentiment has developed amongst some of the students the SWP would otherwise have recruited, with a few of them even joining the WSM.

The main thing to remember, however, is that all of these groups were very peripheral to the vast bulk of university students. The mainstream parties outnumbered the combine far left many times over on campus then and continue to do so now. A whole generation has grown up with no experience of mass unemployment or emigration and a worldview which includes an expectation of prosperity. Some are indeed politically radical, but this is a minority of students which is exactly as we should expect.


9. WorldbyStorm - August 1, 2007

Perhaps we should expect, but it does make one wonder why parties bother. Is it some sort of semi-Jesuitical approach, ‘get the student, keep the man’s vote?’


10. chekov - August 1, 2007

I never had any interest in student politics at all. The churn, widely divergent economic situations of students and rampant careerism make it difficult to see anything at all interesting emerging in the current climate. But, for me, the most off-putting thing was the preponderance of dilletante poseurs on the left of student politics. Life’s just too short to bother with such people.


11. franklittle - August 1, 2007

I think with some parties it’s a talent spotting exercise. They use the student sections to identify future party candidates or officials and accept that the majority aren’t going to be active members in any real sense while in college, and are unlikely to be so afterwards when they have jobs and so on.


12. sonofstan - August 1, 2007

Can anyone clear up something for me? I was an undergrad in TCD during the Duffy/ White reign of terror and I seem to remember it being accepted that at least one and probably both were members of Revolutionary Struggle – is this true? my memories of those years tend to get a bit jumbled; Duffy was also a bigwig in the Catholic Youth Council at the time wasn’t he?


13. Ed Hayes - August 1, 2007

On an earlier point about the SWM in the colleges in the 1980s. That group had no student members at all in the mid 1980s and most of its aging 1970s veteran membership had no inclination to go looking for them until the British SWP came up with the thory of the ‘downturn.’ According to this (and it did approximate to reality somewhat) the working class was taking a hammering (esp in Britain, where it mattered). Therefore few organised militant workers would be joining a party like the SWP (also a good excuse for not attracting any). However students, isolated to an extent from the ebbs and flows of class struggle, or indeed real life could be attracted to revolutionary politics and then emerge as cadre in the real class struggle later on. This was sold to the workerist/reluctant as ‘using’ students to later on recruit workers. Students were reassured that their concerns would be taken seriously and every so often there would be support for some college campaign or other. it tunred out Irish students were not drawn like moths to a flame to the exciting read that Socialist Worker was back then, but unemployed SWM members and unfortunates on time off work were sent in to sit behind stalls in TCD, UCD etc. Eventually a few people joined. The first Gulf War of 1991 saw a bit of a burst of recruitment and both UCD and TCD had active branches as did Queens. Visiting from England they were always a different proposition from the SWP’s big college operations over there with people in the Irish SWM still likely to tell that students were basically wankers or useful idiots (not when Kieran Allen was about of course). Some of the people who said this were students themselves. Today some of them work in RTE, or are married and have kids and a handful are still about, of whom Richard BB would be the best known. I can imagine WBS strolling past a different poster on the college noticeboards every week ‘Envioronment in crisis: the socialist answer’ ‘Republicanism in criris: the socialist answer’ ‘Eastern Europe in crisis; the socilaist answer’ and ‘The politics of James Connolly.’


14. Mark P - August 1, 2007

That’s interesting to hear, Ed. I hadn’t realise that the SWM’s emphasis on the universities was such a recent phenomenon, although I suppose it makes sense that it would have begun as a consequence of their “downturn” thesis in the mid-1980s. Thinking about it, it seems to map onto their period of small scale expansion in the 1990s and the early part of this decade quite closely so it seems, in a minor way, to have been a succesful tactic.


15. WorldbyStorm - August 1, 2007

sonofstan, I heard something similar from people a couple of years later. Can you recall what years was Duffy in USI until?

Ed, that’s really interesting about the SWM. The college I was at wasn’t too far from TCD, and although I had left by the Gulf War I remember a fairly strong presence there in terms of postering and trying to hold events – a sort of outreach programme from the TCD SWMers as it were.

In truth that wasn’t the craziest notion for the SWM to take. But thinking back to Portrush and other USI events presumably they had some kind of presence in the North in colleges during that period. What was the working class base like inside the SWM at the time? It never seemed to amount to much from outside – but I’m all too aware that might have been WP tinted goggles (or misinformation!).

Successful, but self-limiting is the way I’d put it Mark P. You can only go so far with students…


16. sonofstan - August 1, 2007

Duffy was president of USi in ’83/84 IIRC (president in TCD in ’79)


17. Damian O'Broin - August 1, 2007

Duffy served two terms in USI – 82-84


18. WorldbyStorm - August 1, 2007

So I did see him. 84 it was. A flatbed truck outside the GPO. Ah, the memories…


19. Slawomir - August 2, 2007

My memory is that Brendan Doris of the CPI ML was President of the USI in 82/83. Joe Duffy succeeded him in 83/84. I think Mark Durkan (current SDLP leader) was President in 84/85, but I’m not sure because I had long lost interest by then.

Alex White, I think, was deputy President when Duffy was President.

Duffy had a prominent role at the youth mass in Galway during the Pope’s visit in 1979. My impression was that he was not aligned to any left wing group during his student activist days. I know he was President of TCD S.U., but I would be surprised if he served as President of USI for two terms, but I don’t know.

It is quite interesting the number of people prominent in student politics who ended up in the media. Aine Lawlor (morning Ireland), for example, was President of TCD S.U. Alex White was an RTE producer. There were others that also ended up in RTE.

Overall student politics were pretty superficial so it’s not surprising that many ended up in the media.


20. Damian O'Broin - August 2, 2007

I think Doris was 81-82. He led the charge against the WP. Himself, Duffy and (I think) Durkan were elected to USI together. I think Gerry Grainger was the last WP USI President in 80-81

I could be out by a year though.

Durkan was Deputy President to Duffy – but left to work with John Hume. Don’t think he was ever President.

A decade later when I was involved the Duffy years were still seen as the high-point of student activism.

Doris however, was regarded as quite mad, not helped by a fixation with Albanian leader Enver Hoxha and the believe that moving the USI offices to the north inner city would galvanise the working classes of Dublin.


21. sonofstan - August 2, 2007

Add Ian Wilson, Radio producer and former TCD SU pres. to that list


22. ejh - August 2, 2007

It’s possible that one reason why leftwing organisations in the early Eighties went looking for student members is that the people then running them had come into left politics themselves through student radicalism in the late Sixties.


23. Slawomir - August 2, 2007

Yes, Damian. I think you’re right about Durkan. As I said I lost interest after my first year in TCD.

But I’m pretty sure that Doris was President in 82/83 since that was my first year in university. Duffy might have been deputy President of the USI in 82/83 before becoming the President the following year.

Regarding your point about the Duffy years as being the high point of student activism… nostalgia is not what it used to be as the joke goes. I remember listening to Duffy pontificating on something in the main square in TCD (circa 1983). Some students started throwing eggs at him. His response was: “I want your ears, not your fucking brains”.

I can’t remember anything of political substance he said, only the jokes. He was always more showbiz than anything else.


24. Damian O'Broin - August 2, 2007

You could be right about the years, Slawomir. These things were of huge interest to me 15/20 years ago – less so now.

As for the SU/media list: Mark Little and most of the Prime Time team were Trinity SU. While half the Irish Times sports department seems to have been involved in UCD SU at some point or other..


25. Slawomir - August 2, 2007

Yes, the bonds of friendship and mutual self interest remain after university.

I think I read somewhere that Frank Flannery the Fine Gael Director of Elections was the President of the USI the year before Pat Rabbitte was. Could it be that such personal long standing connections explain political decisions such as the Mullingar accord etc? Perhaps that’s a bit fanciful?

I tend to think that student politics was for the most part playacting. The student “radical” activists who took their politics the least seriously became the most successful.

There was no substance to the politics. It was all about networking even if the individuals themselves didn’t see it like that at the time.


26. Damian O'Broin - August 2, 2007

Flannery was involved all right – not sure about the year or at what level. But remember that the bonds of mutual loathing and political grudges also remain long after university.

I was active for 3-4 years in student politics, in my own college and as a national officer. For me – and for most of my colleagues at the time – it most certainly wasn’t play-acting. We were dealing with serious national issues such as the SPUC case and the availability of contraception along with bread and butter stuff for students – grants, fees, college facilities and simply representing student interests.

For me anyway, networking wasn’t a conscious, career-minded activity. More a social thing. And there’s no denying that the networks endure. Many of my close friends, and my wider circle, stem from my days in student politics.


27. WorldbyStorm - August 2, 2007

Mine too. And those sort of links, friendships and acquaintances tend to be cross party as well… at least for me.

Grainger and Doris. Names to conjure with. Whatever happened to Grainger? There was a bit of a CPI-ML presence in the college I was in – as I’ve noted before. But the Albanian thing sort of made them seem more like performance art or a ‘happening’ than a serious political party. I seem to have a memory of a CPI-ML leaflet which depicted a fraternal visit to Albania which had at least one prominent CPI-MLers beard (was it Doris) tippexed out…there being so it was said a ban on beards in the formerly Islamic workers’ paradise. But that could just be confabulation on my part…

Ironic that a super Stalinist should lead the charge against the somewhat less super Stalinists…


28. sonofstan - August 2, 2007

I remember now…. there was a time when a few people i know in Trinity used to send mail to USI giving the address as ‘Enver Hoxha House’ – or maybe it was called that for a while?!


29. WorldbyStorm - August 2, 2007

Say it isn’t so…


30. Slawomir - August 2, 2007

That story about the beards being frowned upon in Albania sounds right. I heard a similar story myself. It all goes to show that Hoxha was ahead of his time. I believe US custom officials now have a similar policy!

But I find it difficult to be too critical of the CPI ML. I preferred that crowd to the playacting of the likes of Joe Duffy and Mark Little. The latter were lionised and then tamed and there wasn’t much to tame.

If the CPI ML were barking mad, what does that say about the Workers’ Party clique which the former succeeded in ousting in the early 1980s?

I remember one CPI MLer in TCD denouncing FS Lyons for historical revisionism the day after the historian died. Such an intervention at least forced people interested in history to engage with Lyons’s work.

It’s easy to forget how staid the society was in the 1970s. The CPI ML and their predecessors the “internationalists” were to the fore in shaking it up. (Damian might be amused to hear that in the early eighties I was told that the glory days were 10 years before when David Vipont(?) was TCD S.U. President).

But perhaps I am biased. The one and only raffle I ever won was from the CPI ML. I expressed surprise at my good fortune given that I hadn’t bought a ticket. The CPI ML comrade mumbled something about me being “just lucky”.

I never joined but I still have that prize: the collected works of Enver Hoxha (what else?). And one of these days I might even get round to reading it.


31. sonofstan - August 2, 2007

Winning something you never knew you wanted in a lottery for which you never entered? they were obviously trying to teach you a profound lesson about the nature of late capitalism


32. franklittle - August 2, 2007

“…the collected works of Enver Hoxha”

What EBay was made for.


33. Ed Hayes - August 3, 2007

Re WBS and your query on the SWM’s working class base. The short answer would be that there was none. They had no presence in any working class area or serious numbers in any trade union. In the mid 1980s it was accepted, somewhat grudingly, that the ‘downturn’ meant that the SWM was a ‘propaganda group’ who could not hope to lead any struggles (though they would ‘intervene’ in campaigns) but would recruit the ‘ones and twos’ through concentration on ideas. Hence activity centred around paper sales at the GPO, weekly meetings in the Batchelor Inn, usually on the topic of an SWP pamphlet or book, and some reports on individual’s work in their union or feedback from a campaign such as anti-extradition or pro-choice that someone from the party was involved in. In the mid 1980s the British SWP really pushed for the SWM to orient on colleges as a way to attract younger members. I can’t for the life of me remember Portrush or any USI conferences in that time. But the pesky real world did intervene a bit and in 1984 the SWM (against all advice from London) set up the Reagan reception campaign and recruited a few like myself from the demos and marches against Ronnie. The Brits were aghast and predicted collapse, and indeed most of the new recruits did leave after a while when there was no similiar exciting agitation to take part in, just educationals on state capitalism and the like. There was only maybe 40-50 members in the whole country; 30 -40 in Dublin, and little groups in Waterford, Cork and Derry. But at micro-level the picture was interesting now that I think of it.
In Dublin there was a layer of older members from the original SWM of 1972. That group had been totally focussed on rank and file trade unionism, hence the paper being called ‘The Worker’. In Waterford in the early 70s the SWM had about 30 members, almost all young apprentices in the glass factory. They all left in the mid 1970s but many of them continued to maintain contact, read the literature etc. Hence even in the 1980s, a couple of members in Waterford (both very working class, one a docker, from Ballybeg) would sell maybe 300 copies of Socialist Worker outside the glass. A lot of the senior stewards there today would be ex-SWM. In the late 1970s most of the original SWM founders such as Gene Kerrigan and Brian Trench had left (and set up a magazine called Gralton for a while) and the group entered the Socialist Labour Party which I think was traumatic for all concerned. Rank and file work in the unions continued with a couple of opposition journals like ‘New Liberty’ in the ITGWU. The H-Block period 1980-81 would have been the next big agitation that they threw themselves into. However by 1981 the SWM was stagnating, a tiny group acting like it was a mass party. The British SWP sent over Marnie Holborow and groomed Kierin Allen to take it over the group and put forward the downturn perspective of slow steady propaganda and education not leading campiagns or trying to overhtrow the ITGWU leadership. A lot of people drifted away but they did recruit a few including Eamonn McCann, who had been around for years but was not actually in the SWM until 1983. he then returned to Derry and set up a branch which has been a bit of an independent republic since then. In the mid 1980s in Dublin the branch would have had maybe 5-6 people who had been in since 1972. One a shop steward at Semperit In Ballyfermot, a couple of Corpo shop stewards in the craft sections, a couple of others. Then there were a few people in white collar unions, usually from middle class backgrounds. K Allen was in the INTO then. There were about three SWM members on the Dublin Trades Council. Most of the members were middle aged but a few young unemployed joined during the Reagan visit. Then from 1987 on there was some student recruitment. But yeah, it was funny that the larger left wing parties like the WP and to a lesser extent our hated enemy Militant used to say the SWM was a middle class sect. It may have been a sect but it actually got more middle class in the late 1980s than it had been originally. One veteran member had a sister who was a long time WP activist in south Dublin but I don’t think either of them would like their names on the internet. They got on fine but I’m sure the WP thought we were middle class ‘Provo-Trots.’ Ironically a Waterford member once said to me that while loads of glass workers bought the SWM paper, many out of politeness I think, they all actually voted WP. It maybe hard to imagine now but Eastern Europe was a big deal for the SWM. Certainly I could never have joined a socialist group that supported the USSR or China. I met the SWM while protesting against Reagan but was delighted that they opposed the regimes in Eastern Europe. We hated ‘Stalinists’ although I’m not sure if that was really an accurate description of half the people we labelled with it. Though I do remember you could still buy Stalin posters in the bookshop in Gardiner Place!
But in the manner of these things our greatest rivalry was with Militant who controlled Labour Youth. I like to think, unlike today, that the SWM was refreshingly modest and realized that they were not really important (though someday etc…) But Militant used to act like they ran the country, not the Labour Party’s youth section. In England people used to joke that a Militant supporter from Dorset would still speak with a Scouse accent and in Ireland they all contrived a particular Dublin twang, even if they originally came from the country. They hated the SWM , who they considered a ‘trendy, middle class sect’ and we hated them because we thought they were bureaucratic fence-sitting opportunists. But really we hated each other because we were the two biggest trot groups in a very small pond, going to the same demos and trying to sell papers to the same people. ‘Great hatred, little room.’ It occasionally almost got out of hand at socials and in pubs. A big exception was a Galway man, EF, a Militant full-timer, who was a really loyal operator for them, but would give you the time of day, discuss the hurling and still have an argument about politics but shake hands afterwards. Actually Joan C who worked in the GPO then was quite friendly as well.
The British SWP with their claimed 4,000 members and weekly paper were our big brothers. Marxism in London every year was a big do. However the SWM were usually not in favour. The SWP leadership do not trust McCann (way too maverick) and were always trying to get Allen and co to throw him out. They in turn realised that he was the one person in the SWM who could actually pull a crowd and entertain them. Looking at the Irish SWP today they are quite a different type of party but seem to have the same core leadership. Kierin has done well from primary teacher to academic but he still gets the litle details gloriusly wrong. I presume Marnie is still a mad ultra-leftist. RBB would have been one of the late 1980s student recruits. Anyway, enough of down memory lane…


34. ejh - August 3, 2007

Ed – not taking the piss but would you possibly be able to pargraph a little?

Could I make a public appeal for a preview box, by the way?


35. Ed Hayes - August 3, 2007

My spelling is terrible as well but I only realise that when I re-read what i’ve written!


36. Joe - August 3, 2007

Great post Ed Hayes. Cedar Lounge seems to serve a useful function in allowing semi-retired lefties of a certain age (including myself) to take some trips down memory lane. Nostalgia therapy anyone?


37. sonofstan - August 3, 2007

Second that appeal – and can someone point me to a place where they tell you how to do mark up here? italics/ bold/ posting links etc?


38. franklittle - August 3, 2007

I actually don’t think it’s possible to do that for comments. I’ll mess around with it a bit to make sure.


39. Ed Hayes - August 3, 2007

By the way, what did the WP people make of the SWM and all its works? A few years ago I bumped into a former Waterford SWM member who told me that they had run Glass factory convenor Jimmy Kelly as a candidate in the 1997 general election and that they had a vote transfer agreement with the WP locally. Couldn’t have imagined that in the 80s. (And of course the SWM wouldn’t have been running candidates then).


40. Joe - August 3, 2007

What did the WP people make of the SWM and all its works? Pretty much that they were a bunch of trots and cryptoprovos and thus outside the pale. For me, as a local activist (not always very active), they were a bunch of middle class student types with no roots in the working class.
Funny enough though I once bought a badge in the Gardiner Place shop and it was the red fist of SWP on a white background.
My brother in London went on a few poll tax marches and asked me on the phone who were the group who shouted “The workers united will never be defeated”. I told him I thought that would be the SWP. He thought they were cool and hard and joined. Sold the paper for a few years, was pissed off when they amended a letter he sent to Socialist Worker to make him look silly (his line was more provo than theirs), met our aunt the nun and tried to convince her of the need for socialist revolution. His best stories are from the Wapping riots where he eventually got wopped and lagged by the cops. Dropped out of course after a few years and now says that history has passed them (and socialism in general) by.
More nostalgia therapy. Feeling even better now.


41. Idris of Dungiven - August 3, 2007

I sometimes think my life might have been very different if I’d bought Socialist Worker instead of Irish Socialist in Books Upstairs all those years ago. . .


42. Redking - August 3, 2007

The SWP may well have been a minor and irrelevant sect in Ireland-but if you were involved in the serious business of trade unionism in England they were more than a little irritating-they sometimes punched well above their weight and could be damaging in the age old ultra-leftist way.

I had the “pleasure” of coming across SWP shop stewards while a Unison activist in Camden but their influence was nullified by the fact that 57 varieties of Trot were active on the branch executive-SWP, Millies, WRP-both Healy and anti-Healy factions, the CPGB (Euros) and left wing Campaign type Labourites.

SWP machinations came to nought as they had enough trouble fighting the other Trots. They always viewed tade unionism in instrumentalist terms-as a recruitment opportunity. Many ordinary trade union members ofetn left in droves when the SWP captured positions of influence on branch executives.

Later in another London authority my hatred of the SWP was reinforced by the fact that the Unison branch secretary (an SWP) member encouraged members to go on a wild cat strike -they were summarily dismissed as was he-he led the walk out-but he then was reinstated as he claimed he was not actually on strike at the time-he was on union facility time. I have a word that describes people like him but I’ll refrain form using it on this website.


43. ejh - August 3, 2007

They always viewed trade unionism in instrumentalist terms-as a recruitment opportunity

You forgot “they only go to demos to sell papers”.


44. Redking - August 4, 2007

Dead right ejh-also its amazing how the public school educated members of the SWP (there’s more than one) acquire cockney accents after 5 minutes in the Party-often very poor approximations of the glottal stop etc!


45. WorldbyStorm - August 4, 2007

Ah, that’s a problem, Redking, that lurks in all political formations. Accents change mightily. And what’s great fun is to meet people years later and see how they’ve changed again. Great rundown Ed on the SWM/SWP. I presume you left them, and if so why?

Have to be careful here, if we’re not careful we’ll establish the largest left wing party on the island, those who are ex-members of left parties.


46. Redking - August 4, 2007

Some of us are still active-I stood for election in my (district) council elections this year and achieved a massive 138 votes for Labour, not unexpected but at least I beat the Greens into 4th place….

And yes, Wbs, that was a great rundown by Ed-he sounds like he has a book in him about all that (!)

On you last point-I was thinking about that t’other day-is this not a site where people have quitted various formations stubbornly or otherwise on very many occasions? A reflection on the Left I think.


47. WorldbyStorm - August 4, 2007

Good on ye Redking. It’s the small stuff that builds into the big stuff. Or should it be future Taoiseach Redking… 😉

It is worrying, isn’t it? Actually here’s a general question, of those clicking in how many would still be active? Politically I’m active in terms of supporting a local independent TD… anyone else?


48. sonofstan - August 4, 2007

Former Labour member – not amazingly active; every now and then get the urge to get involved again – maybe your XL (ex [members of]- Left [wing parties]) formation might be the home for me, WBS


49. WorldbyStorm - August 4, 2007

It’s not mine you know, it’s everyone’s!


50. sonofstan - August 4, 2007

Until the split…


51. Mark P - August 4, 2007

I think RedKing may rather have missed ejh’s point above.

When he said ‘You forgot “they only go to demos to sell papers”’, he was mocking RedKing’s predictable and fairly crass critique of the SWP’s approach in the unions. I have little time for the SWP, but they are not just involved in unions to recruit members and they do not just go to demonstrations to sell papers and the kind of people who insist that such “gains” are their only interest and objective are almost invariably fools. Note also the claim that “ordinary” members leave union branches in droves if the SWP… er, are elected to positions of influence by those same members. I have often argued against the SWP’s political approach, but listening to some would be Labour Party councillor sneer at them in this hackneyed manner is a bit fucking much. I

Ed – The EF you mention is still an SP activist in Dublin, though Joan C departed for pastures new (ie a run at the council as an independent). Both are very decent and pleasant people. In general relationships between the SP and the SWP in Ireland aren’t nearly as hostile as you suggest above – at least since the bin tax campaign was defeated and we no longer had to deal with their antics at close quarters. In fact the two organisations have surprisingly little contact with each other.

WbS’ headcount – I’m still in the Socialist Party.


52. Damian O'Broin - August 4, 2007

I’m a Labour Party member and would I suppose be fairly active locally.

I only got around to joining the Labour Party about 4 or 5 years ago, having long found plenty of reasons not to join. The DL/Lab merger finally persuaded me to join, but it took another couple of years to get around to it.

Most of my political activism would have been spent on specific campaigns or with NGOs. And much of it still is. I’ve always been more interested in the issues I suppose.


53. ejh - August 4, 2007

I deliberately and consciously ceased active political involement several years hence, though I did accidentally find myself on a trade union march a few days ago. I don’t think there’s any grand conclusions to be drawn from this, I just don’t want to have much to do with anything these days and I don’t really know what I think or believe anyway. Possibly “socialist fogey” might describe me as well as anything. I might start a website with that title one day. It would deplore crassness, wilful ignorance and people on the make.

Glad Mark P got my point above.


54. Redking - August 5, 2007

Mark P-I do think that my criticisms of the SWP are well founded-they are born of my experience. They are a cynical and manipulative sect, and they do alienate ordinary trade unionists-they capture positions of influence due to anumber of factors -largely apathty and low turn out in ballots. And they are occasionally well organised in elections which contributes to their success. I couldn’t care a stuff for their childish politics which a lot of Trots share, but I do oppose them because of the damage they do, in demoralising the Left generally.

Their ultra leftist posturing also presents a neat charicature of the far left. And hey, I don’t think I’m being controversial here at all.

As for being a would be Labour councillor-I would actually still be a councillor if I hadn’t stood down due to moving constituencies. It was a job I was very proud of…..you know real politics in the real world.
And really, who the hell are the Socialist Party when they are at home??


55. ejh - August 5, 2007

And hey, I don’t think I’m being controversial here at all.

Well, you are – you’re also being potentially destructive, since if people were to respond to you in kind the discussion would degenerate into the sort of mutual dennciation and screaming match one can see on Indymedia or Urban75 or sundry other snakepits. That’s the problem with ignoring the requirements of fraternal discussion, y’see: people always think they’re entitled to make exceptions to the rule as if it were more important for them to get their denunciation in than it is to have a civilised atmosphere discussion. And that, rather than the actions of this group or that party, is what makes leftwing politics to unattractive to the outsider: it seems to consist of all the insiders shouting at one another.


56. Redking - August 5, 2007

You’re right -after I posted that I thought on no-this is going to start off a sectarian slag fest-not what I or I guess others intend, so apologies for any offence taken-fraternal regards to all!


57. WorldbyStorm - August 5, 2007

Redking, don’t worry about it. Part of this is about being able to air views, but in a way where we can actually come to some useful conclusions. MarkP, Labour has its part to play – we hope.

Where does criticism tip over into sectarianism. The SWP is unpopular amongst other factions on the left, and that unpopularity is a useful cause for debate – certainly there’s a fairly good critique by the SP on the SWP, can’t recall where the link is now, but it sums up much of what I’d have experienced on campaigns. Problem is that many within the SWP – perhaps all – are entirely sincere in their views and think while their Johnny is marching in time to the music everyone else is out of step. Which raises the question what is the future for the SWP in that sort of environment. Incidentally unpopularity on the left is no bar to wider success. Again look at the WP which staggered on through visceral loathing by many. And perhaps SF is in a similar position as well. Although perhaps not.


58. ejh - August 5, 2007

and think while their Johnny is marching in time to the music everyone else is out of step

That does tend to be the problem, yes, and a habit they share with some smaller groups and some anarchists: this desire to always be writing off the rest of the left and finding a new one. Which might even occasionally be the right idea (I think they tend to be thinking of August 1914 and the way practically everybody on the left bar the Bolsheviks backed the war) but damned occasionally.

It’s kind of an adaptation of the actors’ adage that you should be kind to people on the way up because you may need them on the way down: beware of writing off everybody else, because next year you may want to work with them, and they will remember.

I suppose one of the advantages of Old Labour (I’m thinking in British terms here) which I never really appreciated years ago was that it wouldn’t really let you behave like that. Well, we live and learn.

Incidentally, this ploughing-of-one’s-own-furrow does have one useful side-effect which is that it does tend to mean they spend less time in sectarian polemics than do much of the rest of the left.


59. WorldbyStorm - August 5, 2007

Was Old Labour very inclusive, or did it operate from the principle of trying to keep every one on board for fear of losing people?


60. Mark P - August 5, 2007

MarkP, Labour has its part to play – we hope.

Personally I long ago abandoned any such hope. Labour in my experience is a party for slightly socially concerned liberals. I don’t think much of the leftist credentials of, say New Labour in Britain or Sinn Fein but both organisations do contain a reasonable number of genuinely radical people with left wing instincts. No significant section of the Irish Labour Party membership gives me that impression.

beware of writing off everybody else, because next year you may want to work with them, and they will remember

This about sums up the SWP’s recent experiences with left unity initiatives. They launched a wider initiative, called the People Before Profit Alliance. A bunch of small groups and independents launched one called the Campaign for an Independent Left. The SWP, not unreasonably, argued that it was foolish for two campaigns arguing for similar things to exist and that they should merge.

The problem they faced was that for all the logic of their argument, the independents just didn’t trust them at all. In fact some of them made it quite clear at meetings that they objected to letting the SWP join their club not for reasons of political disagreement but because they had been chewed up and spat out by the SWP before and they weren’t willing to go through the experience again. The SWP’s past attitudes towards the rest of the left proved to be a significant hindrance when they, quite sincerely in my view, wanted to join with sections of that left.


61. ejh - August 5, 2007

<i<Was Old Labour very inclusive

Not necessarily deliberately, but my point is that by virtue of being in it you were obliged to work with other people, canvasss with and for them, that sort of thing.

The SWP’s past attitudes towards the rest of the left proved to be a significant hindrance when they, quite sincerely in my view, wanted to join with sections of that left.

This is true and important, but one should of course be aware that there are other groups on the left of which this has been true in different places and circumstances.

To be fair, by no means all complaints of this nature are true or valid. Quite often when people say that such-and-such “hijacked” or “took over” a campaign the truth is that they wanted it to take one direction, other people another and they lost the argument: and sometimes they mean “we want to organise things ourself” and can’t accept other ideas or initiatives that don’t work they way they want them to. (I do find that anarchists and automists can be just as intolerant and control-freaky as the people they criticise).

Often, but not always.


62. sonofstan - August 5, 2007

One of the reasons, i think, why the British left has tended to remain within the broad church of the LP – and why Lab. is a broad church -, is the electoral system. First past the post means that independent socialists have almost no chance of being elected – Gorgeous George is the only example I can think of in 20 years (did Dave Nellist manage it in Coventry?), whereas in ireland, an all purpose community candidate can downplay the leftie-ness in favour of local concerns and is not tarnished with the adventures of a national party in govt. AND can get elected in some constituencies with under 20% of the vote.

I don’t think any left wing candidate, outisde labour has topped the poll in any constituency here recently – I’m open to correction – which means the WP, DL, SF and SL would never have achieved a national platform if we had the British system.


63. WorldbyStorm - August 5, 2007

Platforms. The way to go…


64. Ed Hayes - August 7, 2007

I left the SWP partly as a result of disillusionment at the type of cynical tactics that people above have referred too and my discovery of their tendency to re-write their own history, marginalise oppositionists etc, something hardly unique to them unfortunatly. For example in the late 80s some bright spark realised that petitions could help paper sales so every week we were asking for signitures against Tory cut backs or for support for strikers. People would genuinly sign and often buy a paper, but the petitions usually never went anywhere except the bin. Their ‘hokey-cokey’ attitude to the poll tax campaign (in one day, out the next) was also dispiriting (credit to Militant for that campaign). I got a chance to go to the US in 1992 so I went and though I knew that almost all the far left groups had representatives over there, I wasn’t bothered.
But…funny how a residual bone of loyalty was twinged when I saw Redking’s comments above. I left it alone for a few days because I didn’t want to start an Indymedia type war. But in my SWP branch in Camden c 1988-90 we had council office staff, teachers, bus drivers, council manual workers, people who worked in shops, postmen/women, a fireman, nurses, students and unemployed. Maybe they all did great working class accents but I can’t remember any public school boys. Certainly Paul Foot and Paul Holoborow (Marnie’s bro) would have come from the upper class but while the lwr middle class and white collar workers were certainly over represented in the SWP the ‘rich kid’ tag doesn’t wash. In early 1988 there was a wave of walk outs and strikes in the NHS and there were a number of trade union caucus meetings for SWP members; again NIPSA, CPSA and the like would have loomed large but there was a few dockers, quite well known in the T & G in east London, a group of miners from Frickley and Armthrope (ex-Eton maybe?) and some Ford’s workers from Dagenham, as well as fireman, nurses and post office workers. All very small scale of course and the SWP had actually a much bigger blue collar base in the early 70s, but thats another story.
Anyway, I was going to ask about the likes of Liz and John McManus, Eoghan and Ann Harris, John Caden, Michael White and Pat McCartan but that would be a cheap shot and very sectarian. (Sorry, couldn’t resist it).
Ultra-leftism is very much in the eye of the beholder and what might seem like lunacy to a trade union official could be very different to a shop steward. My memory of the WP in the 1980s was that a lot of its prominent trade unionists, with the exception of Des Geraghty, were ex-USI officials who had gone straight into trade union jobs. None of them had worked in industry before being appointed to jobs where they were on three times the wages of those they represented. Now maybe I am ultra-left but I still think shop stewards more directly represent their workmates than someone who works for the union first and foremost. Doesn’t mean the rank and file are infallible just that they inhabit a different world to someone who works in Liberty Hall or Transport House.


65. Ed Hayes - August 7, 2007

May have mixed up my white-collar unions above, I think NIPSA is the north isn’t it? NALGO was the one loads of people were in. Anyway, it may have reflected what ahppens to students in England or did at least. The public sector beckons after you’ve got a shite degree because you were selling Socialist Worker and arguing about state capitalism in the student bar instead of going to your lectures.


66. ejh - August 7, 2007

Paragraphs, man, paragraphs….


67. franklittle - August 7, 2007

“I don’t think any left wing candidate, outisde labour has topped the poll in any constituency here recently – I’m open to correction – which means the WP, DL, SF and SL would never have achieved a national platform if we had the British system.”

Not necessarily. The constituencies would be completely different in that case. Most multi-seat constituencies contain a substantial mixture of voters. Dublin West for example is a three seater that divides relatively neatly into well-off Castleknock and quite disadvantaged Mulhuddart. Single seat constituencies would mean smaller constituencies with more concentrated votes.

Secondly, the FPTP system encourages people to stay in the large party formations and not risk setting up smaller groups. The system itself, and the US is an even better example of this, encourages people to stay in political parties they might not agree with, but by virtue of the system will be the only credible ones. With FPTP in Ireland, there would in all likelihood be less left parties. Or maybe not.

“The SWP’s past attitudes towards the rest of the left proved to be a significant hindrance when they, quite sincerely in my view, wanted to join with sections of that left.”

I could not agree more. Politically I have gone from very supportive and open to the SWP to almost the other extreme. This is almost entirely a result of dealing with SWP people in issue based campaigns or organisations with a large number of parties in them. (Their stance on Islamic fundamentalism and Free Speech have contributed in recent years.) I have not come across such dishonesty and manipulation anywhere else in my professional or personal life, or in political activism.

At least the people in Fianna Fáil I am obliged to work with for professional reasons are good at their jobs and don’t pretend we’re all comrades.


68. ejh - August 7, 2007

It should be said that “their stance on Islamic fundamentalism” is almost never what it is claimed to be: there’s usually a succession of steps which involve claiming that such-and-such a statement of policy, if taken to a logical conclusion, would mean so-and-so. Selective quotation is also not uncommon (as indeed it is not uncommon in the SWP’s polemics against other leftists).

Personally I tend to agree in principle that, during a war of various kinds being waged by the West against Islamists, somebody on the left should take the trouble not only to establish what the Islamists are and what they are not, but also establish that in certain circumstances they should be worked with and supported. It doesn’t follow that I necessarily agree with all the choices that particular organisation makes.

It’s noticeable that people outside small Trotskyists parties almost always find the experience of working with them ultimately unpleasant and it’s a reason (among several) why I don’t much like that form of political organisation any more. (Another would be that while I quite see the point of vanguard parties, organising as many as possible of the most radical people into one organisation, it seems to me to be a basic requirement that there only really be one of them!) Many people have had this problem with the SWP – as have I on more than one occasion – and whatever the rights and wrongs of any given dispute, you can’t have the same old pattern recurring without there being something fairly fundamental wrong. I had the same problem with the Militant/SP when I was a CPSA activist in the UK in the 1980s and early 1990s – people who you would work with perfectly happily so long as you were all in agreement would suddenly lay into you like you were the enemy (or blank you, or turn up mob-handed at a meeting to vote against you) when you were not. Or they would make sure that they would be represented on electoral slates far out of proportion to their actual numbers with all the key posts in their hands – that sort of thing.

It’s interesting that people within these organisations don’t seem to realise how this pisses other people off – perhaps because there’s something of a bunker mentality which can, to be fair, be a product of the large quantity of unfair criticism that they receive. But it’s probably one of the reasons why people who leave such organisations usually do so in conditions of some bitterness and very often ultimately over-react by considering their former comrades the devil incarnate. (There are others – they’d probably include the sheer amount of effort for very little or no gain and the virtual poverty which activists live in for years. Given that they’re very often quite talented as people, you can see why there is often a tendency to just suddenly think “fuck you, fuck all of you”, throw it all in and try and make a lot of money very quicky to make up for lost time.)

I remember being very angry when I left the SWP in 1987 and I’ve never remotely been tempted to rejoin (even before my ideas started to change substantially, as they have done over the past five or six years). But once I’d established some distance from events I did, I hope, remember that the people involved were still socialists and the ideas still interesting and creative. I think that without that we’re all at war with one another and we’re not really in a position to spare time and energy on that.


69. Ed Hayes - August 7, 2007

I became progressively more bitter about the SWP after I left it and especially as I started to read more widely and discovered that they did not possess the key to all knowledge. However I have tried to chill out for the last few years, which is possibly why I was surprised at the twinge of loyalty I felt when the party was criticised above. I don’t care about people taking them to task for opportunism, cynicism or wasting everyone’s time but if you are going to call them names; get it right!


70. ejh - August 7, 2007

and discovered that they did not possess the key to all knowledge



71. Worldbystorm - August 7, 2007

In a way it doesn’t matter what formation or fraction people belonged to as long as they belonged to one and whether in or out of one now are at least broadly left. But I take your point ejh. It’s hard to believe that there can be more than one vanguard party… 🙂


72. splinteredsunrise - August 8, 2007

It’s hard to believe that there can be more than one vanguard party…

A bit like Second Dáil republicanism, isn’t it? The same ideas of the apostolic succession on the one hand and the demonology on the other. Only made a bit more virulent by the notion that your ideas are scientific.


73. WorldbyStorm - August 8, 2007

It’s incredibly similar, particularly since some in RSF have decided to use the language of Zizek and post-modernity… I kid you not. Check out Cael on Politics.ie.


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