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The Left Archive: Document submitted to the debate on the Constitution of the Workers’ Party, 1990 September 15, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Left Online Document Archive, Workers' Party.


Guest post from Colm Breathnach of the Irish Socialist Network on a document he co-wrote while in the Workers’ Party.

Even before the upheaval in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the stalinist system, the debate about the role and nature of the Workers Party had begun to open up. This was precipitated mainly by the expansion of the party in the south during the 1980s, as it gained the characteristics of a small mass party of the left with significant electoral representations and strong roots in working class communities. It is difficult to characterise the party at this stage as it was something of a unique hybrid of radical socialist, stalinist and social democratic ideas and trends. As the 90s began the party entered a period of uncertainty: the 1990 exit of the neo-con Eoghan Harris and his followers, who had a advocated a sharp turn to the right, cleared the decks for a struggle between what might best be characterised as the parliamentarians versus the traditionalists. This division was not as clear cut as the subsequent split would indicate: the crystallisation into two mutually exclusive factions only really took place at the end of 1991 and many members did not fit neatly into either category.

After the 1990 Ardfheis a commission was set up to devise a new constitution for the party. The present document was drawn up by a small group of members who advocated a position to the left of either of the two main leadership factions. As far as I remember I wrote the basic text which was then discussed and changed somewhat by the other signatories. The document was supposed to be just a preliminary document but we never produced the extended version. Some of us were also active in producing a publication called Socialist Digest [I have a copy of Socialist Digest which I’ll post in the Left Archive soon – wbs], which was really just a reprint of articles from various foreign left wing journals, which broadly advocated an anti-social democratic/anti-stalinist radical socialist position. SD was circulated internally within the WP. I can’t recall how many issues were published but it did not suceed in its aim of influencing the emerging debate within the party.

While many of the suggestions in the document seem fairly tame today, they were calling for a fairly radical turn from general party practice at the time. The emphasis on grassroots campaigning in opposition to the increasing electoralist/clientalist direction of the WP and the advocacy of a more participatory internal structure challenged both the parliamentarian and traditionalist view of where the party should be heading, though neither leadership factions were necessarily explicit in their visions of the future of the party. Although the positions advocated were to the left of both main camps, it certainly is clear to any one reading it today that it was not influenced by trotskyist politics, altough that was the label attached to us by the traditionalist wing.

In the rapid slide to a split this more radical position could not take root and it was swamped in the fierce factional battle that ensued. Indicative of this was the immediate post-split postitions of those who signed the document: two remained with the WP, four joined DL and two dropped out of party politics. John O Neill and I, following different trajectories, subsequesntly became founding members of the Irish Socialist Network in 2001, as did other former members of the WP who had not been involved in producing this document. Personally, my political position has evolved a good deal since 1990/91 and I would now consider myself a revolutionary democratic socialist/libertarian marxist, so the document does not reflect my current views, though some of the points made stand the test of time.

Colm Breathnach


1. Starkadder - September 15, 2008

The section about Gonzales in Spain sounds a little like
a warning about what would become Blairism .


2. WorldbyStorm - September 15, 2008

It does indeed. Prescient.


3. Joe - September 16, 2008

Prescient. That was the word I was looking for. Check out the the first paragraph of the Conclusion on Page 8 which predicts the future exactly for the WP and DL. All hail the great leaders Breathnach and O’Neill. I have some AIB shares – sell or hold, lads?


4. Redking - September 16, 2008

Very interesting Colm, I can see though how it must have gone down like a lead balloon with some people-I mean democratic centralism had been elevated into some immutable sine qua non of party life.

Looked at now the document does seem rather tame-actually quite sensible and principled suggestions-hardly the views of dissidents still less “ultra-Leftists”. But then as we know the latter was and is a catch-all term of abuse for people sometimes just expressing differing views. Shame that the madness that was to engulf the Party swamped debate as sides lined up against each other.

But clever too putting that Billy McMillen quote at the end.


5. Colm B - September 16, 2008

I wish I had been as prescient as the document appears to be! Instead, along with a few idealistic souls and the oppurtunist or two who changed their tune just as the party sold out for De Rossa’s merc, I wasted two years trying to transform DL into what it had claimed to be at the start: a radical red-green campaigning party. Of course this was just a paper thin veneer of radical phraseology to keep the troops happy while the parliamentarians (sounds like English Civil War stuff eh?) happily prepared the ground for a soft landing on planet Labour. Ah well, benefit of hindsight and all that…

Joe, I wouldn’t know about the shares but if Paddy Power’s taking bets on the collapse of capitalism I’d say its worth a flutter before the odds go down.


6. Joe - September 17, 2008

Hmmm. I have before me a copy of “How to spot an ultra leftist” issued to me by Group C within the party. Giveaway no. 1 in that publication is “a propensity to predict the imminent collapse of capitalism”. Perhaps there was something in those ultra-leftist slurs after all? [Insert winking smiley]


7. ejh - September 17, 2008

Weren’t they confusing ultra-leftists with Jon Savage?


8. WorldbyStorm - September 17, 2008

Group C – eh, Joe? 😉

A radical red-green party would have been nothing to be ashamed of. Still wouldn’t.


9. Redking - September 18, 2008

I was wondering whether that radical red-green stuff was the influence of the CPGB “New Times” Euro faction-note also the references to “hegemony” in the document-an attempt to import some Gramscian thinking perhaps?

Group C-I thought it was Group B Joe?

but then as there was cross membership between Groups A ad B who knows…


10. Joe - September 18, 2008

Don’t worry about it Redking. I was only joking. Since nobody ever asked me to be a member of Group A or Group B, I decided I’d invent a Group C just for myself. As a comrade said to me about himself when things started to go belly-up: “Apparently, I wasn’t important enough to be asked to be part of any of these factions!”


11. Redking - September 18, 2008

LOL-thought so Joe!
Isn’t it ironic that the WP had all those factions I mean bloody hell- factionalism only perhaps surpassed by the British Labour Party!

The WP- never a monolithic party- even after 1970 and 75 enough Groups to fill not only A,B or C but most likely D,C E F G as well.

“I’ll let you be in my Group as long as I can be in yours” (as Bob Dylan ahem, should have said)


12. WorldbyStorm - September 18, 2008

I think I was in Group C too 😦 or should that be 🙂


13. Redking - September 18, 2008

Joe, WBS, – that Group C sounds like a dangerous anti-Party faction-you must recant and admit your errors….I feel like telling the Devil on youse! Beware comrades….


14. WorldbyStorm - September 18, 2008

Too late… we’re outta there.


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